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“Babylon”: I’m a Legal Alien in London

Franco Rosso’s landmark immersion into London’s Jamaican-British community has been restored and rereleased.
Frank Rosso's Babylon (1980) is showing February 25 – March 26, 2019 on MUBI in the United Kingdom.
Impressions of Franco Rosso’s Babylon (1980) extend past the boundaries of its 95-minute running time. Like the dub remixes its London characters’ lives revolve around, the movie plays with re-establishing identity and our experience of time. A narrative document of young, working class male Jamaican-British Londoners, Babylon doles out atmospheric city scenes of their place in the community: sons, brothers, boyfriends, small-time crooks, laborers, music lovers and producers. Privileging viewers with immersion into an insulated, under-documented immigrant community, the film provides a window into their daily lives. We are thrown into conversations and situations, intimately experiencing their patois (new subtitles have been provided for this restoration,) their interactions with friends, their constant victimization by a dominantly racist white society, and the massive sound system parties they congregate to. A corrective to the British ignorance and fear of Jamaican immigrants, the film’s emphasis is on the immigrants’ culture (dub and reggae music) as a political and emotional response.
The opening shots focus on young men (our protagonists Blue and his friends) running through and against hopping London traffic. Lifting stereo elements into trucks in industrialized environs, the men’s labor is seen against an underpopulated abandoned warehouse setting. A cut to opening credits leads into a dancehall club scene; the men we’ve followed in the opening shots are no longer running against or away from the center of the action. A feeling of exhalation colors shots of dancing to the riches their sound system provides. The entire first third of the film has the quality of a low-key celebration.
Like the heavy boxes and stereo supplies that the men struggle to put together in the formation of a sound, their dub music community highlights strength of the masses uniting in common goals. The moment of lifting and moving the heavy boxes that build their sound system demand action and coordination, leading to sweat and strain—“you stand there, you hold this end!”—but it is also a microscopic view into a never before filmed community. Babylon is a both a film about outsiders and one created by outsiders, though that includes an Italian turned Londoner director, a Jewish co-writer (Martin Stellman), and a legendary Barbados-born dub producer. As directed by Franco Rosso, there is a palpable effort to get inside of the experience of Black British immigrants. The question is posed: how is it living as a legal immigrant, for all intents and purposes a legal alien, inside a white society that marginalizes the Black and the immigrant experience?
Rosso was an immigrant to the UK himself. Italian-born and primarily British-bred, Rosso exhibits curiosity and knowingness as he settles into this world. Rosso served as an assistant editor on Ken Loach’s emotive outsider drama Kes (1969), and later worked on documentaries tracking the marginalized criminal population of Britain. Yet despite Rosso’s perceptive direction and the cinematography of Chris Menges (The Mission, The Killing Fields, Comfort and Joy…), it is the original soundtrack by Dennis Bovell, more than any other element, that creates the storyline’s intention and tone.
Blue (Brinsley Forde), our main protagonist, dodges family stress and expectations by finding good times and purpose in the world of dub. Blue and his peers form the underdog sound system group Ital Lion, and Babylon tracks their rivalry with champion Jah Shaka. Beefy (Trevor Laird), one of Blue’s pals, stands out as a frequent butt of his friends’ jokes, but under the surface lies a growing disgust for the unjust treatment he encounters at the hands of whites. As racial tensions slowly intensify in the last third of the film, the dub score becomes more futuristic and haunting.
The enjoyment and collective experience of music is a building block of the film’s structure. Reggae music, rooted in Jamaica, enjoyed a rapt audience in Britain in the 1970s and ‘80s. Associated with Rastafarianism and music of the masses and the oppressed, it also focuses on a rhythm that is on the offbeat, mainly stressing the second and fourth beats. Dub music, often remixing/reproducing reggae songs electronically, involves a producer who alters the beat by way of prolonging, muting or repeating sounds. It revolutionized dance and social gatherings by the way it alters and deepens a soundscape. Dub remixes incorporate electronic sounds, such as phasers and martial tempos to infiltrate the more subdued reggae melody. Reverb, echo and muting are used to swallow up the original sound, creating a cavernous feel.
The dub music flooding the film is both a character and a characterization of our protagonists’ experience. It can be heard soundtracking scenes of their shenanigans, their parties, their London walks and rides, and their workdays. It is only in scenes where the racism of white men (being targeted and chased by whites, called racist names by a white woman who dislikes their music, et cetera) that the music comes to a standstill. In the final scenes of the film, the personal stakes for our characters reach their boiling point, and the dub music increasingly reflects this destructive landscape. Phaser sounds dominate the dancehall, as the Ital Lion crew produce a dominantly electronic and alien soundscape. Just as when a character calls out to “tear it up,” referring to the music, we witness the breakdown and rebuilding in both the immigrant experience and the remixed music. An explosive ending reinforces the film’s portrait of the bifurcated immigrant experience: the sense of identity by belonging to an insulated group, and the concept of being an alien in another world.

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