“School of Babel”
Julie Bertuccelli’s documentary “School of Babel” takes us to Paris, the city that has taken over as the center of migration from many countries around the world. The children of émigrés to France are placed in a special “reception class” where few speak the same language. They must learn French in order to be allowed to move on to regular school.
Bertuccelli has gathered children from 24 countries to talk about how it is to be a stranger among strangers. The film follows the kids for a year and we see them grow and change. At first, they communicate in rough, pidgin French but, as the year progresses, they become more fluent and articulate in the language as they prepare to move on in the French school system.
When we first meet the kids, they are a disparate collection of youngsters thrown together. Some adjust to their new circumstances better than others and we get to know all of them over the course of the school year. Friendships are made as the kids learn how to communicate in their adopted language.
The immigration issue is one of the most contentious debates in countries all around the world and many of the questions about immigration are evident here. Teacher Brigitte Cervoni welcomes students from around the world into the school La Grange aux Belles in northern France. Her task is tough. She is to provide a transition for immigrant children who spend a year learning French and a core curriculum which will enable them to enter regular classes. The children range in age from 11 to 15 and they come from China, Serbia, Venezuela, Ireland, Guinea, Ukraine, Libya, and other countries.
The students have been encouraged by their parents to do well in school so they will raise the standard of living for their families. Interviews with the parents show us what their kids experienced in life. The most controversial topics discussed in the classroom have to do with religion and the fears about the future. Miss Cervoni demonstrates an ideal equilibrium between being tough on her pupils and being warm and welcoming when it comes to guidance.
The film’s lengthy opening perfectly opens the door for the overall tone as each child shows the class how to write and say hello in their own language. This is a multi-cultural classroom and the only way of communicating with each other at this stage is their minimal French. Despite the enthusiasm and the desire to share traditions and teachings from their homelands, each and every one of these kids has much deeper problems and as the film progresses, we see just how damaged these kids and indeed their families really are. I was reminded of when I moved to Israel and was placed in a class to learn Hebrew. There were some twenty of us from all over the world and only three of us shared English as a common language. I might not have had the baggage like these kinds but I did have to learn the language if I was to survive in the country.
Discovering the reasons why these children are here in the first place is often heart breaking and deeply affecting. They face a struggle between age, culture and class as they try to make a better future for themselves.