French film explores power of language

On Feb. 13, the College’s French Film Festival, with its theme of “School Stories: Diversity and Adversity in New French Film,” kicked off with its first in a series of three movies, La Cour de Babel (The School of Babel). This documentary follows a “reception class” for middle school students who have just arrived in France from non-Francophone countries and therefore must learn to speak French. Babel, released in 2013, is a relatively lesser-known foreign film, holding only two critic reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (both positive) and not appearing on Netflix.

There are some noteworthy aspects of commentary on the cinematic value of the movie, such as the interesting decision to focus the camera on the students rather than the teachers. In fact, the teachers in the classroom hardly ever appear on screen. This strategy, removing not only the filmmakers but the teachers and supervisors from the lens of the camera, gives the documentary an organic feel with a clear focus – the students. Though a good documentary, it is unlikely that you will come across it without some serious effort given its relative obscurity to American audiences and inaccessibility. Discussing the more specific nuances of the film itself seems a bit otiose. Therefore, I will focus on the conversation a film of this topic might produce, as well as the potential value of the remaining films.

Babel was screened after a lengthy and overtly political introduction from Brian Martin, professor of French and comparative literature.  As much as topics like race and gender are often at the forefront of discussions involving identity, and rightfully so, language too deserves its spot in the limelight. As our primary method of communication, language serves a vital purpose. It allows us to express ourselves, and for others to understand our own unique experiences. For this reason, it is the best tool we have to foster empathy. Without this tool, one can begin to comprehend, though certainly not justify, the incidence of Americans yelling at immigrants to learn English, of loving mothers who support deportation policies that break up families or even how an affluent country of generally rule-abiding citizens can be so naively seduced by a petulant reality TV star pumped full of nationalism and bravado.

La Cour de Babel is aptly named. For those unfamiliar with the story, the film’s title is a reference to a story in Genesis regarding The Tower of Babel and the origin of language. In the story, a united humanity, speaking one common language, attempts to build a tower tall enough to reach Heaven. In reaction to this, “Indeed the people are one … now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech,” said the Lord. It is a bit of a somber realization to know that for many, the story of language’s origin doubles as one of division.

La Cour de Babel seeks to transcend our natural tendency to lose empathy for those speaking a different language by focusing heavily on the students and the hope and innocence they carry. Most of the students say they do not really like it in France. However, they do not want to go back to where they came from either; many of them are refugees. This feeling of not belonging is heavily emphasized in the opening scene in the film, when the students are debating over the translation of a phrase, with many of them arguing that there exists no French translation for that phrase.

Often, we think of language as an expression of our thoughts. However, this scene debunks that. If there exists no phrase to express a certain feeling, how can one ever be aware of knowing that feeling and be able to properly understand it? The set of emotions and thoughts is greater than the set of words we have to bring them out into the world. Language is not an expression of thoughts and feelings, but a limitation upon and an imperfect proxy of them.

The second film, Summertime, played last Monday, and I look forward to the next movie of the Festival, May Allah Bless France!, screening on Monday, with hope that it will cover equally thought-provoking topics. I applaud the leaders of the Festival for choosing such a relevant and important theme for these movies.

‘La Cour de Babel’, the first film shown in the series, looks into the ability of language to unite and divide. Photo courtesy of french.yale.edu