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A rose-tinted look at French immigration

Pyramide Films

France has long prided itself on being a “terre d'accueil”, or land of welcome, but you might not know it from the anti-immigrant rhetoric that has crept into the mainstream, from parliamentary debates to café chit-chats.


A recent poll showed that a decisive majority of French people think there are too many foreigners in France, and that those foreigners “don’t try hard enough to integrate”.

“School of Babel” (“La cour de Babel”), Julie Bertuccelli’s vibrant, engaging new documentary, therefore comes as a timely reminder of the grit and grace with which many young immigrants navigate their “integration” in a country deeply attached to its culture and traditions.

The film is also a stirring tribute to the professionals who extend a helping hand to the country’s newly arrived residents. Bertuccelli (who made 2003’s lovely “Since Otar Left” before going down under, geographically and artistically, for “The Tree” in 2010) planted her camera for nine months inside the classroom of Brigitte Cervoni, the teacher of a French class for immigrants aged 11 to 15 preparing to matriculate into regular Parisian public schools.

Trying to impact a ‘nauseating’ debate

The director has been candid about her intentions. “I hope the film will resonate in the current debate [over immigration], which is often nauseating,” she is quoted as saying in press notes for the movie. “I hope it can help reverse people’s preconceived notions and prejudices…to make those who lack empathy more empathetic.”

Compared to similarly themed films, like Laurent Cantet’s splendid 2008 Palme d’Or winner “The Class”, “School of Babel” indeed paints a rosy picture of the French melting pot. The students – including a shy Chinese girl, a Venezuelan boy with a passion for cello, a Guinean who defiantly declares her best friend is God, a cheerful Libyan-Egyptian beauty, and a Serbian Jew forced to flee neo-Nazis in his homeland -- seem eager to tackle the ins and outs of “Moliere’s language” and grateful for the stability France offers, as well as its promise of “liberty, fraternity, equality”. Meanwhile, Cervoni, the de facto spokesperson for France, is tactful and nurturing, respectful of differences, but always tacitly advocating for the French way of life.

Buoyed by its brisk pace, gallery of winning young subjects, and Olivier Daviaud’s sprightly score, the “School of Babel” sometimes plays like a glowing advertisement for the French immigration system, the slice of which presented here is humane and relatively painless. Some of the kids’ difficulties – homesickness, cramped living quarters, feeling that their French-born peers look down on them – are alluded to, but never dwelled upon. When a young woman from Senegal, fighting back tears, notes that it’s usually black students who are required to repeat another year of language class before transferring to a “normal” French school, Cervoni gently, yet firmly dismisses any possibility of racism.

Her reaction is that of the consummate professional – she defends the integrity of her colleagues and the programme she works for -- but the film never makes room to explore whether there may, in fact, be a grain of truth to the insinuation.

That’s mostly because Bertuccelli keeps such a tight focus. Though scenes of parent-teacher conferences reveal details of the students’ personal histories and home lives, the director’s camera rarely strays from campus. The classroom is seen as a protective cocoon, where young immigrants can mix up verbs without facing ridicule, share their hopes and talents, and vent their fears and frustrations.

Cervoni does not appear to be burdened with the task of teaching French values -- or, as the government calls it, “civic training”, which adults from outside the EU are obligated to undergo (read about my own experience here) upon settling in France. That’s lucky for her; it’s a tricky and mostly thankless job. But by exclusively zooming in on only the most inspiring and productive example of the French immigration system at work, Bertuccelli circumvents tough questions about the country’s rather rigid model of integration.

In France, a diverse, but strictly secular nation that remains wary of multiculturalism and the notion of distinct “communities”, the onus is on foreigners – many of them from former French colonies in North and Sub-Saharan Africa – to assimilate (hence the sweeping “burqa ban” and restrictions on the Muslim veil and Jewish kippa in public buildings). The director chooses to observe rather than probe, forgoing direct interviews, voiceover, onscreen text, or footage shot beyond school limits that might have provided a wider, more nuanced, or sharply contextualised view of the French approach to immigration.

Bring a hankie

Still, if the scope of “School of Babel” is limited, the people in it are so likable and some of the moments captured so fraught with feeling that it’s often hard to resist. When a short film the students put together wins an award at a competition, their leaps of elation and whoops of pride make for a cathartic emotional climax.

If that doesn’t put a lump in your throat, the final scene will. On the last day of class before summer vacation, Cervoni announces that she will not be returning the following year, having accepted a higher-ranking position at the ministry of education. As she tells her students that she will never forget them, her voice cracks, and nearly all of them, including the most rebellious, burst into tears.

It doesn’t tell the whole story, but what Bertuccelli gives us in “School of Babel” is a glimpse of contemporary France at its best, striving to do right by those who choose to make a life there. The filmmaker challenges the country’s increasingly vocal immigration opponents to dispute or discredit what goes on in that classroom – and implicitly calls on the rest of us to cherish and protect it.

(“School of Babel” is currently in French cinemas and will be screened on March 16 at New York’s “Rendez-vous with French Cinema” festival.)

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