10-12 April; DCA
Paul Bush’s film Babeldom can easily be defined as an enigma. A terrifying “mockumentary”, the film leaves the viewer feeling uneasy and disoriented, yet manages to accompany this disquietude with a sense of awe at the spectacular juxtaposition of animation and handheld cityscape visuals.
The film is narrated sporadically by two voices: an unnamed female archaeologist and male citizen of the fictional megacity Babeldom. The pair communicate through letters to one another. This potentially romantic relationship is set against the backdrop of several urban interiors and exteriors, which are themselves integrated into a mixture of scientific and mathematical animations, and CGI figures who, along with shadowy silhouettes, provide the only “people” in the Babeldom. The film centres on the city of Babeldom, named after and influenced by the mythical Tower of Babel. This allusion to the infamous city is presented in the establishing shot of the film, where thick clouds clear to reveal Pieter Bruegel’s famous sixteenth-century painting of the biblical city. However, Bush adds his own mark on the painting by using subtle animation to make the figures move, turning the symbol of the dystopian city into something of his own, which he manipulates at various points in the film.
Not for those of the glass-half-full philosophy, Bush’s film offers no redeeming attributes in such urban conglomerations. Implicitly critiquing the building of cities in the past, the first half of the film is mainly occupied with shots of claustrophobic interiors and downward spiralling staircases into the depths of Babeldom, where, we are told, the history of the city is buried. These shots are then intermixed with mathematical animations and scored with screechy, choral chanting, ostensibly adding to the seriousness of the film and muddling the boundaries between documentary and fiction. With this enigmatic whirlwind of images and sounds, it is no wonder Isabel Stevens claims this is a film to get lost in: the narrative is held together thinly by the film’s aesthetic value and a disorientating mixture of the real and unreal.
The second part of the film then juxtaposes these dark, malevolent visuals of the city at ground level with equally threatening shots of city heights. Here Babeldom’s exterior shots expose just as much danger and hopelessness as the light-starved depths, as the dark, towering buildings, and in a similar manner to those depicted in urban science fiction films likeMetropolis (1927)and Blade Runner (1982), whose cityscapes are illuminated by sparks escaping damaged electricity lines, reminiscent of the tesla used in 1930s horror films. The interior shots of these building are accompanied by sounds of falling water, evocative of rainforests. This image of the city as a jungle comes into play again when the male narrator comments on how the buildings act like trees in canopies stretching for sunlight. This is one of the many unoriginal urban symbols Bush uses in his film. By comparing Babeldom to a jungle, which may be allegorical, Bush is reusing clichéd ideas of comparison from hundreds of past films and novels, and merely updating them with quirky animations and pretentiously melancholy, philosophical narrations. However, one striking and original image of the city is Bush’s recurring symbol of the past, present and future being linked in Babeldom, as the three coincide together in the continuous upward building of the megalopolis, with history at its roots and a destructive future ahead.
What makes Bush’s film truly terrifying though is that these technologies and dystopian gemeinshaft images of cities are real. The shots of Babeldom are composed of real locations and cities around the world, and the animations display contemporary technologies being developed today, making the horrors of Babeldom real events in our past, present and future. It is from this mixing of the real and mythical that Bush’s film finds its relevance.