Documentary is affecting portrait of people, their memories, images and artwork…
THERE’S an opportunity to catch a poignant, moving and powerful documentary about Partition and hear two filmmakers talk about its making and their own families’ experience of living across what became a tragic divide.
‘A Thin Wall’ will be available for a week on the Modern Films platform from this Friday (August 13 – see link below) and a ticket includes a pre-recorded Q&A with director Mara Ahmed and co-producer Surbhi Dewan.
The film is screening as part of events marking Partition and Independence for both Pakistan (August 14) and India (August 15).
At just over an hour, the film, shot in both India and Pakistan, includes many interviews with people who lived through one of the most traumatic events in world history.
Almost literally overnight the British colonial entity of India that had been patched together over approximately 200 years was broken into two – Muslim majority Pakistan and Hindu majority India.
The women members of both families are remarkable and their depictions of pre-Partition life are almost idyllic and remind people that once upon a time few took any notice of what religion people followed – they simply respected and accepted people of other faiths and lived as neighbours without rancour or bitterness, mostly. As well as interviews with people who lived through Partition, there are vox pops with people in both countries about how they feel towards the other and what might be done to improve relations.
One of the strengths of ‘A Thin Wall’ is its narrative – to look beyond trauma and fear and towards a future that has to be dreamt – where in the film itself Dewan speculates that one day she might be able to take a three-hour bus ride to Lahore and have a yummy lunch with a friend there before returning to her home in India later.
‘A Thin Wall’ is a highly creative work that uses original animation, music and literary writing to great effect, alongside more conventional documentary interviews, weaving the personal and the political, but also expressing the inherent humanity that many instinctively feel or felt before Partition – and goes much beyond facile nationalist slogans or rhetoric. The film came out in 2015.
Director Mara Ahmed and co-producer Surbhi Dewan talked to www.asianculturevulture.com about their film…
www.asianculturevulture.com (ACV): What made you want to make this film and what brought you two together as filmmakers?
Mara Ahmed (MA): We were both studying film at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in Upstate New York back in 2007 when we were introduced by a mutual friend. Surbhi was doing her Master’s, As soon as we met, we began to talk about the Partition. Both our families had experienced the heartache, disruptions, and violence unleashed by the colonial division of British India. We had grown up with that legacy of loss. As we got to know each other better, we felt compelled to make a film together. Surbhi interviewed her family and shot all the footage in India. I did the same in Pakistan. So the film becomes this interwoven narrative that tells both our stories.
Surbhi Dewan (SD): Around 2005-6, I had started documenting my grandmother Leela Dewan’s stories about pre-Partition India and how she had crossed the border as a 12-year-old in 1947. Her stories had deeply affected me as a child – the idea of belonging to someplace else, to a place she couldn’t revisit, the sudden loss of her home, the loss of innocence. These were powerful ideas and they continued to brew in me and inform my worldview.
When I met Mara in 2007, we immediately connected over having grown up with personal stories of the Partition. Our thoughts and intentions aligned and so we started out with a simple plan of recording stories of our respective families and putting them together.
ACV: What were the challenges?
MA: Definitely practical. Not only could we not travel easily to both India and Pakistan, but we were also not based there ourselves. Surbhi would shoot whenever she went on vacation to Delhi. I managed to travel to Lahore twice over the course of seven years to film some of the interviews and B-roll. It was hard to find a small crew there, as all my contacts and colleagues were based in Rochester. The film is a pastiche of multiple voices including the work of South Asian artists, poets, writers, academics, photographers, and filmmakers.
SD: Travelling with each other to the ‘other’ country, especially with our family members who had previously lived on the other side, was something we would both talk about. It wasn’t as much for the purpose of filming as for our deep desire to visit the other side. It seemed improbable due to visa restrictions and other logistical issues. But now I feel that maybe we didn’t dream hard enough. I still hope that it happens someday.
ACV: What do you feel you’ve achieved since it first screened? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
MA: We hoped to complicate the simplistic, black & white, nationalist histories told on both sides of the border, in Pakistan and India. By relying on oral histories and highlighting the voices of ordinary people (most of them women) who lived through the Partition, we hoped to present a more nuanced and multi-faceted picture. I am always optimistic about the future. I know that momentous shifts have happened in history before. There is always that possibility. But what’s happening in South Asia is deeply disturbing. This part of the world has always been incredibly diverse. To want to uproot, disenfranchise, oppress, and eliminate minorities is the stuff of nightmares. It is a continuation of colonial ‘divide and rule’ policies. We need to work together on poverty alleviation, healthcare, employment, and education. We ought to focus on climate change and ways to ensure water and sustainability. This is what will make or break us, not some imagined religious or ethnic purity.
SD: I find it difficult to say if I am optimistic or pessimistic about the future. Maybe I am somewhere in between right now. When I look back at the film, I find it challenging to believe in my own optimistic vision for the future. But just like the positive memories of pre-Partition India that we wanted to document, I am glad that the optimism of my youth is forever a part of this film.
Mara Ahmed is now working on ‘The Injured Body’ – a film about racism in America. She also worked on ‘Warp & Weft’, compiling a multi-lingual set of stories from different parts of the world that talk about how the world was feeling about the experience of the pandemic in 2020 through music, dance, art and poetry, and is now based in Long Island, closer to New York City.
Surbhi Dewan is based in India and is working on a feature length documentary about the transgender community in Kashmir. She made her first narrative fiction short, ‘Khula Aasman’ (‘An Open Sky’) during the pandemic last year.
This screening has been organised by ReelN Ltd, a new entertainment company with a special focus on Asia and ‘A Thin Wall’ is also supported by the UK Asian Film Festival and South Asian Heritage month.
Main picture: Santosh Dewan
‘A Thin Wall’ From August 13-20 (£5) see https://www.modernfilms.com/athinwall