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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

"London: The Modern Babylon", the roaring city

London: The Modern Babylon
Beefeater In-Edit 2012, Chapter V

A wonderful way to end this 10th edition of the In-Edit Festival. A genuine premiere, with the presence of director Julien Temple who was kind enough to answer some questions of the audience and chat a little after the film, but mostly a really remarkable documentary that reveals an impressive, titanic work of a director who has a tremendous, rare talent for combining visuals, music and ideas brilliantly.

I can only imagine how monstrous has to be the task of selecting bits from 120 years of history of a city like London, just to summarize them and try to offer a complete portray from such a vibrant place. Sure Temple spent never ending tones of time at the British Film Institute’s archives. Tracing London’s chronology in this exhaustive way must have been exhausting. But what it is worse, it could have been exhausting and not very rewarding. Tones of footage, interviews, pieces of movies, etc, etc, doesn't mean an interesting film. On the contrary, and being honest, it could have been a very boring stuff without an inner coherence or a direction. But Julien Temple, and that's why "London: The Modern Babylon" deserves to be highlighted, knows where he wants to go with his film.

Because this documentary is not a pleasant postcard of a city, willing to export its beautiful locations, investment opportunities or exciting attractions. Don't expect a "London welcomes you for the Olympics" kind-of-film. The film is an absorbing statement on social change, transformation. It's a vital process, one that dates back from the British Empire, suffers and evolves dramatically with the two World Wars, welcomes and rejects the recurrent migratory waves, struggles with shameful politicians (always Thatcher) and wannabe leaders and reacts, regularly, with violence, and social angst, against injustices. As Madness' Suggs describes wisely “People get taken in and become part of the city itself and change the city. And that’s the whole point. The place keeps changing.

If something has to be criticised, it should be the considerable effort the films requires from the spectator, or at least the non-Londoner. More than two hours of imagery, music and clipping structure, with a (logic) slower beginning about the early 20th century. But I assure you it is worth the effort. Temple, a master of film edition, is capable of capturing the vitality of a city in all its forms and builds a narrative conformed by several layers, a well-taken, vivid collage, full of humanism. Its an extraordinary example of what we call "collective memory". Parallelisms between time periods and relevant dates (mostly tragic) abound, so the idea that city life is cyclical permeates in your mind. "The London Mob" arouses throughout the history of the place. A structure is built, then is fought, battled. Then London begins again.

Another factor I believe its worth highlighting is how Temple's puts his focus in ordinary people. With the exceptions of a few opinions, Londoners are the ones who develop the city's story. The clarity of mind of Hetty Bower, incredibly vital despite her 106 year-old is shocking and uplifting. From waving goodbye to soldiers on World War I to taking part of the Battle of Cable Street against Edward Mosley fascists to support today's Occupy movement in just a killer sentence: “They’re asking for the basis of our society to be questioned, and I think that is correct.” Through the eyes and voice of people like Hetty we are told a story of poverty, much suffering, surveillance, and a common brave spirit of getting active and fearless to react, to fight for change.

Temple doesn't doubt to establish an obvious correlation between the bursts of social creativity (in the arts, music, etc) and the political-revolutionary moments. London was an empire, hippy, punk, romantic, multicultural. But it always was, and still is, about the people who live there and shapes it, no matter where they come from (migration is the other recurrent topic here). Suggs (again) defines it better than anyone on the film: “The good old days? “There were no good old days. London doesn’t belong to anyone. It’s whoever’s on the go at any given moment." That's what Temple shows in "London: The Modern Babylon", and it's a fascinating lesson to be learnt.

SCORE: 7,5/10

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