Babylon, Dir Franco Rosso, UK/Italy 1980
Sometimes it feels like independent cinema is a charity case itself, so it’s pleasantly surprising to find a new independent cinema just around the corner that sustains a South African community project on its proceeds, even if Sunday matinee tickets are a tenner each. The Lexi Cinema, ensconced since last October n the Pinkham Lighthouse, a refurbished Edwardian theatre in Kensal Rise, is the first ‘social enterprise’ digital cinema in London. Set up by entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist Sally Wilton, it’s located right in the corner of North West London that suffered a freak tornado three years ago, ripping a handful of streets to pieces. It’s a strange kind of tribute to community on a heading-to-dull suburban road.
The cinema itself is a comfortable 80-seater; and the projection kit’s not bad at all: it’s set up to take the industry’s encrypted hard drives for recent releases like Telstar, but it also projects from disc, and I can finally see the point of Blu-Ray: in a small screening setting like this, the HD really makes a difference to the sharpness and clarity of the picture; unfortunately, this particular screening jerks every second or so, just enough to be noticeable on a fast-moving pan (I have a geeky conversation with the projectionist, or at least the bloke who pushes the buttons on the players, about this afterwards: he’s apologetic & thinks it’s about the aspect ratio; on reflection I reckon it’s a frame rate conversion problem; Blu-Ray discs can hold a multiplicity of different formats, codecs and broadcast standards).
But what’s on screen is far more interesting than the jerks: winding up the London on Film Festival, this is a chance to see Franco Rosso‘s Babylon, a reggae film from 1980, starring Aswad’s Brinsley Forde, and soundtracked by Linton Kwesi Johnson’s musical collaborator Dennis Bovell. The story has echoes of The Harder They Come: Forde’s Blue, an aspiring toaster with the Ital Lion soundsystem, booked for a clash with Jah Shaka, has to negotiate his way through the urban jungle and a long dark night of the soul on his way there.
The film isn’t an overt story of politicisation like Pressure or Burning an Illusion, but it presents a credible and depressing picture of a pervasively racist Britain at the end of the seventies: National Front slogans daubed across council estates, routine police brutality, and casual prejudice at work: Blue’s boss, played by Mel Smith, calls Blue a ‘coon’ and sacks him when he gets lippy. In the end Blue triumphs with a storming toast at the clash just as a police raid breaks through the doors and the credits roll, but there are no false victories: Babylon is all around. When a white woman interrupts the Ital Lion crew to tell them to get ‘”fuck off back to your own country”, Beefy yells back at her “This is my fucking country, lady! And it’s never been fucking lovely!”
Testament to South London’s unloveliness are the bits of scenery caught in the location shots: derelict Victorian terraces, waste ground and grim acres of council housing. Nobody would let nineteenth century housing like that rot today. On my way to Brixton a day earlier, I stumble across Niall O’Sullivan‘s You’re Not Singing Anymore, a book of poetry about half of which concerns Brixton. In Between Worlds, we get a bird’s eye view of the liminal zone between grit and suburb:
We’re just a few reels away from the cracking of skulls,
unshaven faces denting car bonnets,
flecks of blood, slivers of tooth, wasted beer…
But the bus that you’re watching from
turns the corner and now it’s Victorian terraces
flowering Forsythia, budding plane trees,
Audis and Volvos snoozing uncomfortably.
Then walking to the Ritzy via Suzie’s place, by the Somerleyton Estate’s barrier block (its hideous arse-backwards frontage aligned to protect the estate from a 1970s motorway that never was), the police have a family car pulled over to the side of the road and are going through the boot’s contents. Plus ça change: Brixton still hasn’t quite managed to commodify its edge in the way parts of East London have.
At the end of the 1980s, in 1991 New Departures published Grandchildren of Albion, Michael Horovitz’s sequel to his groundbreaking sixties anthology Children of Albion. Between its covers you’ll find recently-annointed laureate Carol Ann Duffy alongside John Cooper Clarke, Benjamin Zephaniah, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Attila the Stockbroker. Not only is there a cultural baton passed from Babylon to Albion in the form of dub poetry, but the whole collection coruscates with the energy of resistance to injustice on all fronts. If Albion’s children took a poetic engagement with politics to be a kind of provocation against an age of plenty at home and war abroad, its grandchildren found the war on their own doorsteps in the form of racism, sexism and mass unemployment. Poetry like this, and films like Babylon can induce nostalgia not only for the mind-blowing dub sounds of 1980, but for a decade in which poetry, music and struggle all seemed to matter together.