In La cour de Babel, or School of Babel, twenty-four immigrant school-children spend a year in the ‘reception’ class of a Parisian secondary school learning French to a sufficient standard in order to move into mainstream classes. This is a ninety minute fly-on-the-wall documentary directed by Julie Bertuccelli, and is the latest in a classroom genre of French films following the successes of Philibert’s Être et Avoir, and Cantet’s drama, Entre les Murs.
The pupils of Collège de la Grange aux Belles come from across the globe and their journeys to Paris are equally diverse. Mihajlo and his family have fled anti-Semitism in Serbia, Miguel has come from Venezuela to study the cello, Luca has relocated from Northern Ireland due to his mother’s new job, and Kessa, from England, has been sent to develop her French language skills as her family believe it will improve her job prospects. In the process of observing parent-teacher interviews we learn more about the lives of these children, and the motivations behind their parents and guardians’ desires for them to do well in school. On hearing about Rama’s misbehaviour in class her disappointed guardian recalls the mistreatment she was subjected to by her family in Senegal and asks “Did you come here to study, or to fool around” reminding Rama that she is fortunate to be given this opportunity to do well. At these interviews we hear that for Djenabou going to school in France means freedom from excision (female genital mutilation) that she would likely encounter on return home to Guinea. Interview after interview with parents and guardians reveals hard working families who are committed to helping their children do well.
Some of the children have come to France with their families seeking asylum. There is Mihajlo, already mentioned, who offers help to the refugee service, and in so doing leaves little time to complete his homework. There is Maryam, from Libya, who has to leave the school at short notice as she and her family are being relocated to Verdun. When her classmates express shock that this is a decision made by social workers, not her mother, Maryam explains, pragmatically, that they must take the opportunity to move into more suitable living accommodation when offered, they are not in a position to turn the move down. However, it is clear that this disruption is not going to get in the way of Maryam’s ambition to become a doctor.
For all the children in this class, whether asylum seekers or not, this experience is a transient one. At the end of the year many will progress into mainstream classes while others are required to stay on in the reception class. When Rama hears that she is being asked to repeat the year she erupts into a vocal denunciation of the school’s “crap” teachers and condemns a racist school system which sees that black pupils, like herself, are left in poverty (her observation is not without substance). Does the film ignore wider social issues? Perhaps. There is no examination of wider political and social contexts. Yet, far from being neglected, the film reveals them to be ever present. The context is provided by both parents and pupils as reasons and explanations for seeking an education in France. It is left to the viewer to consider these issues further. The transience of the reception class is further highlighted in the additional material included in the UK DVD release which revisits the pupils two years after the filming. Some are still in France, others have moved again, and there is a variety in their education trajectories. All are doing well, and all have goals for their future.
La cour de Babel has a narrative which celebrates the contribution of immigrants, but, perhaps more significantly, celebrates the ability of reception classes to facilitate a young person’s integration into French society and offering them the chance to succeed in education. It is, therefore, a film about French values. This is not lost on the pupils. In one scene we see one girl articulating the meaning of Liberté, égalité, fraternité. It is clear that this pupil knows exactly what this means to her and her classmates.