Babel: n. 1. In the Bible, a famous tower built by a united humanity to reach toward heaven, causing God in his anger to make each person involved speak different languages, halting the project and scattering a confused and disconnected people across the planet.
Shot over the course of a year across three continents — and starring a multi-lingual cast led by Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael García Bernal, Kôji Yakusho, Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi as well as non-professional actors from Morocco, Mexico and Japan, the film came to mean for all the people envolved a physical and psycological journey very close to that portrayed by it’s characters. While the film tells the stories of people set adrift by cultural and idiomatic frontiers, both the director and his crew dealt with these same challenges months before the shooting started.
For Academy Award®-nominated director Alejandro González Iñárritu, making the film was itself a transformational journey. It was, he says, his greatest filmmaking challenge to date and one that changed everyone involved in a profound way. “BABEL was born of a moral need to purge myself and to speak of the things that were filling my heart and mind: the incredible and painful world-wide paradoxes that affected close and distant lands, finally pouring out as individual tragedies.”
“The making of BABEL was itself a kind of Babel,” González Iñárritu notes. “The production was entirely unique from any of the other films I have done. We essentially made four different movies, trying to really penetrate four different cultures without using an outsider’s point of view. It was very logistically challenging, but the difficult part was intellectually and emotionally. BABEL became not only an external journey, but an internal one as well. Everyone on the crew, myself included, was transformed, and the film itself changed in that I had to rewrite each story according to the cultures and circumstances.” As is usually the case, the clashing of so many cultural points of view in both the ideological and in the physical ended up transforming not only his personal perspective on things but the creative process itself.
González Iñárritu has said that, first and foremost, the idea of BABEL is the result of having left his country and of his living-on-the-go current state of mind. “BABEL no longer answered the question ‘where am I from’ but rather, ‘where am I heading’.
“The best part of shooting BABEL was that I began filming a picture about the differences between human beings – that which separates us, the physical barriers and those of language – but along the way I began realizing that I was making a film about that which joins us; love and pain: what makes a Japanese and a Moroccan happy can be very different, but that which makes us miserable is the same for everybody” says the director.Indeed, in making a movie that crosses borders, cultures, conflicts and the internal lines people draw between themselves, González Iñárritu and the cast and crew had to work through a similar tangle of widely varied dialects, lifestyles and personalities.
“During the production, we had many of the same problems that are central to the film — communication wasn’t easy,” he explains. “BABEL was created by hundreds of people all from different parts of the world. On the set in Morocco, for example, people spoke Arabic, Berber, French, English, Italian and Spanish. We even had actors from the same town who spoke different languages, so it was an ongoing challenge to bring everyone together.”
With the cacophony of human voices that emerged from the biblical Tower of Babel as its inspiration, BABEL follows four equally compelling narratives that unravel in different corners of the planet, yet are nevertheless tied together at the roots. Everything that unfolds in the film is set in motion by a single, simple act – a hunting rifle left behind by a tourist in Morocco — that reverberates through a chain of personal and global interactions. Though it tackles some of the same themes of fate and interconnection touched upon in its two predecessors, Amores Perros and 21 Grams, the film is also a departure, traversing a much broader emotional, intellectual and geographic canvas. “The only reason why this trilogy can be considered as such, besides its having been shaped by overlapping story structure, is that in the very end, they are stories of parents and children. That’s what AMORES PERROS and 21 GRAMS were. Despite the fact that social and political questions on a global scale are implicit in BABEL, it does not cease being a quartet of very intimate tales,” said Gonzalez Inarritu.
While traversing such distinctive yet different cultures, one of the director’s main objectives was to avoid using a conventional “outsider” point of view that could dilute the audiences’ intimacy with the multicultural characters. Instead, he followed what he calls an “observe and absorb” process – spending time in each country in which he shot, watching the everyday habits of the locals, while also utilizing many non-professional actors who could provide him not only with unsurpassed naturalism, but unique insight into the local cultural subtleties. Despite the fact that many of the actors had never even seen a film camera before, González Iñárritu trusted them to reveal their own personal and culturally specific reactions to the dramatic situations in the film.
This emotionally compelling means of storytelling helped to break down the walls that often surround foreign characters in Hollywood-made films. For the director, it was one of the major cruxes of making BABEL – honestly representing each of story’s cultural surroundings, while also revealing the starkly poignant and undeniable common humanity at the center of each tale.
“The real borderlines are within ourselves in that more than a mere physical space, the barriers are in the world of ideas. I realized that what makes us happy as human beings could differ greatly, but that what makes us miserable and vulnerable beyond culture, race, language, or financial standing is the same for all” says González Iñárritu. “ I discovered that the great human tragedy boils down to the inability to love and be loved and the incapacity to touch or be touched by this sentiment, which is what gives meaning to the life and death of every human being. Accordingly, BABEL transformed into a picture about what joins us, not what separates us.”