‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’ (Liberty, equality, fraternity) is quoted by a student as one of the positive aspects of having moved to France. This sentiment is no more convincingly portrayed than in this fascinating documentary,School of Babel. It follows a year in the life of twenty-four students in a Parisian school, pupils who are trying to progress with their studies and fulfill their ambitions. But all of the students, at various ages from 11 to 15, are not native French and have come to Paris as immigrants, so not only do they have general education issues to deal with but they are also trying to learn to communicate in French, all under the tuition of Brigitte Cervoni. And their teacher doesn’t only address the student’s issues, she also relates to their parents or relatives as we learn about the difficult circumstances many of them have faced when they left their home countries and moved to France.
The class are from a diverse range of cultures and countries, from Africa to Brazil, Eastern Europe to China and have moved to France for many different reasons, whether they be escaping persecution in their own countries, their families have moved for economic reasons or they are trying to get a good education. Not to be confused French classroom issues in The Class (Entre les murs 2008) this is an eye opening and cheery film which addresses many cultural and educational themes.
We take in the numerous aspects of school life, and not just the importance of the pupils’ French language skills, there are also elements of the curriculum that some of the students find difficult to respond to, such as mathematics. Different class activities are also emphasised by including notable and thoroughly captivating classroom debates on religion, morality and gender that really engage the students, helping them understand different cultures and also learning to express their opinions, from marriage to dress and societal expectations in France, social conventions that might differ from their indigenous traditions. This is filmed in a way that shows profound understanding of the pupils, their environment and their comprehension of it. At all times it is clear that they are aware that they are part of a documentary process. Indeed they become engaged in the film-making to the extent that the students make a film for themselves as part of a competition, in many ways providing a different personal perspective documentary of talking head shots that reflects their own version of the film they will soon appear in.
And when it’s all over, the extras on the DVD offers an update on the pupils’ progress when, two years after the events in the film, we revisit a number of the students who recall their experiences of the time, their response to the film and update us on what they are doing now. After engaging with a year of their experiences, the audience really does want to know what happened next.
An uplifting, positive and honest documentary that is as fascinating as it is inspiring, School of Babel show us how different races, languages, gender and religion cope together in a foreign land. Added to the final credits are the names all of the pupils involved, along with with their country of origin, which emphasises the diversity of the whole affair. It is a film that has real hope and joy but never in a way that feels saccharine or contrived. Highly recommended.