By Sam Inglis @24FPSUK 24fps.org.uk
School of Babel is inescapably political. It doesn’t feel like it is hectoring you with its viewpoint, but it is impossible to watch it without viewing it through the prism of the controversial discussion around immigration, multiculturalism and integration and you won’t be in doubt what the film’s view is by the end.
The film takes place almost entirely in the reception class of a French junior high school, with pupils aged between 11 and 15. All of the pupils are recent immigrants, put in the class to build their French language skills before moving on, gradually, to specific mainstream subject classes with the students who are native French speakers. This is a special class, not available in all schools, and Julie Bertuccelli’s film suggests that this is a pity, because it seems to work very well, for the most part.
Bertucelli adopts a fly on the wall style that owes much to Fred Wiseman. She employs no narration or captions, and often drops us into the middle of a class, letting it play out over a relatively long stretch of screentime. Classes largely take the form of discussions between the pupils and this, plus the fact we get to see these discussions evolve, allows us great insight into the dynamics between the pupils and into the teaching methods employed.
The kids are from all corners of the world; Northern Ireland, Romania, Egypt and Guinea are just a few of the places they have arrived from. What’s most striking is how good an advert they are for multiculturalism. The discussions show up their differences, especially when several of them bring religious items to discuss as items that define them but, even when serious, are almost entirely good-natured. Curiosity, not conflict, seems the default position. In fact they are so decent to each other so much of the time that there has to be a question about what Bertucelli left out. It’s worth asking whether greater conflict has been left on the cutting room floor to advance the film’s optimistic tone and message.
We get to know the kids as a group, but there are also some sharply drawn portraits of them as individuals. Each of these shows us something different. For instance, Xin’s story demonstrates unexpected, but on reflection unsurprising, reasons she struggles with her French speaking. Her mother says her daughter is quiet because that’s what girls are taught in China, but it’s also because her mother works long hours, so Xin has no one to practice her speech with, as she’s often alone in the house.
Djenabou is another pupil we get a more close up look at. In one of the film’s most striking scenes she sits, clearly wanting to say something, as the distant relative who is looking after her insists she doesn’t know why Djenabou acts up at school, because there are no problems at home. This sequence is a sobering insight into what Djenabou has left behind, and may have to return to if she doesn’t improve at school, as it’s said that if she is sent back to Guinea she may have to undergo ‘excision’ – or female genital mutilation.
As well as scenes that build up the portrayal of individual students there are smaller moment that nonetheless offer large insights and ideas that can expand far outside the classroom the film takes place in. During the defining object class, one muslim pupil chooses her hijab. She talks about it in a very positive fashion, saying that it makes her feel like a woman. This is one of the many moments that you can’t help extrapolating from, given the context that France has relatively recently banned the burqua.
Not everything is positive. One memorable discussion suggests that the pupils feel ghettoised within their school; marked out as the recent arrivals because they are in Reception class. This is one of a few things that Julie Bertucelli could have explored in more depth, just to give a more rounded picture of the year. On the filmmaking side Bertucelli has a clear vision and sharp sense of editing. However, given the rather lofi style, this isn’t a film that cries out to be in cinemas. It would be served just as well on TV.
Ultimately School of Babel is an upbeat and optimistic film that seems to say that, at least in the case of young people, if you give them the tools to integrate but still treat them as individuals there is every opportunity for a multicultural society to work. This is seldom better expressed than in a mid-film sequence in which the Egyptian pupil, Marayam, unexpectedly leaves the class. It’s a moving sequence, capped with an image of her good luck card written, like the introductions to the class in the film’s opening, in many different languages. It’s an effective summation of the film’s message, and of why it’s worth seeing and discussing
School of Babel is released on Friday December 5th