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babel, silenced

sofya gollan on deafness in inarritu’s babel

Sofya Gollan is a filmmaker and actor, whose most recent film was Preservation (2003), made for the SBSi/AFC short features initiative.

Rinko Kikuchi, Babel Rinko Kikuchi, Babel
BABEL TAKES ALEJANDRO GONZALEZ INARRITU’S FASCINATION WITH INTERWEAVING NARRATIVES TO ANOTHER LEVEL BY MAKING THE WORLD HIS PLAYING STAGE AS A SINGLE GUNSHOT AFFECTS THE LIVES OF SEVERAL PEOPLE IN THREE CONTINENTS.

In one strand of the story Cheiko (Rinko Kinkuchi) is a rebellious deaf Japanese teenager, traumatised by the recent suicide of her mother. She is bitter towards her father, Yasujiro (Koji Yakusho), and boys in general. It would appear she is sexually frustrated, engaging in provocative behaviour with a series of men. She attempts to initiate sex with her dentist who is horrified. She meets with her friends and in an abandoned playground hooks up with some young men who give them drugs. While her deaf friends are easily able to connect and make out with these young men, Cheiko finds she is rejected by the one she likes because, she assumes, she is deaf.

At home Cheiko encounters two detectives looking for her father. Finding one of them, Kenji Mamiya, attractive, she invites him home. Wrongly supposing that the detectives are investigating her father’s involvement in her mother’s suicide, she tells the detective that her father was asleep when her mother jumped off the balcony and she was the only witness.

Cheiko reveals her real motive in inviting Mamiya to her home. She approaches him naked and attempts to seduce him. He resists but is compassionate when she breaks down at this latest rejection. Cheiko writes him a note, indicating that she doesn’t want him to read it until he is gone. Leaving, the detective crosses paths with her father. When Mamiya offers condolences for the wife’s suicide, Yasujiro is confused by the mention of a ‘balcony’ and says angrily, “My wife shot herself in the head. Cheiko was the first to find the body.”

This issue of conflicting stories is never resolved. The note’s contents are never revealed. However parts are momentarily visible when the detective stops to read it in a bar. The following is an approximate translation of the Kanji script that can be seen at the edges of the pages: “...I wanted... myself...that’s why...connected...that is...although I cannot...I have to find out...message from my mother...I was not sure if I was loved by my mother...but that’s not the case...thank you.”

While the link between Babel’s first three stories is quickly established, it takes some time to work out why this fourth strand belongs at all. I wondered while watching the film if the Japanese story would have an overt link, except for the fact that the central character is deaf, and therefore takes on the symbolic representation of miscommunication and dysfunction of all the stories to the nth degree.

It’s interesting that Innaritu has said, in an interview with Todd Gilchrist, “people confuse what the girl in this story is doing with some kind of sexual addiction, but that is not the case. I think that when you can’t communicate or express feelings with words, the body then becomes your tool of expression—a weapon or an invitation. That is the tragedy of this girl” (movies.ign.com).

Inarritu’s assumption is that Cheiko can’t communicate or express feelings with words, conveniently forgetting that she is fluent in sign. She is also able to write fluently, the note suggests she has full grasp of written Japanese. Because signing is ‘silent’ and mysterious to those who don’t use it, it becomes easy to project onto deaf people a universe of pain and exclusion if they don’t speak.

Many people have said they found Cheiko’s story the most moving in the film. I would argue that has more to do with how it has been shot and the nature of the soundscape than any representation of reality. Inarritu states: “We used anamorphic lenses [in the Japanese story], because the depth of field is minimal—the character is in focus and everything else out of focus. That isolates the character.” Filmically it is an arduous process, but often produces images of great beauty. One of the most powerful sequences is in the disco where Cheiko goes with her friends and the film switches perspective—from the blast of surround sound disco music to a subterranean thump as we move into her almost silent headspace. It becomes an exotic journey for the hearing audience.

And that is what it is, an exotic representation of deafness that has been very much framed in a hearing perspective. When we first meet Cheiko she is taking part in a competitive deaf team sport, volleyball. It becomes clear very quickly she is part of this group, she socialises and has close friends however badly she is behaving. The hidden (and I would suspect, unintentional) subtext is that this woman is actually an integrated member of her society, however much she may be lashing out against the death of her mother and her difficulties in communicating with her father (who also appears to have a good grasp of sign
language).

Here, Innaritu infers that signing is a language where not very much can be said. So rather than exploring the truth behind what a character like Cheiko might offer, the disability of deafness becomes a convenient storytelling shorthand to stand as metaphor for the film as a whole. This could have been a compelling comparison, except the filmmaker chose to skim the surface of what it’s like to be a ‘sign language girl.’

“Stereotyping cultures—that’s what is spoiling the world, I think”, Inarritu has claimed. I can understand he is speaking from his experience as a Mexican, but he too is guilty, of stereotyping the deaf experience, reducing it to an experience of sound and imagery rather than paying attention to the stumbling attempts we make to communicate, and ignoring the riches of other modes such as sign language.


Babel, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, writer Guillermo Arriaga, Paramount Films, 2006

Sofya Gollan is a filmmaker and actor, whose most recent film was Preservation (2003), made for the SBSi/AFC short features initiative.

RealTime issue #78 April-May 2007 pg. 23

© Sofya Gollan; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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