DIR/PRO/DOP: Julie Bertuccelli • ED: Josiane Zardoya • MUS: Olivier Daviaud • CAST: Brigitte Cervoni, Maryam Aboagila, Luca Da Silva, Andromeda Havrincea, Xin Li, Naminata Kaba Diakite
There are the usual trials of childhood and adolescence, and then there are those faced by the students of the ‘reception class’ at the College de la Grange aux Belles in Paris. A class dedicated to those students who have arrived in France from other countries and require additional French language lessons, the pupils have to negotiate language barriers and culture shock along with everything else. School of Babel follows the exploits of these students throughout one school year, which also happens to be the last year of teaching for Brigitte Cervoni, their French professor.
Barely a continent is unrepresented; the students hail from Poland, Romania, the UK, Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Libya, Guinea, China, and many other regions. Such a number of nationalities in such a small space almost makes it seem like a microcosm of modern France, and its often controversial strides towards secular multiculturalism.
A classroom can seem like a banal setting, but here it manages to highlight the sheer scope of circumstances and human experiences that brought all these young people together in one room, who could easily have never met otherwise. One boy travelled with his mother from South America as she married a local, another boy’s family fled to France due to being persecuted by Neo-Nazis in Serbia. One Chinese girl tells of how she went ten years without seeing her mother, another girl counters that by saying she went thirteen years without seeing hers. Very few classrooms in the world would have such a wealth of story, and few children of that age would have gained that level of life experience, be it hardship, loneliness, fear or happiness. The film poignantly shows the strength of human beings in their ability to triumph over adversity, particularly with young people, who perhaps are often underestimated.
Such a scope of nationalities does allow for friction, however, and politics and religion are not always kept outside the classroom door. We see the children drawn into debate, and while in some ways they may show some youthful naivety, in others they exhibit that kind of canny clarity that only the young can really possess.
All this is conducted under the watchful eye of Professor Cervoni, with that almost super-human level of patience that only school teachers seem to possess. A woman who seems to sense with great accuracy when to acquiesce and when to reign in her students, her final day in the classroom makes for an emotive denouement.
School of Babel celebrates these children, but does not stray into idealism, acknowledging their individual flaws, and the tensions that such a situation can stir up.
School of Babel is released 5th December 2014