Film review – Fire in Babylon (2010)

15 September 2011

Fire in BabylonFrom the mid 1970s to the mid 1990s, the West Indies dominated Test Cricket with an undefeated streak that lasted longer than that of any other professional sporting team. This UK documentary charts the progression of the team throughout the 1970s from an almost novelty group of players, who were condescendingly regarded as ‘Calypso Cricketers’, to the disciplined, athletic and fearsome team that would come to dominate the sport. An energetic blend of archival footage, music and contemporary talking head interviews explores the development of the team and their immense political relevance to the Caribbean people whose recent struggles for independence mirrored civil rights movements in the USA and later South Africa.

Like the recent Formula One documentary Senna and the 1996 boxing documentary When We Were Kings, Fire in Babylon explores the politics in and away from the game. At one point the West Indies star batsman Viv Richards is even compared to the subject of When We Were Kings Muhammad Ali, due to Richards’s decision to turn down an extremely large sum of money to play in Apartheid South Africa. Tracing the origins of cricket within the Caribbean nations as something introduced by the English aristocracy as a symbol of colonialist rule, the film demonstrates why it was so significant for the West Indies team to master the sport. By beating the English cricket team, the descendants of former slaves were beating the descendants of the former colonialists at their own game.

While the English cricket team feature in Fire in Babylon as a primary antagonist, especially Tony Greig who in 1976 insensitively stated he wanted to make the West Indians ‘grovel’, the Australian team are also presented as a major foe. In particular, the fast bowlers Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee are depicted in the stock footage and photos to appear almost animalistic with the aggressive bowling techniques that they introduced to the game. The fact that the West Indies bowlers were later widely criticised for adopting similar techniques, which significantly contributed to their early and ongoing wins, is a double-standard that the film doesn’t let slip by.

Fire in BabylonThe large collection of interviews assembled for this film create a wonderfully cohesive impression of the team as a fully function single unit that still comprised of individual players. Specific players do get mentioned, but overall the film paints a picture of the team as a single character, which is important considering how they collectively began representing African independence both within the Caribbean and within various communities living in England during a time of racial tensions. At first glance, the amount of screen time given to musical performances and interviews with musicians seems odd, but it establishes the cultural effect the team had and how what the team stood for was articulated through popular art forms such as music. Bob Marley and the team were reportedly mutual fans of each other and former Wailers band member Bunny Wailer features extensively in the interviews.

At the very least, Fire in Babylon is a great film because is so effectively conveys a love for the game that even complete non-cricket fans should find enticing. The West Indies team do begin the film as the classic underdogs so watching them overcome early adversity and humiliations is compelling and satisfying. The excitement of the games is frequently conveyed by rapidly crosscutting between game footage and the various interviewees enthusiastically recounting what happened. Their energy is infectious and is what makes the blend of sport, music and politics in Fire in Babylon that extra little bit special. Like all great documentaries, Fire in Babylon transcends its immediate subject matter to be a film with universal appeal.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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MIFF 2011 Blog-a-thon: Part 10

1 August 2011
The Turin Horse

The Turin Horse

One of the films I was most intrigued about this year was The Turin Horse and as I expected, during the screening there was a steady flow of walk-outs, but there were also many people in the audience who like me were transfixed.  No doubt many will comment on how closely The Turin Horse resembles the very funny spoof Polish film with Geoffrey Rush that is used as one of the MIFF trailers this year. There is certainly a monotony to The Turin Horse as it depicts the repetitive and stark day-to-day existence of two peasants in 1889. You get to know every crack on the wall of their small house and become very familiar with their daily routine. Yet, this film invites the eye to continually explore the cinema screen and your patience is constantly rewarded with moments of visual brilliance. The framing, lighting and composition are masterful, and the use of long takes from the omnipresent roving camera generates an extraordinary energy. If it weren’t for the debacle in the actual cinema during the final twenty minutes (more about that below) this would have been close to my favourite MIFF experience this year.

The other challenging feature film I saw yesterday was Good Bye. The tight cinematography and dominance of blacks, blues and deep greens convey the bleak and oppressive situation facing a woman in Iran who is pregnant, forbidden to work and trying to leave the country now that her husband has fled. The film consists of several long static shots where little happens and what does happen occurs off-screen. This will frustrate some viewers, but it effectively conveys the idea of her life being constantly restricted by external forces beyond her control. I found this a difficult film to sit through at times but it’s stayed with me. Before Good Bye began, we were treated to Jafar Panahi’s short film The Accordion, a simple and touching film about forgiveness and kindness.

Fire in Babylon

Fire in Babylon

I started yesterday by taking myself right out of my comfort zone to see Fire in Babylon, despite having little interest in sport, especially not cricket. It was a good move as this entertaining documentary engagingly conveys the political implications behind the rise of the West Indies cricket team in the 1970s, as well as bringing the game alive to the extent that I actually got excited about it. The session I attended contained a much different audience to what I was used to at MIFF as the people sitting around me were clearly cricket fans as opposed to cinephiles. This greatly enhanced the experience as I got an insight into the collective pleasure involved in following sport. I was impressed with how well the crowd responded to a film where the Australian cricket team, along with the English, were effectively the antagonists of the film. Clearly a love for seeing the game played so brilliantly by the West Indies transcends national loyalties. I think cricket may be something I could get into after all.

[EDIT 15/9/2011: Read a full review of Fire in Babylon]

I saw Beginners after hearing from some people that it was too twee and from others that it was funny and moving. I kind of agree with both points of view to be honest. On the one hand, the father/son relationship told in flashback is very impressive and effectively develops the film’s theme of letting go of baggage to stop denying your true nature in order to finally start living life. Unfortunately, the other component of the film is a romance where the female object-of-desire character is the clichéd slightly quirky it-girl whose main presence in the film is to facilitate the male lead’s self-discovery. There are plenty of sweet moments where I overlooked the blatant use of such a well worn trope, but at other times it was, well, a bit twee.

Stardust

Stardust

Finally, I saw the films in the Experimental Shorts 2 program yesterday. The session began with Slave Ship, which while more like video art certainly benefited from being seen from beginning until end to watch it’s gradual impressionist transformations. Ken Jacobs’s Another Occupation was next and while a critique of military colonialism, I was taken by how techniques such as video loops, freeze frames and negative exposure conveyed the impression of things being burnt into your mind despite seeing them only fleetingly. The sound design and very ultra-rapid editing in Carpet Burn made carpet fibres almost appear like a stop-motion organic wave, while the grainy landscapes and lone figure in Disquiet recalled Ivan Sen’s feature Dreamland from last year’s festival. The rhythmic sound and image editing in Endeavour pleasingly delivered a visceral sensation of a space shuttle in flight, while the fragmented composite images of train platforms in Tokyo – Ebisu created a collective experience of waiting for a train. The eternal mysteriousness and fearful fascination of outer-space is conveyed in … These Blazeing Starrs! through contrasting medieval illustrations of comets with eerie footage from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. However, the best was saved until last with Stardust by Nicolas Provost, whose Long Live The New Flesh won the Best Experimental Short Film at MIFF last year. Provost has taken footage filmed in Las Vegas of staff, visitors and a handful of celebrities, including some of the last footage of Dennis Hopper, and assembled that footage to create a crime thriller. Dialogue from films such as Heat and Die Hard is laid over the top along with music excerpts from films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, to transform Vegas into an alien landscape filled with mystery and intrigue. A wonderful pastiche and parody of crime films where Provost draws attention to how film style manipulates audience expectations, while still being completely engaging.

MIFFhaps
By now it should be clear that I’ve been using this part of my blog posts to relay silly anecdotes about myself or random members of the public during the festival. For today’s post I was planning on getting a bit philosophical to discuss the nature of boredom and if anybody (including myself) really ever has the right to declare a film boring simply because they don’t personally connect with it. Instead, after what happened during last night’s screening of The Turin Horse, I am going to have to get my rant on and ask, ‘What the hell is going on with the projection at the Forum?’

All throughout the festival this year films screened at the Forum have had various problems such as sound loss, being out of focus or not being framed correctly. Last night’s screening of The Turin Horse was the last straw for me. It was either the last or second last reel that began with the top half of the screen missing and once that was fixed some of the house lights then came on. For the remainder of the film, various lights came on and off – often with a strobe effect – as whoever was in charge tried to figure out what switch did what. Often the screen was lit up so we couldn’t see the actual film. I’m not sure who is to blame – certainly not the volunteers who are the unpaid lifeblood of the festival and often unfairly in the firing line – but surely there must be somebody at the venue qualified to fix issues like this.

I am upset over having the end of the Turin Horse ruined for me as I was really looking forward to it and had been completely invested in it until all this stuff happened. It really isn’t the sort of film where you can re-watch just the last twenty minutes to find out what happened since the film is a mood piece that you need to commit to in its entirety. Very disappointing.

Show us your MIFF
I met  Daniel Newfield after the second screening of Tomboy, where we both wanted to gush to somebody about how much we loved it. It was his highlight from the festival so far, but he was still very much looking forward to Beginners and the Mary Stephen Editing Masterclass. Daniel’s advice on how to best enjoy MIFF is to get as much rest as possible prior to each screening since there is nothing worse than falling asleep during a film, especially when it’s one you are really enjoying. In fact, he did have the unfortunate MIFFhap of nodding off during The Guard despite really loving it. Daniel has just started out working as film editor and will soon begin working as an assistant editor at a post-production firm. A sample of his work can be found at http://vimeo.com/newfield. When pressed, he lists Requiem for a Dream as his favourite film and also loves anything that David Fincher touches.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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