As we witness the current tragic Syrian refugee crisis, we are reminded of how significant physical space and man-made borders become in moments of crisis and how important it is to understand history with the perspectives of those most deeply affected by it: individuals who lived through it.
The Partition of India in 1947, the largest mass migration in human history, was responsible for the loss of home, family and friends for millions, and shaped the future South Asian geopolitics for the next 60 years. Yet, not very much oral history is documented of people’s personal experiences with this world-changing event.
Thanks to the Seattle South Asian Film Festival, Seattleites have the chance to watch and meet the filmmaker of “A Thin Wall,” a documentary that captures a range of memories from both sides of the border.
From the recollection of a then 26-year-old man imprisoned for non-violent political activism with the Muslim League, to a then 5-year-old girl’s reminiscence of what life was like on “the other side” in India, memories of the partition are deeply alive in the minds of the multiple generations shaped by it.
The film is the work of Mara Ahmed (also writer and director of “The Muslims I Know”) and Surbhi Dewan (co-producer), who trace their roots back to both sides of the border: Pakistan and India, respectively. Nearly a decade ago, Ahmed and Dewan met in Rochester, New York and started discussing the legacy of the partition, inspiring the idea to create a documentary together to show the impact more than 60 years later on both sides of the border. Just the fact that Ahmed and Dewan were able to come together to create this film over the next seven years was a testament to the freedom Pakistanis and Indians in the diaspora felt in discussing the partition, versus “at home.”
“It was clear that our inability to dialogue is geography-specific,” said Ahmed, of screening “A Thin Wall” in South Asian communities in the U.S. when she first launched the film in April. “It is politicized, localized, propagandized [in Pakistan and India]. In the U.S., where all nationalistic-created barriers are taken away, we begin to interact normally. The geopolitical and emotional walls begin to crumble.”
Millions living the greatest migration in human history crossed the borders with nothing in hand, leaving all or most of their possessions behind.
“Many people would rather forget [this immensely painful chapter in history] than revisit it,” Ahmed explained. “There is also a nationalistic element to it. It is easier to keep the hate and paranoia going in both India and Pakistan if there is no acknowledgement of what our side did to the other side, if there is no focus on individual stories, if there is no recognition of our common humanity.”
Audiences are reminded how complex and traumatic the memory of “home” can be, and also how universal it is as this year’s festival theme, “#ComingHome.”
“What is home and how do we define it?” is a question that resonates with all of us.
Get inspired by “A Thin Wall” and five other other SSAAF films to help spark this fascinating discussion. More here.