BIFF 2013 - Babylon - Cinema Review

Babylon clearly trades significantly on its opening declaration that 'the directors have elected not to resort to subtitles'. Shot in a Tunisian refugee camp, where a mixture of Arabic, French, English, Bangladeshi and many other languages can be heard, the presence of the word 'resort' in that sentence seems to suggest that the directors consider subtitles an unnecessary burden; a hindering weight on audiences' ability to read films. Pre-titles explaining their absence though, appear to be OK.

Whilst Babylon seems keen for us to discus its party political decision on subtitles, that choice actually holds little sway over the quality of the film. Meandering through the camp, very occasionally stopping to ask questions of the residents, the three directors (Ismael, Youssef Chebbi and Ala Eddine Slim) paint an ill-focused picture. No individual is followed to a significant extent, few narrative threads are found; the film plays as a video document of the camp, rather than a documentary.

That state of being touches on questions of ambiguity which have followed many of the films on this year's BIFF programme. Whilst not as aimless as something like Travelling Light, Babylon does struggle to justify why it is not merely newsreel footage, awaiting a significant edit. In fact, with multiple images of press photographers clamouring around the director's camera for their own shots, the news is exactly where most of this belongs. The lack of subtitles would not seem so noteworthy if Huw Edwards were there to contextualise the visuals.

Documentary has become a pretty broad genre and for good reason. Film-makers operating within it know they cannot now merely afford to shoot just talking heads in studios. But Babylon finds a new problem, a problem similarly found in the aforementioned Travelling Light and An Anthropological Television Myth; namely the problem of not doing enough with the footage you collect.

The three auteurs present their collected record here with so little guidance, so much lack of interest in following narratives, story, polemics or history, that when events do happen - what looks like a near-riot late on - it becomes hard to care about the particulars, so unfamiliar are the players and situations.

The 19th Bradford International Film Festival ran from 11th to 21st April 2013 at the National Media Museum and other venues near to the city.

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