The babel jungle

Walt Disney was a firm believer in utopias.  In all of his animated movies he strived to create lands that were full of harmony, acceptance and love.  One classic example is The Jungle Book (1967), a movie about a boy who is raised by wolves.  Both he and all the animals can talk to one another and more or less get along.  But what’s more significant than the utopian plots of Disney movies is their attempt at reaching global audiences.  Among many other movies, The Jungle Book was translated into twenty-four languages and distributed across the world. 

Thirty-five years after this movie was released, Pierre Bismuth (a French contemporary artist) decided to investigate Disney’s so-called ‘universality’ further.  Bismuth examined every translation of The Jungle Book and decided which character would best fit with each language.  For example, he decided that the patrolling elephants would speak German.  Except for the elephant general’s wife who would speak French, alluding to when France and Germany worked together in WWII.  He also purposely put Latin languages next to Semite languages in reference to issues in Palestine. 
In this video-installation for Manifesta 4 entitled The Jungle Book Project (2002, video on plasma screen), Bismuth transformed this childhood tale into a tower of Babel.  When God made everyone speak a different language, they could no longer understand one another enough to finish building their tower to heaven.  And when Bismuth made each of the nineteen characters speak nineteen different languages, he achieved a similar effect.  Nobody can understand one another within the movie, nor can those watching.  Both the viewer and the characters in the movie become isolated by which languages they speak.  “By mixing the languages in only one film,” says Bismuth in an interview, “you transform something that should be understandable by each of us into something that is incomprehensible to everybody.” 
Bismuth is pointing out that although we live in a globalized world, we are far from being in a utopia.  Movie companies like Disney may try and push their ideals onto other countries, but we are still divided and isolated by our languages and cultures. 
Kathryn Schmidt