Listen to the Message of "Babel"

by Shen Shi'an, The Buddhist Channel, Feb 25, 2007

Dharma-Inspired Movie Review:

Singapore -- The biblical story of Babel tells of how humans used to speak one language, and how they were later condemned by God to speak different tongues. This is the supposed genesis of the myriad races and mass human conflict via their differences.

Of course, other religions such as Buddhism have their own explanations on the source of conflict. The film "Babel" however, is neither about the Bible nor God - it is a modern account of human disconnection, reconnection, and interconnection. "Babel-like", it is also about communication, miscommunication and discrimination, about how language and culture divide outsiders as much as it might unite those familiar.

"Babel" consists of three interlinked accounts of human experiences in three different lands, set in poverty-stricken Morocco, middle-class Mexico and affluent Japan. Transcending differences in language, in fact, beyond language altogether, all human suffering is one and the same in substance, while strangers connect to each other through unconditional kindness. For instance, we see a policeman hug a lonely girl (played by Rinko Kikuchi) he barely knows to comfort her. And we see an old Moroccan woman patting a distraught American woman to sooth her.

Words are not always needed. Words can be too much. Actions speak louder than words, and the often wordless language of compassion is universal. That which connects us all is that which would save us all. This is the human condition. We are disconnected only by discrimination, reconnected by empathy and understanding. Humankind essentially consists of kind humans, though some might forget to be kind from time to time. 

A Moroccan father buys a rifle from a man, who received it as a gift from a Japanese hunter (played by Koji Yakusho). His sons he passes it to were supposed to use it to shoot and kill jackals endangering the family’s goats. However, one of them fires it at a bus for fun, thereby injuring an American woman, whose children back home were unwittingly put through a harrowing experience of being lost when their nanny takes them out of the country. Though worlds apart on the same planet, everyone above are protagonists in the interweaved life-turning story of their lives. Just how many degrees of separation are there between each party? Much much less than they or the audience expected. Yes, we are interdependent in the web of life.

The tagline of "Babel" is simple yet profound - "Listen". It is from the failure to listen deeply that so many interpersonal problems arise. Themes on the importance of communication thus recur in the film. The estranged American couple (played by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) were frustrated from marital strain when neither could communicate their feelings of guilt and blame to each other. In their absence, their family nanny Amelia (played by Adriana Barraza) could not communicate to them the overwhelming significance of attending her son’s wedding in Mexico, which compelled to bring the children across without asking.

The Japanese father was accused of not "listening" to her deaf-mute daughter, but she too failed to "see" he was trying his best – both suffering from loss of the central person in their lives – the wife of the first and the mother of the latter. Attempting to mindlessly drown her sorrows and loneliness in drugs, alcohol and sex, she awakens to the fact of the futility of it all, as she reconnects with her father. Ironically, while it is tragic when there are gaps in connection, it often takes a tragedy to bridge gaps.

The subject of gun control comes to mind too. The rifle, a gift of goodwill, almost becomes a cursed accessory to manslaughter. The "hunter" becomes the hunted. The boy who fired the gun is hunted down with his family by the authorities. The misunderstood become demonised, mistaken as terrorists by their own people. Is it better to demonise the suspicious? Obviously, it is "safer" for the demoniser (at least in the short term), but dangerously unfair to the wrongly demonised. Regrets loom ahead for the demonisers too.

While politics is supposed to help people, the overly-politicised harms them instead, as we see governments argue over red tape and "face" issues, while lives are at risk. Fellow Americans on the same tour bus demonise the Moroccans as dangerous, as they flee in fear and for comfort, abandoning the desperate couple in a village without medical aid. When the husband fights to retain the use of the bus, these questions came to mind - In our bid to help the ones we love, is it at the stake of altruism for others? Conversely, is altruism at the stake of those we love? Is it possible to have a win-win situation? Why not? Was the husband selfish or were the other passengers so? Do we have the courage to give priority for the bigger picture when we need to? Well, the Buddha did renounce his worldly family to seek the path to True Happiness for the greater cosmic family – of all beings!

"Babel" is about paying attention to each other’s pain and sorrow, about forgiveness and healing. It is about bridging of differences with similarities, about humans saving each other from alienation, from being stranded in existential desert of isolation. "Babel" is about how we are all lost without each other, about how much we cannot afford to lose each other. Simply too much is at stake. Let us listen.

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