Sunday, September 16, 2012

London: The Modern Babylon

Yours truly volunteered at TIFF12 (Toronto International Film Festival) and saw some great films this year. Of particular interest to the readers of this blog will be the doc London: The Modern Babylon (directed by Julien Temple).

The film has been described as an "inspirational," "affectionate," yet "unsentimental" ode to the fair city.  The Globe and Mail picked it as one of its top six films of the entire festival! The film is a survey of the city's history since 1900 and focuses especially on the transformation and the tumult that has rocked the capital in a collection of rich archival images and video as well as interviews with those who lived the history. Including 106 year old resident Hetty Bower, "life long Londoner" Tony Benn, and poet Michael Horowitz. Perhaps most striking is that the film does not gloss over the street violence or racial tensions that have an all too prominent role in the history of the city.

The soundtrack opened with the Clash and included the Pet Shop Boys, the Kinks and the Sex Pistols. The electronic hum of Underwold (famous from the Trainspotting soundtrack) perfectly highlights 
the black and white images of horse-drawn carriages and trams on the ever busy streets of London at the beginning of the century. The very English hymn"Jerusalem" made its way into the doc in two spots: recited by a black poet and emanating from a waling electric guitar. This collection of music is modern, loud, disorienting and mirrors the cultural clash/ fusion that took place in society. This was the soundtrack all the "cool kids" grew up to in London. (Check out the soundtrack on Spotify)

We get flashing images of Edwardian debutantes, the monarchy and 1980s yuppies. 
But, the real driving force of London has been "the people" (mischaracterized as "the mob") and popular protest. The narrative of this documentary is punctuated by moments of street violence: the fight for suffrage, Cable Street (1936), Notting Hill (1958), workers strikes, Brixton (1981), Poll Tax riots, August 2011 as well as the Occupy movement. In each instance, Temple seems to argue that the people have only ever protested in the face of inequality and injustice. The people have never been an unruly and irrational so-called mob. 

One of the recurring themes of this doc is that London is an ever changing city. Physically, the city has been destroyed and rebuilt by war and, more recently, further changed by gentrification. Socially the population has been transformed by industrialization, urbanization (and the exodus from London to its suburbs) and immigration. Culturally, London is now home to people who speak over 300 different dialects and practice a multitude of different religions ... and, as one man in the film pointed out, people who don't believe in God at all. 

Yet, with all of these transformations the structure and spirit of the city endures.

The city has always been busy, noisy, dirty. It always will be. It is a place of work and generates vast wealth even in these uncertain economic times. Different groups of people (religion, ethnicity, and class) have always lived side by side. There has always been a gap between the wealthy and the poor. The only difference now is that this gap continues to increase and, as the street riots in August 2011 showed, these tensions are at a boiling point. 

Julien Temple's documentary is an important, real and thoughtful portrait of London. There's little nostalgia but the city has never looked more beautiful. It complements the harmonious and triumphant images of London that we have been served by the recent Jubilee and Olympic celebrations. For anglophiles and general film-going audiences alike this documentary is well worth 1h15 mins of your time.


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