Friday, May 06, 2011

Fire in Babylon - Take Three

Russ Degnan, in responding to my wondering about the lack of good cricket documentaries, brings up the question of paying for archival footage. Indeed. Permissions for archival footage are perhaps the single biggest stumbling block in any documentary maker's work. The unfortunate extension of copyright terms in the US has made this business even harder. I remember attending a documentary on Sacco and Vanzetti a few years ago at the CUNY Graduate Center, and was struck by the filmmakers' frustration: they had spent more time navigating the thickets of permissions and rights than in editing and writing. This is an occupational hazard in that business and thanks to "intellectual property" talk having gone completely batshit in the US, its become worse.

But I don't think the problems in Fire in Babylon were due to lack of archival footage; they were due to bad storytelling. Matching up the wrong footage with the voice-over narrative; misrepresenting the facts; letting a story emerge that is considerably at odds with a narrative familiar to most cricket fans; these are what I would indict Riley of, not the lack of archival footage. The superiority of Burns as a documentary maker is not due to his having access to more footage; for the Civil War series, he had none. But he is a conscientious historian, one who makes sure he isn't compromising it in order to do justice to a feel-good agenda. And best of all. he manages to tell a crackling good yarn. I found the footage in Fire in Babylon compelling; the story that was being told about it suffered in comparison.

Incidentally, one interesting reaction I had while watching Fire in Babylon in an American theater was that of pride. Somehow, strangely, I felt vindicated. After years of listening to Americans talk nonsense about how cricket was a genteel game, meant for landed layabouts on village greens, here was the fire and brimstone of willow, leather and the cricket pitch. Thank you West Indies.

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Anonymous Mark (London) said...

Samir, I have just seen the premier of fire in babylon and find your review completely out of odds with audience perception (surely the acid test) and unnecessarily pedantic. Did we see the same film? The quality of story-telling must be held up by two benchmarks: firstly is the viewer gripped? secondly, adherence to the truth. I challenge you to say that the story told was not exciting. Silver screen footage of the great west Indian quartet was incredible. West Indian cricket was about intimidation of this there can be no doubt and there were gasps in the audience to prove how well that point had been made. Into this narrative the very real racial tensions, the impact this had on the players, and the nuanced West Indian backdrop are expertly woven.

Which brings me to your second point. Is the story that emerges at odds with the narrative familiar to most cricket fans? It is not with mine. I remember the prejudice that existed in London in those days (a very different place today thankfully). It is obvious from the footage that Australia was a no more liberal place.

It might be that you would have made a different film, but the one the filmakers have made is about West Indian cricket as told from the perspective of West Indian players. A different film could have been made by showing the views of global players as well, but then it becomes a hackneyed movie of sporting greats slapping each other on the back. This film doesn’t do that. The narrative strength is to make a cricket movie that transcends cricket. It becomes a tale that captures the west Indian identity which is inextricably linked to cricket, to reggae, and to a past of immigration and slavery. I fail to see what interviewing a batsman from India or England would add? It would narrow the scope, add little in terms of content and take away the essence of the film made.

Your final point is about archival footage. Well done, I suppose, for spotting inconsistencies, but that and, to be honest your whole review, doesn’t pass the “so what” test. The film makers made some creative decisions. That is their job. Are you suggesting that the story is any less real? Or put another way, do you purport to understand the motivations of Viv, Michael Holding, Colin Croft, Gordon Greenidge et al, better than they were able to eloquently tell in their own words? For me the film gets five stars, and your ungenerous review, one.

9:02 AM  
Blogger Samir Chopra said...


Thanks for your comment. Please see all my reviews on this blog and the one over at ESPN-Cricinfo, also linked to on this blog.

As for pedantry, well, I guess its better to be convicted of the sin of pedantry than to be deemed uncritical.

10:38 AM  

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