Babylon: FIDMarseille Review

Prize-winning Tunisian refugee-camp documentary audaciously shuns subtitles with compelling, illuminating results.

Top prize-winner at FIDMarseille film-festival is a refugee-camp documentary from Tunisia with a difference: no subtitles.

An outstanding documentary whose Unique Selling Point is also, ironically, the biggest obstacle to the widespread exposure it deserves, Babylon announces in the very first seconds that its three directors "have chosen not to resort to subtitles." But while two hours of 'unintelligible' footage from a Tunisian refugee camp may sound a daunting prospect on paper, viewers willing to take the risk will find themselves amply rewarded by this rough-edged but consistently engaging dispatch from behind the headlines.

Nabbing top prize at the prestigious, documentary-slanted FIDMarseille festival will surely open more doors for this audaciously uncompromising enterprise. Not so much as a commercial prospect for either theatrical or small-screen, more's the pity, rather more as a prestige item for upscale, edgier festivals and those specializing in current-affairs subjects.

The massive social upheavals in Libya over the past year and a half have been well chronicled, but while sensational events such as the death of Colonel Gaddafi attracted global attention, the revolution's collateral effects on neighboring countries are less widely known.

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In the immediate aftermath of its own political turmoils, Tunisia received a significant influx of displaced persons - many of them laborers from countries such as Bangladesh, who were housed in impromptu camps in mainly rural areas. Babylon traces the construction, habitation and eventual closure of one such camp, in which hundreds - perhaps thousands - of men are provided with basic food and shelter before being moved on. First-time directors Youssef Chebbi, Ala Eddine Slim and 'ismaël' (no family-name given) - all three handling camera duties, the latter pair also taking care of the editing - enjoy what looks like 'access all areas' latitude, observing many facets of the refugees' lives during both day and night.

Ad-hoc forms of religious worship, showbiz entertainment and sport are shown, alongside more quotidian matters of eating, sleeping and hygiene. And while no-nonsense lo-fi reportage is generally the order of the day the editors do find room for some contemplatively poetic grace-notes, often involving scrutiny of the camp's surrounding flora and fauna.

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Sometimes looking on from a distance, sometimes right in among the 'action' as when a protest turns cacophonously violent in the latter stages of the camp's existence, the unintrusive and organically 'embedded' directors assemble a fast-paced and fully immersive example of old-school fly-on-the-wall cinema-verité. It's one whose impact is enhanced, rather than reduced, by the absence of subtitles - which would have been a logistical nightmare given the many occasions when numerous people are talking at once.

The directors' decision - no gimmick, rather a creative gambit - means that we pay much closer attention to the sound and vision of this 'unmediated' film. And while only true polyglots conversant with Arabic, French, English, Bangladeshi and various north-African tongues will know exactly what's going on at all times, intonation and body-language generally prove just as eloquent as speech.
Babylon, its title a reference to the location of the legendary 'Tower of Babel' - supposedly the source of mankind's dizzying language differentiations - thus harks back to the days of Silent Cinema when directors like Griffith and Eisenstein hoped that the new medium might become a kind of 'visual Esperanto', equally accessible to all. As such, the film - which also eschews explanatory captions, voiceover and music - will be of significant interest for its bold aesthetic and philosophical aspects, in addition to its obvious invaluable status as historical document.
 

Venue: FIDMarseille Film Festival, July 8, 2012.

Production companies: Exit Productions
Directors / Screenwriters / Directors of photography / Producers: 'ismaël', Youssef Chebbi, Ala Eddine Slim
Editors: 'ismaël', Ala Eddine Slim
Sales Agent: Exit Productions, Tunis, Tunisia
No rating, 119 minutes.

 

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