Every year there’s a breakout film at NZIFF that reminds us of the importance of being seen and heard, not least those of us who belong to minority groups. This year, that film is Speak Up, an inspiring documentary that follows a group of French university students as they prepare for a public speaking competition, and, in doing so, tap into the liberating power of finding one’s own voice.
The students come from a variety of academic disciplines and socio-economic backgrounds, clearly standing in for the diversity of modern-day France. Some understandably express a fear of public speaking, but all appear determined to make the most of this experience.
With a training programme that borrows equally from creative writing workshops and drama classes, the students are put through their paces by coaches in rhetoric, debate, slam poetry and acting techniques. In between writing prompts, they tumble through physical exercises and trust games designed to help them draw strength from their vulnerabilities. The classroom becomes not only their training ground but a forum in which they can debate issues that arise from their lessons – free speech, outrage culture and feminism are all addressed in class and on the auditorium floor.
Although the contest is the film’s endgame, it’s the journey we take with these hopeful orators that leaves the lasting impression. Their tales of homelessness, immigration and cancer fuel the speeches they deliver with unquestionable passion, but it’s what they do with their past traumas that truly inspires. — Chris Tse