Using art to break down barriers


`Babel' director crosses borders of racism, exposes inner prejudices in his film

Spotlight on: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

November 10, 2006|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Governments and politicians spend too much time building walls that separate the world's people from one another, says director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

With his latest film, Babel, the 43-year-old Mexican-born director hopes to start tearing a few walls down.

"I think the only thing that we can expect from a film," he says during a stop in Washington to promote the new film, which opens today, "is to maybe trigger some questions, maybe see some things differently from what we are used to. ... I don't think art can really change the world, but all the art together, little by little, can shape the world by transforming it. It's a long process."

It's a process Inarritu and his screenwriting partner, Guillermo Arriaga, began six years ago with the release of their first collaboration, Amores perros, an ode to the difficulties and disasters one must overcome in the name of love.

Like their two subsequent efforts, 21 Grams (2003) and Babel, the film followed multiple storylines that overlapped to various degrees. Besides the disjointed narratives and often frenetic pacing, all three movies share a common message: we all exist in this world together, and the sooner we come to terms with that, the better.

That notion comes through most clearly in Babel, which follows families in four countries as they struggle with a world where the worst is assumed too quickly, and where distrust has become the coin of the realm. In Morocco, an American tourist is felled by a stray bullet, and authorities scour the countryside, ruthlessly hunting for the terrorists they're sure are responsible. In San Diego, an illegal immigrant working as a nanny, desperate to get back to Mexico for her son's wedding, takes her young charges with her, setting off a chain of events that can lead to nowhere but tragedy. In Tokyo, a deaf girl confuses communication with sexuality, and can't come to grips with either.

It's the man-made conventions - languages and governments - that separate the characters in Babel. Let down those barriers, Inarritu suggests, and people become more alike than different.

"I wanted to show a film about making judgments," he says, "about prejudices. This film is about the borders that are within ourselves; those are the really dangerous ones."

In all three of his films with Arriaga, Inarritu has chosen to eschew conventional narrative in favor of a more fractured approach, one that pays little attention to chronology or linear storytelling.

In part, that's because of how he was brought up ("My father was a great storyteller, and the guy always started in the middle, and then he'd throw in little pieces of the end of the story he was telling"). His story structures, he says, also reflect how he views the world. "I have an ADD problem," he says. "Every time I think of something, I'm already moving on to the next thing."

But in other ways, Inarritu harks back to a cinematic tradition as old as film itself. Movies, he says, are the closest thing we have to a universal language - especially when filmmakers rely more on images than words.

"Images don't need translation," he says, pining away for the days before sound was married to film. The old silent-film directors, he says, "told things by actions and by images and by icons. Just watching [them], you feel humbled at how cheap we have become with talking films."

If ever mankind needed a shared form of communication, Inarritu suggests, it's today. "No matter how much the technology has developed, no matter that we are supposed to be more connected," he says, "we have lost the ability to listen. That's a really big problem."

Inarritu, who moved to the United States days before Sept. 11 and now lives in Santa Monica, Calif., with his wife and two children, believes the problem is only exacerbated when the world's most powerful nation tries to close its borders and make it difficult for certain people to come and go freely.

"I began to really question and be shaped by these things I was seeing," he says, noting that his complexion has caused more than a few people to stare at him suspiciously.

"This war against terrorism has enhanced xenophobic feelings again, and racism."

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