The kids are all right
SCHOOL OF BABEL ★★★★ Directed by Julie Bertuccelli Club, IFI members, 89mins
The Collège de la Grange aux Belles in Northern Paris lies close to the Eurostar terminal at Gare du Nord, thus ensuring that the school’s population is a melting pot of cultures, nationalities and religions.
Commendably, the college runs a reception class, a programme for immigrants to get their French up to speed and to acclimatise to their new environment. Many of the children, aged from 11 to 15 years, are refugees.
Djenabou faces genital mutilation and life as a child bride should she return to Guinea. Marko, who is Jewish, has fled persecution in Serbia by neo-Nazi groups.
Other children, including Kessa from London, have come to improve their linguistic skills. Every corner of the planet is represented by the reception class. But each child is on his or her own journey. Luca from Northern Ireland has been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. Miguel, a promising young cellist, has come to study at the conservatory of music.
Julie Bertucelli’s film is not overtly political. Immigration policy is never broached and the camera seldom leaves the classroom. Yet, slowly, a poignant picture of overworked parents and disrupted family life emerges. Chinese girl Xin rarely speaks at home because her mother works such long hours: before she arrived in France she hadn’t seen her mother in 10 years. Likewise, Romanian Andromeda, a bright spark, is often home alone.
There are differences within the reception group, differences that manifest as discussions about Adam and Eve and the Quar’an and the Bible. There are linguistic and cultural disputes. And there is the mainstream population of the school, who “treat us like mosquitoes,” according to one girl.
Bertuceli’s marvellous film coalesces into a lovely chronicle of incremental improvement. The kids learn. They blossom. They bond. The kids are all right.