TIFF Kids 2014 Feature Documentary: "School of Babel"

Tuesday April 08, 2014

Directed by Julie Bertuccelli, School of Babel (La Cour de Babel) is a 2013 observational documentary from France. It focuses on one year in teacher Brigitte Cervoni's "reception class" ("une classe d’accueil") at La Grange-aux-Belles school in Paris.

From www.lacourdebabel.com
The reception class serves as a landing ground and safe haven for students who have arrived in France with a limited (or completely absent) understanding of the language. The students are anywhere from 11 to 15 years old, but far more striking than the age range are the differences in their lives before they arrived in their new home. They come from all over the world - Northern Ireland, England, Chile, Brazil, Mauritania, China, Serbia, the Ukraine, and elsewhere. There are refugees and asylum seekers, a boy whose family moved for economic reasons and a girl who was sent away by her mother to escape oppression and abuse from her father's side of the family. One talented young cellist is in France to attend a prestigious conservatory; one young woman is there because her family believes bilingualism is the key to future opportunities.

Bertuccelli chose to keep the film within the confines of the class dynamic. While home life is talked about and the audience gets to meet some of the parents/guardians during teacher interviews, most of the time is spent on conversations between the students, or on occasionally tense teacher/student interactions. Sometimes the class is talking about their situation, such as when they are asked to reflect on the last day before they left their old life, or when they bring up the problems of fitting in at a school where others look down on them, or their struggles with the language. But then they get into other topics including their plans for the future and a lengthy and heated discussion about religion. The reception class also makes a film of their own, resulting in TIFF audiences finding themselves at a kids film festival watching students go to a kids film festival.

My Thoughts

School of Babel is a wonderful character study, especially because it looks at teens in a hard transition. Everyone at that age is on a mission to find themselves and their path; these kids have to do it in an unfamiliar land using words which frequently fail them. For me, the film was also a jarring reminder to be grateful that I was born into relative freedom, and grew up absorbing one of the most popular languages in the world (it also made me feel really guilty that after all those years of mandatory French classes here in Ontario I know less of the language than some kids who'd been learning it for a few months).

Kessa Keita (I think)
From www.lacourdebabel.com
While I really enjoyed the film, one problem I ran into was keeping track of who was who. Of course, I'm notoriously bad at facial recognition, even with people I've known for a long time, so other viewers may have no problem keeping the students straight.

Also, viewers who are accustomed to the here's-my-controversial-thesis-let-me-explain-it-to-you expository kind of documentary might find their minds wandering. I suspect that's what happened to some members of the school group that was sitting behind me. Fidgeting started a little over halfway through the 90 minute runtime. That said, when I did hear snippets of talking from the group, it always seemed to be in response to the film, so maybe they were fully engaged but just unable to hold still.

Upcoming TIFF Kids Screenings of School of Babel:

I actually wasn't going to see School of Babel until later in the festival, but a last-minute cancellation of the film that was going to kick off my TIFF Kids experience for the year lead me to see it earlier than planned - which also means there are still screenings to come!

If you're interested in attending, note that TIFF recommends the film for youth in grades 6, 7, and 8. The film is in French (sometimes slightly butchered French, but French nonetheless) with English subtitles.
  • Thursday, April 10 - 9:45 a.m.
  • Tuesday, April 15 - 12:15 p.m.
Visit http://tiff.net/festivals/tiffkidsfestival/films/school-of-babel

Edited to Add a Note for Teachers

Right after I posted this I realized that teachers who take their students to see this film (or who would have liked to take their students but won't get the chance) may also be interested in looking at the Canadian play New Canadian Kid by Dennis Foon, which would tie in quiet nicely. 

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