Watching Julie Bertucelli’s documentary, School of Babel, one is left with the distinct impression that many of the world’s more significant problems would be better left in the hands of children… and it’s probably true. This simple, yet profoundly moving documentary details a year in the lives of a group of young students in a French ‘reception class’ – a secondary school program for immigrants who have moved to France from all over the world. The film’s greatest and most moving insights come from observing the interactions between a range of young people of radically different cultures navigating their differences, discovering their similarities and finding a sense of belonging in a time of significant personal upheaval.
Aesthetically the film is a simple piece of work, tied together by a loose narrative thread involving the students putting together a collaborative short that they enter into several film festivals, as well as ultimately, following these students through to their end of year exams. Bertucelli’s success doesn’t so much come from any particularly interesting formal elements, as it does from her careful selection of the most revealing moments from what (we can assume) was a huge amount of footage collected over the course of a school year.
Bertucelli unobtrusively delivers us a wonderful microcosm of varying values and beliefs, and most of the more impressive moments involve the young students meditating on their differing religious ideals, languages, cultures and often quite harrowing backstories. Viewers with preconceptions about migrant cultures (not that such an audience is likely to see the film) will likely find themselves disarmed by the simple human concerns of each individual. Love, loneliness, despair and hope, (Bertucelli seems to be saying) are the constants of the human experience.
School of Babel is not the kind of documentary that garners masses of public attention. It’s simply made, lacks sensationalism and is more about the minutiae of human experience than big moments. But… it really is worth watching.
A capsule review from the 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival.