Review: School of Babel (2014)

Non-fictional classroom drama depicting immigrant life

If you thought your schooldays were tough, think again! Here’s a thought-provoking docu-drama that shows how traditional adolescent trials and tribulations can pale into insignificance – especially when you’re a young immigrant trying to find your way in a strange land, with a new language and culture to get to grips with into the bargain.

School of Babel explores the problems of integration through the eyes of a group of 11-15 year-olds over the course of one year, who have enrolled at a Parisian high school having upped sticks and left their homelands with their parents/guardians for both political and non-political reasons. So often in the current social climate, where immigration is a white-hot topic, it is easy to overlook the bi-products of integration and assimilation. This film aims to give an insight into how, particularly for younger immigrants, the journey is only just beginning when they reach their destination.

The opening scene quickly dispels any pre-conceived notion that the school in question might be a metaphorical one. This is a real school, with real children facing real struggles. They have come from all over the world; Senegal, Sri Lanka,Venezuela, China, even England, are just some of those represented. It then becomes apparent that some will fare better than others; the very first exercise we see them attempt is a great indicator of this. Each of them is asked to say and write the word ‘bonjour’ in their own language, which is a little more difficult than it sounds if your native tongue is steeped in more ancient roots.

When one of the children starts to become a rather disruptive influence, it’s easy to liken the whole thing to a non-fictional version of The Breakfast Club. But because this is real life, nothing is put on or overdone; it’s raw, natural drama playing out here. Having said that, there are still certain elements of the movie that the crew have control over and, whilst the editing and scenes depicting other aspects of school life – such as swimming and parent’s evening – compliment the main focus of the classroom very well, there could perhaps have been more variation in terms of location. this would have given an even clearer and more rounded picture of immigrant life – after all, they don’t live at the school. Despite this rather one-dimensional approach, what School of Babel does, it does very effectively.

Pulling the strings (or at least most of them) is director Julie Bertucelli. Although not exactly a household name, she is certainly no newcomer. Earning her stripes as an assistant director alongside some top continental talent, her first feature film, Since Otar Left, went on to win the Grand Jury Prize of the Critic’s week at Cannes 2003. However, it is documentaries she remains best recognised for.

French society is Bertucelli’s speciality and, if School of Babel is anything to go by, she has a lot more thought-provoking to do.

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