FILMS

Social ecology of harsh places

BABYLON Directed by Franco Rosso P4W: PRISON FOR WOMEN Directed by Janis Cole, Holly Dale

MARNI JACKSON October 12 1981
FILMS

Social ecology of harsh places

BABYLON Directed by Franco Rosso P4W: PRISON FOR WOMEN Directed by Janis Cole, Holly Dale

MARNI JACKSON October 12 1981

Social ecology of harsh places

BABYLON Directed by Franco Rosso P4W: PRISON FOR WOMEN Directed by Janis Cole, Holly Dale

When the lights went up after Babylon was shown at Toronto's Festival of Festivals last

month, the movie went right on happening. Director Franco Rosso stood up to field questions from a theatre full of white, middle-class film buffs who had just watched his film about unemployed young blacks in Brixton. Spotting two West Indians in the crowd, Rosso asked them if Toronto was anything like Brixton. There was a pause, and then one of them replied. “Yes, it’s not an attitude running to outright hatred, but it has the same effect,” he said. “It’s just a sense, along with other minorities, of being marginalized in this society.”

The experience of living in the margin of society is the subject of Babylon and PJfW, two irresistible films which have gone straight from the festival into commercial theatres. Babylon is fiction with .the texture of journalism at its best (it was made before the Brixton riots erupted, and now looks like reportage); PUW, a documentary about women in prison, has the instincts of a novel. Both movies uncover humor, courage and undefeated human warmth where least expected.

Babylon is a political movie you can dance to; like The Harder They Come, a reggae score is central to the story. The young Brixton blacks in the film are part of a dub band—a routine combining records with inspired live rap. Unemployed in a labor-based, money-oiled white society, they grow up in an atmosphere of alienation. Their own culture is invisible, reduced to the smoke and sounds of reggae and Rastafarianism. It’s easier for the West Indians in Brix-

ton to identify with dreams of Ethiopia than with the reality of England.

The roots of racism are hard to isolate and tricky to dramatize. Rosso’s alert, graceful narrative takes us inside the main character, a man called Blue (Brinsley Forde) who is the band’s lead singer. Unjustly fired by a white boss, hassled by his anglicized parents, and routinely fingered by the police, Blue absorbs so much social violence that finally it breaks down his own humanity. Almost accidentally, he knifes a white man, in a scene of bitter, unavoidable social logic. Cut off from a culture that confirms him, no one can stay human against inhumane odds.

Blue is last seen presiding at the microphone, urging the black dancers to stand firm as the police start battering at the doors. The message couldn’t be more literal, or more naturally told: as one culture is breaking down outside another one comes together inside, forged by violence. The amazing thing is how Rosso uses this sad fact of history to document one of the more consoling human instincts—the urge to be part of a community, whether it’s a nation or a Saturday night dance.

P^W is also an independent production which needed several years to overcome red tape and resistance. Holly Dale and Janis Cole open up life inside the Kingston Prison for Women in a way that is totally disarming. Braced for a drab social document, the audience gets a study of the sort of social ecology that takes hold in harsh places, like wild flowers in the Arctic.

Five women talk about their lives in jail. A mother with a tough-looking haircut makes a videotape for her son, singing him a song she made up. Another woman, a convicted murderer, tells the story of how she killed her husband after 14 years of abuse. Ah yes, the social victim, we think. Then, with the same shattering self-possession, she tells us how she married again and killed her second husband. Adjusting the pictures of her children on the shelves in her cell, she talks about how

much she misses them. The eldest has accepted the first murder, since he remembers the man beating her, but “he still has trouble with the second.”

As with the violence in Babylon, the more detailed and human she becomes in the film, the more her crime takes on a terrible inevitability—one that says much more about the weaknesses of society than the strengths of the prison system. There is no political point of view, just a quiet, curious camera, recording what prison takes away and what it cannot suppress.

MARNI JACKSON