Reviewed by: Michael Pattison

Babylon is sprawling but intimate, unwieldy yet condensed. Its lo-fi ugliness and fractured narrative progression are provocations in themselves, while its absolute avoidance of subtitles denies easy comprehension of in-film events. As a testimonial on the daily grind and ongoing uncertainty experienced by refugees at a particular historical moment, this epic documentary captures and presents events in a suitably gruelling manner.

In the spring of 2011, more than a million people of various nationalities fled nascent civil war in Libya. Tens of thousands of these sought refuge in Tunisia by way of the makeshift transit camp in Ras Jdir, an otherwise barren coastal town situated on the northernmost point of the Tunisian-Libyan border. This diaristic ground-level document is clearly a product of hands-on guerrilla filmmaking: though credited to three directors, it embodies the directionless nature of forced displacement. Meanwhile, in its ineluctable emphasis upon cinema as a means both of protest and of record-keeping – made possible by advances in digital technology – the film recalls 2011’s 5 Broken Cameras. The revolution may not be televised, but it will be recorded nevertheless.

Copy picture

Babylon’s opening images – it’s difficult to term them as “scenes” – are a close-up of a beetle working industriously and a wide shot of a giant digger assisting the formation of the refugee camp. They are divided and juxtaposed by the first of several longer-than-average cuts-to-black; in cinemas these blank moments may appear more like DCP faults than the outcome of conscious editorial decisions, but the result thereafter is a fittingly haphazard succession of fragments. With each black frame and return to subsequent imagery, a fresh start beckons – though the emotional and narrative uncertainties continue, both for those in the film and for those watching it. Watch with joy, then, as morale-boosting talent shows – here a juggler, there a collective dance - spontaneously break out; and bear witness, with sustained fascination, as the filmmakers let their cameras run during an increasingly volatile misunderstanding between a group of men and the poor few presumably tasked with stewarding them.

As a dispatch from the thick of it, the ironically titled Babylon’s boldest move is to warn and/or inform us at its outset that its makers have opted against subtitles (and there is nothing in the way of explanatory text). Consequently, scenes like that just mentioned are disorienting and confusing. The participatory perspective gradually becomes facilitative rather than prohibitive, however, since the film’s vocal and national pluralism appears more democratic than any selective on-screen translation could be; tellingly, in the one scene of length in which two people converse in English, they end up speaking over one another, even if in de facto agreement.

There were no doubt practical and even aesthetic reasons for deciding against subtitles, but the implications are also ethical and political. In refusing to individualise its narrative and in denying a linguistic concession, Babylon doubles throughout as a welcome counterargument to western coverage of the ongoing Arab Spring, which seeks to homogenise the multitude of voices – whose revolution this is – as one alien mass.

Reviewed on: 12 Apr 2013
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Chronicle of a temporary refugee camp in Tunisia.

Director: Ismael Chebbi, Youssef Chebbi, Ala Eddine Slim

Year: 2012

Runtime: 121 minutes

Country: Tunisia


Bradford 2013

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5 Broken Cameras