Review: School of Babel (Bertuccelli, 2014) – SFIFF 2014

Still for the movie School of Babel I caught this movie during my volunteer shift at the San Francisco International Film Festival, the longest running film festival in North America. (I even got to be the mic runner for the Q&A!) A documentary, School of Babel (La Cour de Babel in the original French) showcases one school year of a junior high “reception” class in Paris, which, as far as I can tell, is the French equivalent of an English as a Second Language program. The children are immigrants from all over the world–Chile, Senegal, China, Mauritania, Egypt, Ireland, and so forth–often living without one or both parents, home alone for most of the day while their guardians work. It is amusing, as always, to watch the fresh and honest interactions of people at this age. Perhaps that’s why so many documentaries are made about children. Nothing in narrative films provides anything even close to reality when a young person is the focus. Those characters are always too precocious–maybe too precious as well. The film reminded me of another film festival documentary, The Road to Fame–it had the same classroom milieu, the same feeling of capturing a particular socioeconomic slice in time and space (be it the youth born of the burgeoning Chinese middle class or the struggling children of immigrants in Paris), only without the satisfying return to see “where their lives have gone” several years later. One young audience member asked the director Julie Bertuccelli what her next project would be. She suggested revisiting her subjects ten years later to see how their lives had run their courses. Something in us would delight in that, I think, knowing “how it ends.” We are dissatisfied with the nebulous, abbreviated “short story” feeling of these shortish cinéma vérité pieces. Give us something epic. Tell us of how lives have been won or ruined. All the same, I like these slice of life pieces. They reflect the unknowability of the now. One girl, Maryam (pictured above), has to leave in the middle of the school year to Verdun, in the south. There is more poignancy in her departure because we don’t know and will never know what will happen to her. Even more so for the documentary’s young subjects, whose futures are as far away to them as death. School of Babel is an enjoyable watch, even if not particularly deep or different. Note: Bertuccelli also makes narrative features as well, and she’s served as assistant director to Krzysztof Kieslowski, famous for writing and directing the Three Colors trilogy.