Julien Temple’s compelling documentary about a great modern city sifts back through more than a century of memories, opinions and impressions to construct a kinetic, kaleidoscopic reconstructive collage. From the earliest footage available of life in the once startlingly sparse metropolis, Temple begins to layer his film like a painting, but one approached systematically even as it dips freeform between countless cinema clips that illustrate parallel social ills or artfully emphasise points made by contributors. Very few of these are of the ‘talking head’ variety – a welcome approach that allows for an impressionistic flow to relay the overlapping of eras. Others are poetic narrations of poems and other sources as read by a multitude of well-known actors such as Michael Gambon, Bill Nighy and Andy Serkis. Each one evokes a poetic reverie that conveys the presence of haunted voices of yesteryear, lingering like ghosts of so many silently passing generations.
The phases of life and winds of change are vividly captured as London dealt with the brutal reality of war and its devastating aftermath. In later decades, beginning in the 40’s, an influx of ‘outsiders’ saw a revelatory shift in attitudes as a majority Anglo population faced co-habitation with people of differing creeds. Through snippets layered into the general mix of passing years, Temple’s film brilliantly elucidates the open hostility, suspicion and resentment of locals as West Indians, Indian and Irish immigrants began to grow in number, making life especially tough for those in the poorest sectors of the city. This integration however would ultimately help in solidifying the diverse foundation on which modern day London thrives in terms of its international reputation. But of course attendant racial tensions, still flaring with equal fervour today, are as deeply seated as anything else innately human, proving that, in some respects, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Though looser in its definition of the documentary form – and all the better for it – London: The Modern Babylon (2012) offers captivating insights, and not just into the flowering of a single, sprawling entity. This is also about the transformation of life in general as man’s endeavours commit himself to rapid rates of progress and change whilst remaining resolutely indebted and encumbered by the deeds, sins and transgressions of a not always attractive past.