“Babylon” while a very non-compromising film hardly contains elements that would demand an X-rating. Yet the film was rated as such upon its release in the UK in 1980, and was not even distributed in America at the time.
“We didn’t think of it being banned when we made it,” says director of photography Chris Menges in a phone interview. “We went for the heart of the story and were sad that the film, the acting, the story didn’t get seen for so many years. The film was totally rejected when it came out. We put so much into it so it was disheartening. We’re proud that it’s doing well now.”
Set in specific neighborhoods of London such as Brixton, Deptford and Lewisham, “Babylon” follows Jamaican sound system groups portrayed in the movie by real life outfits Jah Shaka and Ital Lion. A wall-to-wall soundtrack features reggae, ska, dub and lovers rock provided by Dennis Bovell’s score and accentuated through songs by Aswad, I-Roy, Michael Prophet and others. Aswad lead singer Brinsley Forde, already known in Britain as an actor, also stars as Blue.
“Babylon deals directly with the racism affecting the Jamaican community and plays as timely now as it did upon its 1980 release. A police raid depicted in the movie mirrors a similar incident that took place in 1974 known as the Carib Club incident. At one point Blue is chased by police merely because he’s walking alone at night.
Menges had met “Babylon” director Franco Rosso on the 1969 Ken Loach film “Kes,” which was Menges first feature credit as DP and on which Rosso was an assistant editor.
“When Franco and Martin [Stellman, who also had written “Quadrophenia”] started working on the script for ‘Babylon’ I was intrigued, most of all because it had something to say,” says Menges.
“When we shot the film it was quite a low budget. A true labor of love. During the shoot I and the first assistant stayed in Franco’s attic. We had to fix a broken windowpane so we wouldn’t freeze during the winter.”
For many of the street scenes the crew hid the camera in a van. “The street scenes that you see are one-hundred-percent real,” says Menges. Many of the scenes contain subtitles to help audiences understand the patois.
“Franco, myself and Martin are all big fans of the cinema that evolved in Europe after the Second World War. It’s very much about street photography, using non-professional actors, trying to capture the moment, the cinema of necessity. We tried to stay outside the circle of performance – so that critical eye was hidden as much as possible.
“We tried to work with the energy of the real light, somehow it gives you a more truthful feeling of reality,” says Menges. “If the script said dawn we would be there at dawn.”
Although “Babylon” was shot early in his career, over the next few years Menges would win Oscars for Best Cinematography twice, for “The Killing Fields” (1984) and two years later for “The Mission.”
“Babylon” moves effortlessly between street drama and the ad hoc clubs set up in warehouses where the characters jam to the music.
“For me the light has the power to make an actor’s performance believable, to make a script run true. The quality of light is about the words. From silhouette to soft north light – from Neon to candle – from amber to deep blue so the color of a scene can evoke an inner energy,” says Menges.
“There are many ways to light a scene. But remember in film there is no light without darkness.”
“Babylon” plays exclusively at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on Friday, August 9 at 7 pm.