Fire In Babylon, Revisited

Eye On Cricket has two less-than-kind reviews of Fire in Babylon, the documentary of the West Indies team circa 1975-1995. I gave it more than charitable praise, but I recognize its limitations — as both Samir and new blogger Satadru Sen note, it’s not exactly a “documentary” so much as a “feel-good” docu-drama. But that’s like saying the Battle of Algiers isn’t a compelling portrait of the Algerian revolution against France — sure, it’s one-sided and possibly incites violence, but the viewing experience is still little short of electrifying.

I expect my different reception arises from a generational gap (and a different expectation of genre). I just don’t know that much about the West Indies cricket, and the last time I thought they had a chance of winning anything died when Richie Richardson inadvertently hit an umpire in the head (i.e., the 1996 World Cup semi-final). Still, I’m not convinced by the other complaints:

1) Why no testimonies from opposition batsmen or ‘objective’ sources? Well, as I said in my own review, who tells history is sometimes as important as what’s said. The movie features extended performances from local musical acts, which have little to do with the game itself (other than the lyrics). The reason they were included (I assume) is the same one only West Indians talk on the film — because you rarely see West Indians talking on film exclusively! I must confess I’m also amused by Satadru’s recommended list of sources, which includes Gavaskar and Geoff Boycott (and presumably, Tony Greig). I can’t think of three cricketers I’d like to hear from less.

2) The West Indian cricketers were portrayed as the developers of black power. Not really. The athletes themselves mention the struggles going on at the time — civil rights, for e.g. — and the historians and other local sources note the political tumult in the West Indies circa 1960s. The point is that the West Indian team added to this movement in a deeply emotive fashion. Now, Satadru is correct that the movie could have explored the themes and strategies of bowling intimidation much better and truer to the historical facts. And he is also right when he says the film pushes the subject of race “too crudely” — but again, that’s more because this is a nationalistic tribute, and there aren’t that many ideologies around more crude than nationalism.

3) The film does not explore the ethics of fast bowling thoroughly. I don’t know; I think the mere sight of these balls hitting batsmen was enough evidence for the opposing point of view (at least judging from the reaction in my cinema hall). The West Indian cricketers also note the criticism and dismiss it — if they had our fast bowlers, they’d be doing the same thing, someone says. I suppose, again, I come from a different generational starting point here. For me, batsmen have come close to ruining the game. I enjoyed seeing the sheer force of a fast bowler because nowadays, the pickings are slim. But one question: is the film’s central premise — that Clive Lloyd focused on pace after the Australia defeat — wrong?

I don’t want to pick on either Satadru or Samir, because they raise good points. On the other hand, I don’t think they adequately appreciate the amount of work it took the filmmakers to contact all the West Indian players and get them to talk for an extended amount of time. Samir asks why a great cricket documentary is hard to find, and I’d suggest logistics is a big reason. Who’s going to fund a trek around the Commonwealth to track down everyone?

I’d also suggest another factor: there’s a prominent strain in the cricket world that revels in its complexity and nuance. You see this occasionally when Indian newspapers belittle (or condescendingly praise) female commentators for their knowledge of the game, as if it’s so hard to understand. Any filmmaker looks at this situation and realizes that editing is going to be an especially difficult job — on the one hand, s/he can satisfy the hardcore crowd that has actually read C.L.R. James (I confess! Never got past the introduction!), or the other general audience that thinks cricket is a species of insect. Not sure where the balance lies.

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