It’s somewhat reductive to place Babeldom in the same category as narrative movies, nor does it belong amongst documentaries. No, the experience of viewing Babeldom is best compared to that of modern art. At first glance it left me perplexed and bewildered, and only after gaining some insight into its production – courtesy of a post-screening Q&A with director Paul Bush – was I be able to formulate a coherent opinion on this frankly confounding piece of work.
If you think Babeldom sounds impenetrable, you’d be almost correct. It’s experimental filmmaking in every sense of the word, with only a vague narrative piecing together the abundance of seemingly unrelated images.
Filmmaker Paul Bush set out to create a portrait of Babeldom, a dystopic city of the future in which the past, present and future exist simultaneously, told through a correspondence between a Babeldom resident and a present day archaeologist. It may sound simple, but you could be forgiven for leaving the theatre without discerning this.
With zero budget and resources, Bush captured images from cities around the globe to represent his vision of Babeldom, juxtaposing the urban landscape with the ephemeral, mainly scientific simulations presented without context. Nothing you see was manufactured for the film – as Bush proudly reiterated in the Q&A – his aim was to create the conceit of the future using contemporary locations and scientific knowledge.
I could find myself more lenient towards Babeldom had any of the images been vaguely interesting. Bush certainly made sure to avoid any recognisable locations, preferring to shoot in more mundane locales, usually under the cover of darkness. There are certainly points to be made about finding beauty in the vernacular, but Babeldom fails to find it.
Even understanding Bush’s intention, I can’t say he was entirely successful. The ideas presented were often abstract and lacking cohesion. Trying to create a vision of this city in my mind was akin to skipping every word in a novel, all the ideas are there, but piecing them together becomes unnecessarily complicated.
The method behind Babeldom seems to be to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. Unfortunately, what did stick was few and far between. One of the more interesting sequences examined the structural nuances of the Babeldom’s musical scale-based universal language, possibly because it took the time to explain the concept.
Those familiar with Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg have seen this style of storytelling done to better effect. Maddin deploys a similar lyrical approach to produce a love letter to his hometown, but unlike Babeldom, the portrait Maddin paints does not alienate the viewer, with imagery that enlightens the viewer rather than confounds them.
Perhaps Babeldom is too clever for me, or perhaps I just lack the correct frame of knowledge. Either way, Babeldom does not go out its way to assist the viewer. As I’ve said, every scientific simulation is presented without context. I can’t deny they look futuristic, but spending 80 minutes watching molecules bounce around the screen is not my idea of fun.
It may appear that there is very little positive to say about Babeldom. But if nothing else, the post-screening discussion it encouraged stopped it from being entirely worthless. Hours were spent afterwards deciding what, if anything, it was all about. There is certainly no definitive answer, and is no doubt open to many interpretations.
It’s ambition deserves to be recognised. Bush shot the film single handily, and his dedication to bringing his vision to life must be acknowledged.
Putting a number is Babeldom is somewhat futile. Paul Bush has made a film immune to criticism, and I’m sure he’d be the first person to acknowledge its narrow appeal. I really couldn’t imagine recommending it anyone, but that said, there is something here, something those cleverer, or perhaps more patient than I may be able to deduce. If Paul Bush could accompany each screening to enlighten the audience I’m sure it could be a great success. But without that, I think the majority of audience members will be left bewildered.