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Manchester Met hosts the 2017 Beyond Babel Multilingual Film Festival

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By Jacqueline Grima

Film fans and academics gathered at Manchester Metropolitan University this week for the Beyond Babel Multilingual Film Festival. The festival, now in its third year, offers the opportunity for audiences to enjoy and appreciate films that celebrate multilingual and multicultural societies whilst addressing a number of key themes.

The event was hosted by Principal Lecturer in the Department of Languages, Information and Communication Dr Carmen Herrero. Dr Herrero is also the Director of Manchester Met’s Research Group for Film, Languages and Media in Education (FLAME). After welcoming guests, she talked about how films are an ideal way to help an audience engage with other cultures, saying, “Films are a great way to create a feeling of empathy. They can bring us closer to other cultures.” The theme of this year’s event was education and Dr Herrero went on to talk about how there are over 200 different languages spoken in Manchester’s schools. She said, “We are surrounded by multilingual life.”

The first film of the festival, La Cour de Babel, was introduced by Senior Lecturer Dr Isabelle Vanderschelden, whose main research interest is contemporary French cinema. Dr Vanderschelden said, “It’s a film that displays a number of experiences of intercultural communication, intercultural dialogue.”

La Cour de Babel, or School of Babel, was released in 2013 and is directed by Julie Bertuccelli. The film is a documentary set in the real-life La Grange aux Belles school in Paris and follows a class of 11 to 15 year old immigrant pupils as they attempt to settle into a new cultural environment and perfect their French language skills. Pupils attending the school come from as far afield as England, Northern Ireland, Egypt, Ukraine and Senegal, Bertuccelli having decided to film them after she met the pupils during her times as a judge of the Jury Film Prize.

In the film, the pupils are encouraged by their teacher Brigitte Cervoni to talk about their home cultures and languages. As Dr Vanderschelden said, “The cultures are communicating in all sorts of different ways.” Many of the pupils have left behind challenging circumstances, such as long working days, whilst others have been separated from their families in order to access the educational opportunities in France. For example, 11-year-old Djenabou, from Guinea, is at risk of an early marriage if she ever returns to her home country and Xin, from China, didn’t see her mother for ten years. Quiet Xin also finds it difficult to adapt to new cultural expectations, her mother pointing our that, in China, “Girls don’t speak much.”

The film clearly shows the anger and sadness that many of the pupils experience at having to get used to life in a new country, with one young man from Chile, for example, expressing a reluctance to speak in French all the time “to not forget Spanish.” As Dr Vanderschelden said of the film’s director, “She presents multilingualism and multiculturalism in a very concrete way.”

The pupils also experience challenges with regard to making friends with many of them having moved through various other countries before settling in France and some of them feeling isolated from the other pupils in the school. As she observes, pupils in the main stream school treat the immigrants, “As if we’re poor and they’re stars.”

In the emotional climax to the film, teacher Cervoni praises the pupil’s efforts in language learning and adapting to a new culture and inspires them to think about their future in France.

In the Q&A session following the film, Dr Vanderschelden talked about her reasons for choosing La Cour de Babel for the festival, saying, “The range of different cultures in the same film really attracted me. A whole range of people arriving in France for different reasons and from very different cultures.”

Comments from the audience included praise for the emotional impact of the film plus a desire to have seen the pupils have more interaction with other members of the school.

The Beyond Babel festival formed part of Manchester Met’s 2017 Humanities in Public festival (HiP) and was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Cross Language Dynamics

For more information about upcoming events, visit

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Jacqueline Grima

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