Q+A with ‘Fire in Babylon’ Director Stevan Riley

April 20, 2011

Words by Jesse Serwer

We’ve been looking forward for a while to Fire in Babylon, the reggae- and calypso-soundtracked documentary about the history-making West Indies cricket teams of the 1970s and ’80s that’s been making the festival rounds abroad. Starting this week, British director Stevan Riley’s movie will make its US debut with four screenings at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, before fanning out to theaters across the UK next month, and we hear it may soon be coming to U.S. theaters and TV as well (Read below for more on that). LargeUp caught up with London–based Riley just after his return from the film’s Jamaican launch in Kingston earlier this month for a chat about Caribbean film audiences, cricket-inspired calypsonians, the bone-shattering, female-exciting power of six-ounce cork balls bowled at 100 miles an hour, and the symbolic depth of the West Indian team’s 20-year-long dominance of the “the gentleman’s game.”

LargeUp: What was the response to the movie in Kingston?
Stevan Riley:
There was a great reception to the film. It was a memorable trip. Edward Seaga came out and quite a few ministers from CARICOM, and a lot of the cricket players. You’re always a bit nervous before you show your work, but I was looking forward to showing it to the West Indian audience the most because, obviously it’s their story, but it’s always a great crowd. If they like it, they are pretty vocal. People aren’t reserved like in England. They’ll shout and heckle at the screen like it’s in their living room. I was looking forward to that. One of the things I’ve come to learn about the West Indies is that there’s no real separation between audience and hero, whether on the stage or on the sporting field. So the West Indian crowd would have no second thought about running onto the pitch and lifting [Antiguan cricket star and Fire in Babylon hero] Vivian Richards into the air. You can touch your heroes. It’s a very tactile thing going on there. I was chatting to Bunny Wailer about it and he said the same thing. Bob Marley understood that people want to come up and touch him.

Q: What made you decide to do a movie on the West Indies cricket teams?
A: The idea was kind of in the pipeline with the producers but it wasn’t really formed. I heard it might happening and said I want to go away and research it. The West Indians got me into cricket. I’m a big sports fan but I never really started following cricket until the West Indies turned up. Part of it was you really didn’t know what was going to happen with each match. More often than not, you’d be expecting someone to get potentially hurt. Because the West Indians were bowling at 100 miles an hour. On a regular team, you’d have a mix of bowlers. But the West Indians broke that whole rule by having four fast bowlers. And when that was the case, the batter would get no respite. You couldn’t take a breather. The [other side would] get very often peppered with dangerous balls. It really became a dangerous sport. That was exciting to watch. The confusion was that they weren’t skilled at the same time. Having fast bowlers wasn’t going to make you world beaters for 15, 20 years. These guys were also very skilled and highly different in what they brought to the table. As well, they could bowl 100 miles an hour.

Q: I have to admit I am not very well versed in cricket lore. Can you talk a little bit about the impact they had on the sport?
: The West Indian team, even if you’re going to ignore the backdrop of the civil rights movement or post-Colonialism and racism and all these other things that were in the air in the 60s, 70s and 80s, this is the most successful team in the history of sport. There has been no other [national] team that has not lost a match in 15 years. Aside from one loss in 1979 that was really dubious—the umpiring was really questionable—they wouldn’t have lost for 20 years and that’s extraordinary. And it’s not a game that leaves nothing to chance. You’ve got to work hard to stay at the top and that’s what the West Indians did. And the fact they maintained that top spot for so long is arguably their biggest credit. You had essentially a third-world country with a small population, which was really many different even smaller countries, ruling the world in a very tough sport for two decades.

Q: Did you personally witness their matches during that run?
A: The match at the very end of the film, which I finished things on, in 1984, was the first that engaged me as a kid. I was nine and I remember watching it because it was quite eventful. The West Indies just destroyed England 5-0, with a real combination of lethal bowling. It was difficult to watch. You kind of said, “Ouch.” In cricket, you can intentionally aim for the batsman’s body. The umpires could step in but they were allowed to bowl balls at the ribcage, the throat and the head and this is a really hard ball. It’s a lot heavier than a baseball. The West Indies teams put 50-odd batsmen in hospital with double breaks to the jawbone, fractures to the cheekbone. Especially before helmets came in. It was a real test for the batsmen. When you saw batsmen taking on that bowling, and the bowling is incredible to watch, so the batting becomes sort of heroic as well, you got a real kind of spectacle. I remember getting that at an early age, and being glued to the set. You’d end up closing the curtains and living in the dark for 25 days when the matches were on.

Q: The movie makes connections between the rise of reggae and Rastafarianism and the successes of the West Indian teams, in so much as they all were assertions of independence against colonial oppressors. Were you aware of those connections before you began work?
: Well, you know the West Indies for some of its major exports-reggae, dub, calypso… and cricket. And you wonder what the overlaps are. What interested me, and what a lot of people in cricket circles didn’t know, is how many Rastafarians were close to the inner circle of that team. Viv Richards, who’s one of the heroes of the film, his mentor and very good friend to this day is a proper, religious Rasta with dreadlocks. Chatting with Bunny Wailer, the full extent of Viv Richards’ and Bob Marley’s relationship came to light. Bob Marley gave Viv Richards his Rastafarian armband to wear on the pitch. In cricket circles, they didn’t like that. They want you to wear their white uniform. Viv going out onto the pitch wearing a red, gold and green armband was a real political and spiritual statement. It was really allying with the Rasta ideal, which was against Babylon, against prejudice and systems of oppression wherever they were.

Q: Did the cricket team spur your interest in other things West Indian? As a white, English observer watching the team, did that make you more interested in Caribbean culture?
: I studied history at university and, for me, it was exciting with one film to actually deal with so many issues or discussions—all of the debates from the ‘70s and ‘80s be it Apartheid in South Africa, Caribbean immigration and race riots in England, class division in the West Indies, the Civil Rights movement in America, indigenous and racial issues in Australia. The movie covers a lot of ground. And the West Indies touring team, when they were off playing in all these countries, came into contact with all these issues and became beacons and a source of hope and inspiration for a lot of disaffected people suffering under these systems worldwide. It was interesting to delve into that. It was a very rich, deep story that covered a lot of ground, a lot of history. It was a redemptive story and a genuine triumph of the underdog overcoming 500 years of Colonial history and slavery and actually achieving emancipation through cricket.

Q: Obviously it created a great deal of pride but did their success make the sport more popular?
They were great for ratings. They won a lot of converts to the game. You had these guys who were athletic and had this cold swagger about them. Women were all over them—they got themselves a good army of female fans. As well, with the injuries they caused, they got a lot of press. People were curious, wanting to see what’s this lethal force in this genteel game of cricket. Because that’s the stereotype of cricket—it’s this gentleman’s game. But all of the sudden, it became one of the most dangerous sports out there. Cricket is sort of this rarefied game of the elite so it was quite nice and fun to surround the game with a reggae soundtrack and put a lively, youthful cut on the film.

Q: One of the unusual things about the West Indies cricket team, as far as international sports competition, is that they were from many different countries. It must have been tricky to track all of these players down, since they’re spread between ten different islands…
Thankfully the main guys were around four territories and in England, so all the interviews I did were either in the UK or else Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua and Trinidad. It was tricky pinning them down in that five week trip. I was exhausted when we left. I didn’t really pick up a tan, which should explain how busy we were.

Q: You interviewed Bunny Wailer for the movie, and music is a big part of the whole packaging…
: When I was researching the music I found a lot of musicians had sung or recorded tributes to the team. I thought it would be nice to track down some of these artists and film them on location. Because that says a lot. It tells you how much these players were venerated within their own communities that your local musicians would sing eulogies to you. And also that crossover we talked about between music and the sport— both were part of this same movement towards asserting the rights, ambitions and the pride of the West Indies. So I spoke to Sean Paul, though he’s more from the modern era, and filmed a great artist called Tapper Zukie in Jamaica, who did a fantastic song called “Dem Bowl.”

Q: Sure, Tapper Zukie. Never heard of that tune, though.
It’s a great tune. There was a mento band in Kingston that did a version of the Lord Kitchener song “Cricket Lovely Cricket,” an old calypso, a young artist who was really into his cricket who sang me his own rap in the street and an amazing performance by [King] Short Shirt, a calysponian from Antigua who sings an ode to Viv Richards, which is always a bit of a crowd pleaser at the screenings.

Q: You told me ESPN has picked up the film. Is it going to be on TV?
A: It’s definitely coming out on DVD. It only recently got picked up so I can’t tell you the exact plans but it’s a possible theatrical release in the States. We only found that out in the last week or so. [The ESPN/Tribeca Sports Film Series] has this distribution wing, so some of the documentaries that screen in their festival they pick up as well. In the UK, they are going for quite a big release—20 screens to start, and they’re doing a sort of one-off, 100-screen event on one night with a Q&A. And I know it’s in cinemas in Australia and the West Indies. Digicel are doing screenings around a cricket tour that’s going on. Pakistan are visiting the West Indies, and their doing screenings as the tour moves between the islands.