School of Babel follows a year in a Paris schoolroom for children who have recently immigrated to France. Using a surprisingly intimate fly-on-the-wall style, Julie Bertucelli’s documentary gives us unforgettable glimpses into the lives of tweens and teens from Mauritania, Serbia, Venezuela, Rumania, Senegal, Libya, Ireland, Brazil, and China, children who have come to France for reasons ranging from studying violin at the Paris conservatory to escaping genital excision. The film’s triumph is in its remarkably succinct manner of creating complex portraits of the children and capturing the diversity of their experience. While School of Babel is full of incidental insights into French immigration policy and various headline-grabbing sociopolitical situations, the focus remains squarely in the classroom and on the children as individuals wrestling with a new language and a new culture (their heroic teacher primarily remains an off-screen presence). The film builds to a powerful climax when it comes time for the children to tearfully say goodbye to each other and their teacher; while their sadness is heartbreaking, it is also an uplifting sign that shared experience trumps cultural difference. In an age of resurgent uneasiness with all that is foreign, School of Babel is a powerful antidote to fear and suspicion and an inspiring source of hope for France and the world.
Blu-ray, DCP, DVD