Violent culture clash in ’Babylon’

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As the borough pauses to reflect on the 10th anniversary of the Crown Heights riots, filmmaker Marc Levin is giving Brooklyn even more to talk about.

His new film, "Brooklyn Babylon," is the story of an interracial love affair between a Rastafarian rapper named Sol (Tariq Trotter) and a Hasidic Jewish woman named Sara (Sara Goberman) which unfolds in Crown Heights, Coney Island and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

After their accidental meeting (in a car crash), they continue to bump into one another, and find they are drawn to each other - despite their vastly different cultures.

Both Sol and Sara must defend themselves from their own communities’ increasingly violent retaliations. One of the most gripping displays of hatred in the film is when Sara’s ex-boyfriend Judas (David Vadim) discovers she has taken Sol as a lover and beats her openly in the Botanic Garden.

The music-driven story, according to Levin ("Slam," "Whiteboys"), is loosely based on the Old Testament’s "Song of Songs," but the story, which he co-wrote and directed, was also inspired by the anguish that erupted in his own family when his sister became involved with a black man.

Levin, 50, said his sister lived with a Jamaican Rastafarian, much to the chagrin of his family.

"My parents were very progressive, involved in the labor movement, but even in my family, I saw the pain - in my grandfather especially - as he tried to make sense of my sister’s life choice and what it meant," he said. "How to deal with a grandson who was black? That comes close to home."

Levin began shooting "Brooklyn Babylon" in September 1999, eight years after the three days of rioting between blacks and Hasidic Jews erupted in Crown Heights had left two dead.

Levin, now a Manhattan resident, called filming in the neighborhoods where his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents lived, "kind of going home." But that doesn’t mean it was easy.

While shooting the car crash scene, at Eastern Parkway and Kingston Avenue, near the world Lubavitch headquarters, Levin found his nerves had begun to fray.

"From 1 am to 5 am, a crowd developed around the car crash, with the stars [a carload of young blacks and a carload of young Jews] yelling at each other [in the intersection]. I thought, ’This is madness. Why not move this four blocks away?’

"Young Lubavitch kids from Russia and Israel congregated. But a few of them had read Vibe magazine and knew [actor] Bonz [Malone] from his column and started asking him for his autograph.

"It was such an amazing scene," Levin said of the culture barriers he saw eroding. "They were Lubavitch but they knew about pop culture and hip-hop. It could have gone ugly, because we were so exposed. The actors were all brave - we didn’t have big trailers where the stars could hide, and we didn’t have a lot of security. It could have gone bad."

Levin believes that it didn’t "go bad" because of the earnest themes in the movie - peace and love.

"That authenticity is read by young Jewish kids and young African-American kids - you’re not coming in ripping off everyone. Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the movie are, the ideas and passion in the film will touch some people. To others it may be laughable or irrelevant."

"Brooklyn Babylon" made headlines when it opened this year’s Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, but the distributor, Artisan, according to Levin, "thought it was too soft, and [they believe] you can’t sell love to the hip-hop generation."

Levin said he opted not to "deliver the gang-war bloodbath that Artisan would be happy with." Subsequently, Artisan did not distribute the film.

According to Levin, Artisan was going to sue him to prevent the film from being shown at Slamdance - until The Roots turned up to support him. (The film’s score includes music by the Grammy Award-winning band, The Roots, of which Trotter, under the moniker Blackthought, is a member.)

"When [Artisan] saw it had a good reaction, they backed off."

An exclusive, one-week run of "Brooklyn Babylon," August 17-23, at BAM is a rare opportunity to see the film.

"What BAM is doing is tremendous. I’m touched by it," said Levin. "This month is the 10th anniversary of the riot in Crown Heights - which was a great tragedy in Brooklyn and a low point in the relationship between blacks and Jews. I hope this film will be a catalyst for people to start mixing up ideas."


"Brooklyn Babylon" will be shown at the BAM Rose Cinemas (30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place) Aug. 17-23. A Q&A with director Marc Levin and actor Tariq Trotter will follow the 6:30 pm screening on Aug. 22. Tickets are $9; $6 students and seniors. For more information, call (718) 636-4100.

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