Julie Bertuccelli’s heart-warming documentary sheds light on the experience of immigrant youths at La Grange Aux Belles, a Parisian junior high school, where a Reception class provides a platform for children of various ages to integrate into their new lives. School of Babel presents a fly-on-the-wall perspective on the daily running of the class over the course of a school year, providing an insightful and honest portrayal of its ensemble of children, for whom combined factors have rendered their lives visibly fractured as they attempt to attain a sense of themselves.
The vast majority of the film takes place within the confines of the class room, led by teacher Brigitte Cervoni, as we come to adapt to the familiar dynamic of the class. The children seem entirely comfortable around the cameras throughout, especially impressive considering the potentially-intrusive nature of such a study. We observe students such as Senegalese Rama routinely acting out in class, and lively debates are a regular occurrence amongst the multicultural assortment of young students, whose ages range from 11-15. The backgrounds of the various students are vastly different, ranging from Northern Irish Luca’s mother becoming unemployed, to a Serbian Jewish family persecuted by Neo-Nazi extremists now seeking asylum in Paris. The divergence of their assorted paths leads to the prevailing sense of how hardship can be overcome through understanding of the experience of others, illustrated in one scene whereby the children recount their past histories. A student breaks down as painfully-withdrawn Xin tells of how she didn’t see her mother for ten years after moving to France, and now barely sees her due to her work schedule. The openness within the classroom when discussing their backgrounds feeds into the enveloping community spirit between the children who, despite their vastly different cultural and political backgrounds, find common ground in dislocation.
Placed incrementally throughout the narrative, Bertuccelli makes use of parent-teacher-student conferences, establishing a clear sense of where each particular family are coming from. These provide a necessary portrait of the students’ family life. In some cases, they function as mouth-pieces for their otherwise ill-equipped parents, whilst in others, they are cast tragically as victims of homes in a constant state of transition and uncertainty. One particularly affecting scene sees Luca’s mother explain his diagnosis with Asperger’s Syndrome prior to their decision to leave Northern Ireland, with palpable concern of how this will affect his progress in a new schooling environment.
The aforementioned debates amongst the class members are particularly striking in their sense of depth, touching upon philosophy and the role of different religions for different cultures. These scenes imprint the sense of the students as young adults attempting to place meaning on their past and future situations. Indeed, as one student observes, the Reception class find it next to impossible to integrate with the rest of the students at La Grange Aux Belles, looked upon as ‘mosquitoes’ and largely shunned by the other classes. There is the sense that with their socio-economic status, as their teacher, Cervoni can only do so much. Yet despite the limitations of her grasp, we are left with the sense that Cervoni leaves a long-lasting imprint on the lives of the Reception class students.
School of Babel’s unobtrusive portrait of this spirited ensemble is an insightful and important one, presenting the harsh difficulties of social integration for immigrant families in an age where the topic is never far from the newstands. Yet Bertuccelli’s film aims broader than that, a celebration of the inherent spirit, alive or yet unawakened, in the lives of the children of the Reception class.