Julien Temple time-travels through London

Sill from London: The Modern Babylon 2012
Sean Rowlands in Hackney 220712 © ∂å

LONDON-BORN Julien Temple was an outsider trying to understand a city on its knees in the excellent BBC Four documentary Requiem for Detroit? that he made in 2009.

This year he has collaborated with the British Film Institute on a 128-minute documentary London: Modern Babylon, named for the profusion of languages — “300 or more,” he says, “more than anywhere in one place in the history of the planet”.

Temple describes his latest work as as “a kind of time-travel piece that begins with London on film for the first time in the 1890s and takes us right through today”.

He can barely contain the sights and sounds of the city as he cuts back and forth using beautiful and unexpected snippets from our past. And he is guided most of the way by the wonderful Hackneyite Hetty Bower, born in 1905.

She remembers being scared of traffic as she crossed Dalston Junction on her walk to school. Some things hardly change, except the buses were horse-drawn then. The film flits through a century of change but Temple makes it special with clever connections between the new and old. When Bower describes the barefooted poverty of her childhood, he makes sure it doesn’t wash over as a distant memory by injecting a sharp reminder of last year’s mass looting in the capital.

Temple’s range of editing tricks links characters, protests, changing communities and wild music scenes of London without a narrator: he lets archive footage speak for itself, albeit insolently arranged, and does not ignore the despair that continues to inhabit the city.

He tries to observe everything. Each record of life has been spliced with visual gags, mixed with dynamically filmed interviews and he has even used lip-reading to retrieve conversations that had never been recorded.

The effort Temple has shown to bring the past back to life after its long archival slumber makes the documentary a heartfelt homage to a hometown. And that his camera is more likely to flutter around the Dalston Lane peace mural than, say, the Olympic Park, is refreshing.

Keeping up with the pace of this film is a welcome reminder in this eventful year of a huge sporting contest that everyday London, in its glorious disparity will always be the greater spectacle.

* The writer has worked as a researcher on an East End social history.

* London: The Modern Babylon opens at the Rio Cinema and Hackney Picturehouse on Friday 3 August 2012. Temple will take part in a question-and-answer session after the 8.15 show on Tuesday 7 August and at the Gate cinema, Notting Hill, on Wednesday 8 August at 6pm.

* The picture of Londoners, top, is not of Shoreditch hipsters but is from the film.

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