Introduction to a screening of School of Babel, Ritzy Picturehouse, Brixton, March 24, 2015
School of Babel, released last year, follows the tradition of several documentary movements. It tips its hat to ethnographic documentary. It pays homage to Nicolas Philibert, the observational approach, and his seminal film Etre et Avoir. And it involves reflexivity in the wake of Cinema Verité.
Director Julia Bertuccelli trained as a documentary filmmaker at the Atelier Varan in Paris and has worked as an Assistant Director for amongst others Rithy Pahn, documentary director of The Missing Picture, which also deals with the subject of displacement, albeit from a more singular perspective.
Her two recent drama feature films, Since Otar Left and The Tree, demonstrate her fictional storytelling capabilities. And the former spins fiction using a backdrop of economic immigration to France that is straight out of non-fiction. Previous documentaries include Bienvenue au Grand Magasin, a very engaging reportage of everyday life at the Galeries Lafayette.
Bertuccelli’s affectionate, empathetic and unassuming attitude to various areas of French, and in this case, Parisian society, is a thread running through her work. And what a shifting and eclectic society it has become…. Bertuccelli’s classroom introduces heroes and heroines from China, Serbia, Ukraine, Guinea and Morocco to name but a few. The effects of economic austerity within the EU prompt the arrival of characters from Ireland and England.
Through them, we are drawn into themes around language and identity, the benefits of welcoming and tolerating diversity, and the gruelling determination required to adapt to a new society. And we are enlightened about the lives of children and young adults who are put under the care of distant relatives, who live nine together in a one-bedroom flat and who are persecuted because of their religions.
The film’s viewpoint is multiple and the pace constantly shifts as the classmates react to their circumstances and each other. The teacher, Brigitte Cervoni, is a key figure. We attune to her voice and feel her personality but rarely see her. She is encouraging and quietly in control and has a disproportionate offscreen power.
Perhaps her strong screen presence is because she is the one common denominator between these multifarious characters. She treats and teaches them with an equal equanimity. We only see her in the classroom but in this environment she becomes a personification of the national values of liberté, égalité, and fraternité, and is the singular French subject responding to the class pluralism. She is our guide, and her serenity is a foil to clearly reflect these turbulent pupils.
Of course, the class is a microcosm, and the response outside the classroom in wider French society often does not mirror that of the teacher.
During his quest for re-election in 2012, presumably when this film was at an embryonic stage, the then President Nicolas Sarkozy said: “We have too many foreigners in France”. He pledged to almost halve the future intake of immigrants. A survey published by Le Monde carried out by Ipsos found that 70% of the population believed there were too many foreigners living in the country. Perhaps encouraged by the fact that nearly half those surveyed also believed that unemployment levels could only be cut by reducing immigration.
62% of the French according to the pole, no longer felt at home in France. And on the political right, Jean-Francois Cope of the opposition party UPM, said in 2013, that he wanted to end the right of immigrant children born on French soil to claim citizenship.
Our subjects are segregated from the rest of the school by language. They remain in a sub-group of French immigrants, set apart from the general student population, visually confined to their classroom setting. The camera rarely goes into or beyond the courtyard. The rest of society remains outside and so do society’s views.
What happens outside the classroom is referenced in a series of meetings between the teacher, the children and their families or guardians. These meetings are an important storytelling mechanism for bringing in the surrounding context on a local and global scale. And it can feel like opening a door to cold drafts of unpleasant realisations, as well as exposing moments of pride and familial closeness in adversity.
Staying inside the classroom allows the filmmaker to focus down to a purer form of observation, unsullied by another level of interactions. And this in turn increases the intensity. These children, some of whom have fled volatile situations, demonstrate a huge range of reactions and responses in line with their disparate stories. Moods and atmospheres can change quickly and the narrative has a bumpy ride following the storyline of the children working towards inclusion into the main school.
I referred to reflexivity before and would like to draw parallels with Chronicles of a Summer, directed by Jean Rouch in 1961, who used a group of young Parisians as his subjects. As Philip French wrote in The Guardian: “They discuss their own lives as students, factory workers, young marrieds, immigrants, and they argue about race, class and the current wars in Algeria and the Congo. …. In perhaps the film’s most memorable sequence, one of the contributors speaks of her experiences as a death camp survivor.” First person accounts of these subjects were unusual at the time, even by adults.
Central to Chronicles of a Summer is the belief that provocation results in greater truth. At the core of this is the trust established between the director and the participants. Without trust such revelations aren’t forthcoming. School of Babel has similarities. The teacher works to build trust with the pupils, who in turn are striving to trust each other, particularly after harsh experiences have made them wary. The teacher sets an example to the children by clearly placing her trust in the filmmaker. And so the lines of trust are established that lead to the priceless intimacy and spontaneous behaviour that opens the way for the film’s revelatory moments.
Bertuccelli carries on this tradition but for the most part these type of reflective discussions are part of the natural life of the classroom and not obviously staged by the filmmaker.
The students reflect on their circumstances, their emotions and their aspirations as well as responding to each other on a visceral level. Their reflections extend to the making of a film within a film, and one assumes that this is not only a revealing mechanism but also an opportunity taken by the filmmaker to transmit some storytelling power to the children themselves.
As the biblical story goes, the Tower of Babel was built following the great flood, by a united humanity, to reach into the heavens. In an attempt to curtail this, or simply to provide an explanation for our variety of languages, God was said to scatter the people over the earth, generating a “confusion of tongues”. And the people divided into linguistic groups that were no longer able to communicate with each other.
In the film, the impact of loss of language is an analogy for loss of status and power. It physically removes the children from the wider school, becomes a justification for withdrawal in some cases, and poses endless frustrations, and problems at an almost physical level in terms of speech and writing.
However the need and desire to communicate generally transcends, and the film is a joyous testimony to the powers of imperfect, animated, expressive language to make even the most nuanced point.
School of Babel unpicks the idea of multiplicity and communication and shows that, in this classroom at least, the lines of communication are open. And that optimism and a delight in human diversity provide a springboard for growth, self-improvement, learning and friendship. The world outside the confines of this classroom should take note.