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A random gun accident caused by two Moroccan boys sets the lives of four separate groups of strangers on three different continents on a collision course. Caught up in the rising tide are a vacationing American couple (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett), a rebellious deaf Japanese teenager and her father, and a Mexican nanny taking two American children across the border. These people all remain isolated due to their own inability to communicate meaningfully with anyone around them. The concluding chapter in director Alejandro González Iñárritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga's trilogy that includes Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Co-starring Gael García Bernal and Kôji Yakusho.
 

 The Similarity of Differences

Babel is the final film of my trilogy, which was preceded by Amores Perros and 21 Grams. They comprise a triptych of stories that explore locally, and on a global level, the profound and complex relations between parents and children. The idea of making Babel came to me out of a certain need that can stem only from exile and the awareness of being an immigrant. When one comes from the Third World, it is difficult to live in a First World country. Nevertheless, one’s vision is broadened and takes on a new perspective. Without that experience, I would never have had the urge to purge myself and conceive this idea. Now it is more common for me to ask myself, “Where am I going?” rather than, “Where do I come from?”

I began shooting Babel under the firm conviction that I would make a picture about the differences between human beings and their inability to communicate, not only because of language but because of physical, political and emotional frontiers. I was going to do it from a complex and universal standpoint until the more intimate plane of two people could be reached.

From the outset, the crew was made up of Mexicans, North Americans, French, Italians, Brits, Arabs, Berbers, Germans and, at the end, Japanese. I had a feeling that, alongside the film’s central theme and despite all the technology that has been developed to improve communication between human beings, the reality turns out to be very different. The problem is not with the countless new tools used to communicate but that nobody listens. When there is nothing to listen to, there’s nothing to understand; if we remove understanding, our language is useless and ends up dividing us. To work in five different unfamiliar languages with well-known actors and also non-actors—the majority, as in the case of the poor Moroccan communities, never having seen a camera—called for my unwavering task of assimilation and observation.

Directing actors is difficult. Directing actors in a language other than your own is much more difficult. Now, directing non-actors in a language you don’t understand is the greatest challenge a director can have. Seventeen days before shooting started in Morocco, I didn’t have a single actor besides Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett.

For the role of the children, Yussef and Ahmed, and their family of shepherds, as well as for all the characters throughout the story of Richard and Susan, I decided to look within all of the small towns in the south of the Sahara. Over noisy loudspeakers, we announced that we needed people. It was really challenging but the rewards were the highest that any artist or director could receive: a real and pure human soul. I will do it again whenever I can.

Like gypsies in a huge traveling circus, my quasi-family—that is to say, my friends and longstanding co-workers, without whom realizing this task would have been unthinkable—and my actual family traveled for almost a year on three continents.

As the weeks, months, faces, geographies and seasons passed together with multiple culture shocks, the physical and psychological impact of the trip had the effect of transforming me and the rest who made the film. During the course of the journey, there were deaths, births, instances of intense joy and pain, and many demonstrations of brotherhood and solidarity. Being exposed and sensing humanity in such depth not only transformed us but the picture itself as well. I had to rewrite and adjust the script and the story according to the circumstances and cultures I was confronting. The cultural orgy in which we participated caused the creative process to shape itself to the point of taking a form contrary to its original objective, and confirming that, when all is said and done, a film is nothing more than the extension of one’s self.

In a considerable part of the planet, borders and airports have become a carnival of distrust and degradation, where freedom is exchanged for security, X-rays are the weapon and otherness the crime. In spite of this, by filming Babel I confirmed that real borderlines are within ourselves and more than a physical space, barriers are in the world of ideas. I realized that what makes us happy as human beings could differ greatly, but what makes us miserable and vulnerable beyond our culture, race, language or financial standing is the same for all. I discovered that the great human tragedy boils down to the inability to love or be loved and the incapacity to touch with or be touched by this sentiment, which is what gives meaning to the life and death of every human being. Accordingly, Babel was transformed into a picture about what joins us, not what separates us. For me, this filming was converted not only into an external journey but an internal one, and like all works that come out of one’s guts, this picture—like its two predecessors—gives testimony to my life experience, with my virtues and many limitations.