Based on Babel’s tagline, “If you want to be understood, listen,” and director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s statements, the film is about human miscommunication and personal human conflicts. However, its treatment of characters and events on a global scale reveal its entrenchment in political and economic issues.
Shots throughout Babel emphasize reconciliation following human suffering. This still of Richard and Susan Jones holding hands right before she is accidentally shot indicates the potential of their relationship.
This still toward the end of the film shows the Japanese father and daughter coming to a non-verbal understanding by holding hands. Notice that both of these images of mutual understanding and physical support involve upper class characters.
Despite the previous images of tender support, a gun is the impetus for the film's action. In the first scene the gun is exchanged between a Moroccan hunting guide and a goatherd. While the camera seems to be introducing us to human characters by shifting focus during the exchange, the significance of the gun’s role is also emphasized. Though it is in the periphery in the shots, the gun's persistent visibility in this sequence indicates its centrality to the events the film portrays. The camera shows the viewer various members of the Moroccan family, but over the course of the film we find out as much about the gun’s history as the family’s, perhaps more.
The gun, which was previously owned by a Japanese man, traversed geopolitical borders without trouble. When individuals cross national borders without official permission, the film shows the consequences to be devastating. Indicative of this, even though there is an agreement between the United States and Mexico to facilitate exchange, the actual border is shown to be congested and not welcoming to humans. We see this in the shots accompanying Amelia’s trip to her son’s wedding south of the U.S.-Mexico border. The border patrol is ever-present and there are signs warning against crossing illegally. The film presents these images through the eyes of two young U.S. children entering Mexico for the first time with their Mexican nanny, making the conditions of the border seem exotic and dangerous.
In fact, in response to young Mike’s observation that his mom always tells him that Mexico is really dangerous, Santiago, Amelia’s nephew, tells him sarcastically that it’s dangerous because it’s full of Mexicans. Behind the sarcasm is the reality that the United States and Mexico are inextricably linked. Among other connections, so many commodities purchased by U.S. consumers originate in Mexico.
Matching photographs prove the connection between the Moroccan hunting guide and the Japanese businessman. It also indicates that the gun was not sold (or stolen) on the black market by the Moroccan goatherds accused of being terrorists.
The film shows the Japanese man’s copy when a police officer respectfully visits his apartment.
In contrast, the Moroccan man is only given the opportunity to show the police his copy of the photo after he has been accused of being a terrorist, threatened, and beaten up.
Amelia and Santiago attempt to cross back into the United States after Amelia’s son’s wedding with Mike and Debbie (the kids Amelia babysits) asleep in the back of the car. The border officials treat them as suspects, searching the car and making them nervous.
Santiago, Amelia’s nephew, becomes increasingly agitated in this scene. Here, as Amelia searches her bag for a note from Mike and Debbie’s parents to prove her relationship to them and show their permission to take the kids out of the country, the camera focuses on Santiago to encourage the audience to pay attention to his agitated state.
When the border officers shine the flashlight in Santiago’s face, he becomes even more perturbed by the way he is treated. The light overwhelms him because it is unnaturally harsh, like the treatment he receives from the border officers.
Once the border officer dealing with Santiago starts giving him further instructions, Santiago feels he is being yelled at. He rashly decides to drive through the barricades and escape the border officials’ treatment.
According to director Alejandro González Iñárritu, his 2006 film Babel
Elsewhere, González Iñárritu emphasizes that what he
Though González Iñárritu acknowledges the film uses contemporaneous sociopolitical issues as a backdrop, he repeatedly stresses that the humanistic aspects of Babel are primary. [open endnotes in new window] While the personal human conflicts of the film may be at the center of the message the filmmaker was trying to communicate, the film’s narrative development reveals its attitude toward and placement in the current globally-interconnected landscape.
The film melodramatically depicts characters in geographically diverse locations who struggle to communicate with one another and their respective environments. The interconnected storylines are put together like puzzle pieces that are not aligned chronologically or geographically, but the gist of the story is as follows: A well-off U.S. couple, Robert and Susan (played by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett), leave their children in San Diego with their Mexican nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), while they vacation in Morocco. While touring the country by bus, Susan is hit in the shoulder by a rifle shot. The shot was fired by a young Moroccan, Yussef (non-professional actor, Boubker Ait El Caid), whose father purchased the rifle from another Moroccan who received the rifle as a gift from a wealthy Japanese man (Kôji Yakusho) for being his hunting guide. As a result, police are sent to the Japanese man’s house to investigate whether the rifle was stolen. The police have a hard time getting in touch with the Japanese man, but they do interact with his attention-deprived deaf-mute daughter, Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), who assumes they are investigating the recent suicide of her mother. Through her contact with the police, she is unwittingly pulled into the international crisis of which she would otherwise have been completely oblivious. As the film unfolds, the audience gradually becomes aware of how the various segments are linked, but throughout, the diverse characters suffer because of their global interactions.
While González Iñárritu emphasizes the personal aspects of the film, its interconnecting storylines reflect its participation in recent trends in world cinema. For example, it fits into David Bordwell’s category “network narratives,” which has broad implications for the film’s depiction of its contemporaneous global circumstances. For Bordwell, the
Several other film critics have characterized this trend similarly:
Similar films include Crash (2004), Nine Lives (2005), Traffic (2000), and even the first two films in González Iñárritu’s loose trilogy: Amores perros (2000) and 21 Grams (2003). While the narratives hold audience interest well, they also portray the effects of globalization; as New York Times film critic A. O. Scott suggests, they tell
Thus, Babel’s narrative structure has the potential to illustrate global processes, even if through a humanistic lens.
Babel’s affective force may come from the commonalities of human suffering, but the logistics and causes of the struggles depicted in the film reveal its response to globalization policies and trends. In an article on Babel, Deborah Shaw suggests the characters, who are mostly stereotypical,
Shaw quotes González Iñárritu to corroborate her articulation of the importance of common suffering in Babel; the director asserts that the causes for sadness are common across borders and socioeconomic divisions. However,
Thus, the universal human experiences emphasized by the film rest on commercial principles that create divisions between audiences and the diverse characters the film introduces to them. Furthermore, the very socioeconomic realities the universal suffering purportedly negates are the logistical links among the characters. Those pragmatic connections reveal the realities of contemporaneous global processes, which not only make the series of events depicted plausible, but also influence the film’s relationship to the concept of world cinema and its complicated production details.
The vocabulary González Iñárritu and his collaborating screenwriter, Guillermo Arriaga, use to tell the interconnected stories shows their concern with the way commodities and individuals are treated differently by specific processes that impel globalization. In particular, the film’s logic comments on the prevalent influence of neoliberal free trade agreements and post-9/11 anxiety about terrorism and immigration. While melodrama pulls the audience in and the characters universally suffer, the geographically disparate storylines are connected by individual characters’ international travel (though they travel for different reasons) and the exchanges of a rifle. The way these mobile entities — the gun and individuals — are treated in the plot, by the camera, and by other characters, reveals a logic that favors the gun’s movement but also implies that global interaction has disastrous consequences for the poor, marginalized characters. The stories’ connections demonstrate how free trade policy and post-9/11 anti-immigration sentiment as exacerbated by the war on terror has shaped the way cultures, commodities, and individuals are treated differently from one another even though they are more interconnected and have more contact with and influence on one another than ever before.
Babel exemplifies some of the major conflicts encountered with globalization — alongside the possibilities facilitated by increased worldwide interconnectivity. It also illustrates the unevenness of the distribution of these global opportunities. The gun serves as the logistical connection between the U.S. tourists in Morocco, the Moroccan family, and the Japanese father and daughter. Each character’s relation to the gun has negative consequences, but by the end of the film, the poorer characters suffer the most because of it. As Bordwell puts it,
Indeed, the prosperous people suffer, the others take the blame, and one news reporter announces at the end of the film, the “Americans, once again, have their happy ending.” This ending re-affirms the privileged position of the U.S. citizens. Bordwell’s focus on the gun reveals that as the link between the characters, it represents economic and violent power. Accordingly, the film suggests that when in the possession of power, the underprivileged will use it irresponsibly with violent consequences for the global order.
That the film privileges the U.S. citizens and the upper class characters in general may be a reflection of how the world really works, but they also indicate the film’s conservative political attitude (see Tierney). Nevertheless, Babel confronts issues of national labels and their destructiveness, especially with the propensity for movement across national borders in the global era. The fact that it depicts crises that occur when people and commodities cross borders and their national labels determine their interactions indicates the negative potential of such labeling. This is true for the rifle, a symbolic commodity, as well as the individuals who are labeled by their citizenship in the media and legal assessments of their cross-border connections.
Though the film is driven by affect, the differences among the way commodities and individuals are treated according to their national label and contact with territory other than their own have implications for the film’s situation in the global market as both a commodity and symbolic representative of culture. In the course of this essay, I argue that the differences between the way the gun is treated as a commodity and the way the women are victimized in association with their national labels are analogues of Babel’s complicated production details and classification in world, Mexican, or Hollywood cinema.
To explain the way the film’s interconnecting narratives represent its own situation, I first discuss the implications of the way culture and commodities are treated differently in the global era and, second, how this is exemplified by the film’s depiction of the respective trajectories of the gun and individuals — mostly victimized females — who are framed nationally by the global crisis. Then I show that the film cannot be solely categorized as a cultural representative or commodity even though national frames are placed upon it in a way that parallels what happens to the female victims of the film’s plot. This is dramatized through the symbolically disjunctive segues between the varying film segments.
In the concluding section, we see that even though there is an impulse, even in the globally interconnected world, to determine national provenance, the film warns against asking whether it is Mexican because of the hypocrisy it reveals. The film participates in a global cinema through the range of the film’s storylines in Morocco, along the U.S.-Mexico border, and in Japan. Though I expand on this later, the film’s relation to a singular national label is further complicated by its Mexican creative staff, its U.S. Hollywood funding, and its regional actors from each location. Moreover, the film was successfully distributed worldwide; it made more money outside the United States than in (it made more than $34 million domestically and more than $100 million abroad). While these global markers are not abnormal for Hollywood-funded projects, many scholars still focus on the national provenance of the director and creative staff for indications of the national characteristics of the film. Babel comments on the effects of national labeling and media influence in the pragmatic interconnections between the characters and the way those links are depicted to the audience.
Culture and commodities in the global era
Despite the filmmaker’s insistence on the humanist focus of the film, Babel illustrates conditions for cross-border contact that are particular to the film’s historical moment and its situation among many nations. It takes up the anxiety generated in the United States by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the “war on terror,” both of which have been accompanied by an anti-immigration fervor and the propensity to falsely fear all Arabs as terrorists. Addressing the question of the film’s national provenance and its ability to point out the hypocritical, uneven treatment of entities from different nations in the global era, Shaw points out that these are global concerns focalized through a U.S. perspective, which further privileges the United States and its citizens in the film’s schema (15). Shaw argues that the film’s implicit U.S. perspective compromises its participation in the utopian “world village” that it intended to portray. Moreover, the consequences for characters, like the Mexican ones, who have distinct roles in the U.S. imaginary, paradoxically contradict the lived experiences of the creative staff from Mexico. Specifically, in addition to its critique of post-9/11 fearmongering, the film’s depiction of a Mexican working illegally in the United States as a nanny for upper-class children is specific to U.S.-Mexican relations. Even though economic exchange between the United States and Mexico has amplified in recent decades, specifically with the 1994 implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), U.S. policies and sentiment continue to disdain the Mexican presence in the United States. NAFTA reasserts the long-standing relations among Mexico, the United States, and Canada, but in many regards it reinforces the power differential between Mexico and its northern neighbors, especially because of the way U.S. capital is welcome in Mexico but Mexican citizens are still rejected from U.S. territory. The contrast between the derision of human movement and the acceptance of a commodity’s movement typifies the inequalities perpetuated by free trade agreements — and is also dramatized significantly in Babel.
With the implementation of NAFTA, commodities, as representatives of capital, are treated very differently from individuals. This is common to neoliberal trade policy, but because of the deep cultural connections between the United States and Mexico the distinction has far-reaching repercussions. This is further complicated for products, like films, that are both cultural representatives and commodities. In fact, in order to try to keep products of the cultural industries from the competition of the free market, Canada insisted on a cultural exemption in NAFTA that allows Canada to take protectionist measures to support its cultural industries. Though the exemption has become more symbolic than effective because of other NAFTA provisions and Canada’s accession into other free trade agreements that do not have similar cultural protections, the fact that the negotiations focused on such measures indicates the perceived significance of the combination of culture and free market principles (see Goodenough and Beale, for examples).
As culture industries commodities have received attention in free trade negotiations, scholars have commented on how media and culture have been characterized traditionally. Toby Miller, co-author of Global Hollywood, asserts,
For one example, Miller cites an article by Joseph Nye, a political scientist at Harvard, in which media influence, including film and cultural influence, is characterized as feminine and delicate, but also attractive and persuasive—in contrast to the macho “hard power” of military and economic policies that are more direct and forceful (see Nye 545). Nye acknowledges that the two types of power must be used together to benefit the purposes of the U.S. state. In the inclusion of the cultural industries in neoliberal trade agreements, soft and hard power have combined with significant consequences. While the culture industries used to be thought of as in need of essential protection, now the U.S. position is that “entertainment should be treated as a business,” because it is: it is hugely successful and brings in huge amounts of money for U.S. companies (García Canclini, Consumers and Citizens 98). Though the transition to include culture industries in agreements like NAFTA shows an acknowledgement that the audiovisual industries are huge business powers, it does not calm others’ concerns about the potentially deleterious effects of having Hollywood films dominate screens around the world. The clear motivator is the desire to capitalize on commodities, a justification strongly supported by neoliberal ideology. Consequently, the policy makers disregard the cultural effects. Because media influence is still thought of as “soft power,” the policy makers do not acknowledge the destructive effects of framing bodies as national and gendered according to how they are categorized and dealt with through the “macho” power of political and economic influence.
The different treatment of representatives of culture and commodities collides in Babel, particularly in the contradictions between the mobility of the gun and the so-labeled illegal migration of Amelia, the Mexican nanny. Though the gun moves unhindered across borders, when it changes ownership and then is used irresponsibly, the national classifications placed on it are reviewed to determine the legality of its being owned and traded by Moroccans. By presuming the gun’s exchange between the Japanese man and the Moroccans was illegal, the government officials working behind the scenes in the storylines of Babel reveal prejudices against the underprivileged. In the end, officials determine that the gun moved legally across borders, but the fact that the international police force became so involved shows the concern for national origins of products under globalizing policies.
Similarly, under NAFTA, goods can move freely across borders when their national origin is determined to be one of the North American signatory countries. As set out in the NAFTA document, their national origin is determined by complicated formulae that take into consideration the origins and value of materials from around the world, as well as the location of transformative production. As in Babel, the commodity has to be authorized to confirm the legitimacy of its movement. Because the gun was exchanged between individuals, instead of between a recognized seller and a customer, its exchange was not trusted and had to be tracked, engaging individuals from around the globe in the crisis.
As we see with the gun, even though free trade policies have a hierarchical logic determining which products can be sold in which nations, inanimate commodities cross borders freely. Here, the literal danger represented by the gun marks the irony of the preferential treatment commodities are given. People do not enjoy that same mobility, despite the frequent necessity of their movement. In Babel, people move and interact globally, but only upper class individuals are able to cross borders without disastrous end results.
The results of unauthorized human movement are seen most drastically when Amelia takes Robert and Susan’s children across the U.S.-Mexican border. Amelia’s son’s wedding was scheduled to take place shortly after Robert and Susan would return from their trip to Morocco. Because of the delay in Robert and Susan’s return home and their inability to find another caretaker for the children, Amelia decides to take the children she cares for to the wedding. On the way back to San Diego, border officers question Amelia about the two white children asleep in the back of the car and ask for notes from the children’s parents giving permission for Amelia to take them out of the United States, paperwork Amelia does not have. The car’s driver, Amelia’s nephew, gets nervous and drives through the barricades into the darkness of the desert. He tells Amelia and the kids to get out of the car, thinking it will be better if they find their way to safety on their own, but the natural elements and lack of direction overwhelm the three.
Upon finding Amelia, who left the children to search for help on her own, U.S. border officials only pay attention to her legal status in relation to the two nations. She did not have the official paperwork to allow her to live and work in the United States, so she is reduced to the body that was ill-equipped to deal with the border space; she becomes nothing more than an “illegal alien.” Though she had been characterized throughout the film as a benevolent caretaker, once she is labeled an illegal alien, the camera follows the lead of the border officials and only focuses on her overexposed body—she is not even allowed to see the children before she is deported. Once she is labeled according to her nationality and her illegality, Amelia’s natural qualities do not influence how she is treated. Instead, the suffering she experiences on the geographic border translates into strife in relation to the political border between the United States and Mexico.
The gun clearly poses more danger to the U.S. citizens than Amelia’s movement across the territorial border with Mexico. Nevertheless, she is punished and her life is turned upside down while the rifle’s consequences are blamed on the underprivileged who made a mistake, not the original owner of the gun. Amelia’s illegal movement contrasts the U.S. couple’s and the Japanese man’s tourist trips, but the relatively positive endings they enjoy also contrasts with the concluding punishment suffered by the lower class characters. The gun’s movement labeled as legal—despite its destructive power — illustrates the irony of the xenophobia that punishes Amelia for her cross-border actions, originally motivated by care and concern for her and her charges’ well-being. As analogues for the hard and soft power employed in international affairs, the differences between the gun and Amelia’s cross-border interactions in Babel raise questions about the film’s own role in articulating international connections.
As metonymic representatives of the effect of globalization on entities, Amelia and the gun exemplify conflicting perspectives on what film represents — as discussed above, films are understood as either commodities or representatives of culture. If we are to believe this dichotomy, then the film is either merely a commodity, like the gun, or it is solely a cultural representative that naturally crosses national borders, like Amelia. Of course, neither classification can be totally isolated, but Babel depicts the disastrous potential of the uneven treatment of commodities, culture, and individuals with its distinct treatment of the links generated respectively between other film elements and the gun and Amelia.