SCHOOL OF BABEL (La Cour de Babel) B+
France (89 mi) 2014 d: Julie Bertucelli Official website
A unique approach in exploring the diverse nature of the global community is placing a film camera inside schools with newly arriving students from all over the world. In France these are known as “reception classes,” delving inside the La Grange-aux-Belles secondary school in Paris, where the ages of the students are anywhere from 11 to 15, which includes 24 students with 24 different nationalities. Most are unable to speak French, so they need intensified training with others in a similar situation, where the goal is to be able to integrate these kids into the regular classrooms where they can communicate with their fellow French students. While they begin with the simplest tasks, like identifying themselves or saying hello in their native language, their teacher, Brigitte Cervoni, slowly tries to engage them in French, very similar to leading an ESL, or English as a second language class here in America. Many kids have to overcome various levels of shyness, cultural stigmas, preconceived notions, and often poor educational skills, which might be the norm, but they all carry some degree of excess baggage that is their own personal story. In addition to the teacher, the filmmaker helps draw out several introverted students whose stories are heartbreaking, often filled with abuse within their own families, where some were denied access to any education for several years, while others have been sent to aunts, uncles, or extended family in France with near delusional hopes and expectations, as if this is their only hope. Still, the mood of the classroom is upbeat and positive, where everyone is urged to dream what kind of life they’d like, and then attempt to make that happen. Initially we only see the kids in the classroom, where some are more dominant verbally, while others are aloof and sullen, where every single one of them has been picked on and humiliated by the intolerant French students for their poor language skills. This commonality has a way of bringing these kids together, as no one wants to live in shame. School gives kids a chance just to be kids, but it also offers them educational opportunities they might not have otherwise, where the goal is to educate each and every one of them, leaving no child behind, where they at least have a fighting chance. It’s curious to learn where may of these kids live, a dozen fitting into a one-room apartment under emergency circumstances, where they continue to seek new living accommodations, but even if they succeed, it means leaving the few friends they have in this classroom, the only thing that represents stability in their fractured lives.
Parent-teacher conferences expand the universe for many of the kids, as we’re able to see their living situations, where kids are expected to succeed in school or be sent back home to their country where African girls will be married off at 14 with or without their consent. In this way, education is a threat, learn or else, as their young lives have no way to conceive the possible outcomes, where it’s not exactly a motivating technique. It may leave the kids feeling more helpless, as realistically no one is on their side, where often they are literally dumped into these schools with little or no parental supervision. Xin, a Chinese girl, is urged to speak more, as she’s easily the shyest one in class, but her mother works two jobs and is never at home when her daughter’s there, so she’s raising herself all alone and literally has no one to talk to, where her mother eloquently reveals “Not speak, all alone.” We learn later, almost by accident, that she hasn’t seen her mother in ten years. Oksana fled from the fighting in the Ukraine, but has hopes one day of returning as a pop singer, breaking out into an a cappella song at one point, a rare moment of beauty and artistry, where we see her later helping translate for other Eastern European students. Miguel is a classical cellist from Venezuela who practiced 9-hours a day for three months prior to an audition into a French music conservatory, playing an atonal 20th century piece in the classroom that couldn’t have felt more uplifting. Luca is from Northern Ireland, but has been shunned by students wherever he’s gone due to signs of Asperger’s Syndrome, where his mother tries to protect him by explaining his failings in math, but you can see she’s only reinforcing failure in his mind. Mihajlo and his family are Jews that were attacked by neo-Nazi groups in Serbia. When asked if he might spend a little more time doing his homework, we discover he’s been filling out all the copious paperwork for the entire family in requesting asylum in France, while also providing all the interpreting services for every family member, leaving him no available time. Ramatoulaye is the class diva from Mauritania, regularly driven to tears when she discovers the difficulties others have had to endure, but when asked, she can’t name a single student as a friend. We discover she lived with her father in Senegal where she was kept out of school and beaten regularly, now living with her mother who can’t read or write, but threatens to send her back to her father if she doesn’t succeed. One can sense the hostility seething under the surface with this young woman, who has known nothing but mistreatment her entire life, finding it impossible to believe there is any real hope.
The multicultural immersion is like a United Nations school for refugees, yet it also recalls the provocative French teacher in Laurent Cantet’s Palme d’Or winning film The Class (Entre Les Murs) (2008), where the classroom discussions about race, religion, nationality, and prejudice couldn’t have been more lively, where the situations at home provided so little support due to the economic circumstances, where these young kids are largely expected to raise themselves on their own by the time they’re age 10, as the parents are forced to work. It’s also reminiscent of Greek filmmaker Lucia Rikaki’s Dreams in Another Language (Oneira se alli glossa) (2010), featuring refugee students at the Faneromeni school in Cyprus from 21 different nationalities in primary and high school. The beauty of these films is what these kids bring to the classroom, which is a fierce spirit of hope as well as a deep, profound loss as the viewer begins to understand what their shattered lives have been like, much of which is unimaginable to Western families. The teachers in these films are indefatigable, offering encouragement to each student, no matter the errors or mistakes, trying to paint in their minds and imaginations the possibility that they may meet a different future, where if they’re prepared for it, they might have a different outcome than whatever it was that led them to these classrooms, which is largely family abandonment. Each of these kids brings their own story and their own personal insight, often becoming an ambassador for their reflective cultures. When Maryam, a fierce defender of Islam from Libya is pulled out of the school as they’ve located a larger home in another town, the impact on the other students is literally heartbreaking, as the solidarity among themselves is all they have to hold onto, and when one link of the chain is lost, they feel suddenly more exposed and vulnerable. Filmed without narration or explanation, the entire story evolves in the classroom, where the most unique features are the emotional responses from the kids, who have a way of expressing the universality of childhood, where it’s something that happens in every nation around the world, irregardless of political events, where this film shows them on the cusp of young adulthood, where they can be seen still clinging to the innocence of their youth. Part of their frustration is the inability to communicate in a foreign language, where they are regularly teased and derided by other students for trying, yet their goal is to be able to be in the same classroom with this bullying majority. That is the immigrant experience, poignantly expressed by the heartfelt experiences shared by the kids in this film.