Ethnography 101: La cour de Babel and La marche à suivre

0 Posted by - November 22, 2014 - Features, Reviews, Screen

La cour de Babel (2013, Julie Bertuccelli) and La marche à suivre (2014, Jean-François Caissy), both screened at this year’s RIDM, have a great deal in common. Both observational documentaries dealing with high school students facing challenges which keep them on the fringes of their schools’ mainstreams, the two films are nearly identical on a formal level. However, they reveal a world of difference in both the schools’ approaches to these teens and in the filmmakers’ approaches to their subjects.

La cour de Babel, which follows an integration class for new immigrants at a Parisian high school, amounts to bad ethnography that ultimately subordinates the students’ concerns in favour of glorifying their teacher. While it is not immediately apparent that the entire film is shot from the teacher’s perspective, since the camera angle is set to film the students dead-on from across the teacher’s desk, it becomes obvious in the film’s last act, when the film shifts from what, until this point, has been a series of fairly intimate portraits of the students to being about the teacher’s relationship to the group and all she has done for them. This is also reflected in the administrative approach to the students’ issues: Solutions are dictated by the teacher, rather than developed with the student, and are based on the student simply changing their behavior in class rather than productively addressing any underlying issues, with the teacher frequently cutting students off as they attempt to share their perspectives on these issues. Furthermore, the film’s emotional climax is almost entirely about the group’s reaction to the news that their teacher is giving up teaching to become a school board administrator, with the students’ own plans being secondary to this.

Given the prevailing political climate in France, it’s generally hard not to suspect the film of an underlying colonial saviour complex, and the ending’s emphasis on the teacher and her perceived achievements really only highlights that.

La marche à suivre, by contrast, is entirely about its adolescent subjects. This time set at a high school in Gaspésie, the film follows high schoolers dealing with a variety of behavioural, emotional, and learning challenges. With only one very early appearance by the school’s educational specialist, the film’s emphasis is entirely on the students as they unpack their individual issues and develop their own plans for dealing with them with the specialist’s support, rather than having plans dictated to them as in La cour de Babel.

Nearly identical to La cour de Babel on a formal level, with the camera again set at the teens’ level and cutaways to the school yard as seen from above to indicate the passing of time, La marche à suivre stands out for its shots of the students at play. Beautifully composed, these wide, static shots emphasize the students themselves as they move through the frame, again reflecting that the students here are given full agency to determine how they move through their high school years and how they overcome obstacles.

La marche à suivre also makes a point of including a sequence showing what the students do with their summers, calling attention to the fact that these are young human beings who exist outside the institution. In La cour de Babel, the only indications of the students having lives beyond the school’s walls are the presence of their parents at some of the meetings with the teacher, which nonetheless take place in the teacher’s office and in which the parents are subjected to the same kinds of demands for conformity as the teens. Even in a sequence intended to pass for showing the students at leisure, attending a student film festival where they have entered a short documentary they made as a group, it is clear that the outing nonetheless takes place within an institutional framework. It is this utter lack of freedom that makes La cour de Babel so dispiriting, and shows that by contrast, the students in La marche à suivre have a far better chance of discovering who they are as people and learning to navigate the world in general.

Both films screened as part of Montreal’s RIDM festival. This is an update of an article originally posted November 22, 2014.

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