On Nov 8, 2017 A Thin Wall was screened at the Human Rights Film Festival at UConn. The post-screening Q&A with director Mara Ahmed was conducted by Professor Kathryn Myers, from UConn’s Art and Art History Department. Dr. Myers’s questions highlight her extremely attentive and sensitive reading of the film. Here they are:
— What was it like hearing these stories from your mother, starting with such sweet reminiscences of her old neighborhood in Gurgaon, and with the same calm measured way of speaking, later describing the atrocities she witnessed on the train and the sense of terror she felt after moving to Lahore and seeing looted and burned Hindu homes. When did you first begin to understand and process what she had been though and how has your understanding changed through the years?
— As you have collected and organized a vast amount of material, I’m curious about some of the challenges and strategies of interweaving different narrations. Some are recurring, such as the elderly survivors of partition who gradually tell their own stories throughout the film, including your mother, relatives, and family friends. In addition to yourself as a recurrent narrator, there is also Surbhi Dewan who starts by perhaps contrasting the dramatic stories of the partition survivors with what she describes as her rather “eventless” life and her imagining of what her grandparents went through when they left their home. She talks about her own leaving home for New York and her ongoing dreams of reconciliation. Other narrators appear just once between the recurring narratives and are from different professions and locations such as a writer from Massachusetts, an artist from Karachi, a photojournalist from Rwanda, a filmmaker from Vancouver, a historian from Delhi, etc. Each has different insights about related themes such as religious fusion, guilt, remorse and forgiveness, a lasting division of hearts, etc. Talk about your process of selecting/organizing these interweaving narratives and some of the choices you had to make, and the challenge of making it all flow together so well as it does and not feel disjointed.
— There are two sections, one in the beginning and one near the end, where you are asking questions to what seems to be average people on the street in Lahore and Delhi. Was this created to gain some unexpected comments and insights, such as the young woman who felt partition was good, (aside from the loss of life) because India and Pakistan could not otherwise live together. This might be typical of a younger generation that is more disconnected from history or have no stories from surviving relatives. In the later section of street questions, all of the people you spoke with seem to feel they can get along, but that it is governments that perpetuate the continuing conflict.
— There are times when the imagery is quite directly connected with the narrative, such as the interviewees and images we may take to represent places they imagine or remember. There are other times where you make striking juxtapositions of imagery and voiceover and I’m curious about some of your choices. There are many wonderful instances of the poetic combination of imagery and voiceover, but I was particularly moved by gorgeous scenes of fabric being dyed, while you speak of blurred boundaries and a former cultural mixing of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and Christian identities, ending with a statement about how dividing the indivisible is doomed to be violent, paired with the last scene of pink fabric being pushed down into water. How did you make some of these visual decisions?
— While we may know people well, our friends and relatives, we often have no idea what kind of storytellers they will be. I’ve found people can either shut down, or unexpectedly open up in front of a camera, or possibly in the case of your film, people of an age might have realized this could be the last chance to tell their story. Were you surprised at the kinds of stories, insights and emotions that came from the people you spoke to?
— Surbhi plays a very important role in the film for me, though it’s always images of her and a voiceover and not her directly speaking, which is quite a different strategy than the other narrators speaking directly to the camera. She has a wonderful lilting voice which is so suitable for describing the sense of the hope and dreams she returns to again and again of a reconciled Pakistan and India. She starts with a wish to better understand what her grandparents went through and to be connected with this “great historical event.” Later she has interesting revelations about how her own travels and dislocations caused her to have a more complex understanding of home and homeland and the collective experience of travel. Later still, her description of her first trip to Pakistan at the border where the guard tells her not to use her camera, as if to say evidence of sameness is not permitted. Her last section is about the dream of being able to casually meet someone for lunch in Lahore, and is the first time it struck me that the distance was the same as from Storrs (CT) to New York. I could not imagine having that kind of restriction. Often you place her hopeful, dreamy and deeply insightful commentary between very difficult stories and testimony of the partition survivors. I’m curious to know more about how you conceived of her role in the film.
— I’m curious if your mother has been back to Gurgaon in the last 15 years and how she would feel in terms of the current sense of dislocation. You mention it yourself in trying to find the old house she lived in. It still seemed to be a sleepy village when I first visited India in 1999 but now represents the most aggressive development, swallowing everything that was there before, though I have heard that there are still village areas and old homesteads.