Ali Kazimi’s Continuous Journey

A POV Interview conducted by Marc Glassman

28 mins read

When Ali Kazimi’s latest film Continuous Journey premiered at the 2004 Hot Docs festival, the atmosphere in Toronto’s Royal Cinema was electric. Canada’s documentary filmmaking community was out in force as were a number of prominent South-Asian Canadians. They were there to see Kazimi’s most personal work, an exposé of the scandalous Komagata Maru Incident of 1914. Through a mix of archival and contemporary footage, Kazimi brought to life the climactic struggle between Sikhs, aboard the ship the Komagata Maru, seeking immigration to Canada and the imperial forces that refused to allow them their right to a fair passage from India. As the final credits rolled, the crowd rose in unison, shouting their approval for Ali Kazimi and his documentary.

It wasn’t the first time that Kazimi had achieved great acclaim at Hot Docs. In 1994, his first feature Narmada: A Valley Rises garnered a prize for Best Political Documentary while Ali, himself, won for Best Director. Like Continuous Journey, Narmada is a socially engaged film, detailing a massive protest movement in India, which was trying to prevent the building of a huge dam in Gujarat. Though the Sardar Sarova Project has continued, flooding parts of the agriculturally rich Narmada Valley, Kazimi’s film and the on-going protests effectively slowed down an insensitive march towards industrial “progress.”

Though he has only lived in Canada for slightly more two decades, the Indian born Kazimi’s contributions to the indie film scene here has been huge. An accomplished cinematographer, he has shot such films as Bollywood Bound, The Journey of Lesra Martin and A Song for Tibet. He has directed television doc series including Little Miracles, The Firestation and more importantly, a South Asian episode for the award-winning Scattering of Seeds. Kazimi is a past President of the Independent Film and Video Alliance and a former Co-Chair of the Toronto branch of the Caucus, the precursor to the Documentary Organisation of Canada. His journey, as an artist and activist, continues.

POV: Why did you come to Canada?

ALI: Canada was not a choice. It was fate, but staying on was a choice. I came here on an exchange program between York and the Jamia Milia Mass Communications Research Centre which had been created by the man who mentored me, James Beveridge. After a year in Canada, I was given the option to continue studies at York. I made a conscious decision to stay in Canada, at York, and remain here after graduation.

It was the late 80s, and I had very few options. It was difficult to do documentaries in India then. It still is. Remarkable work does get done, but it’s very hard to make a living. Video as a technology was just starting to erupt in India. Few independent filmmakers were making films, and those that were, mostly had financing through foreign commissions.

India also is a complex place. Filmmakers tend to be urban-centred. You need a cushion in terms of your social-economic background. You need to know people to get funding. Given that those were not my realities, I decided I would stay on and start from scratch.

POV: Why cinema? You started with photography; why did you switch in your late teens?

ALI: I still love photography. I like the solitude of going and shooting things on my own with my still camera, but I’m also frustrated by its limited story-telling potential. That’s the conclusion I came to early on: I wanted to go beyond the moment and tell larger stories. I dabbled with photojournalism and was frustrated by the interpretation of images that can happen when they’re published with captions that are not your own.

I also did some radio documentaries at the time. I was fascinated by sound. I loved the idea of documentary story telling. I looked at the work of people like Anand Patwardhan. His film, A Time to Rise, which he did in Canada but I saw in India, opened my eyes to the idea of doing socially engaged, committed documentaries.

POV: You got involved in film culture fairly quickly once you graduated York. What brought you to the Canadian Independent Film Caucus (the precursor to DOC), the Images Festival and the Independent Film and Video Alliance, among others?

ALI: I felt that the community in filmmaking that existed in Canada – and this was one of the incentives for me to stay on – was actually quite different from what I’d experienced in India. There was a tremendous amount of generosity of spirit here. People were willing to share experiences. There was openness, a level of camaraderie. There was a social consciousness of trying to organize around issues of filmmaking, everything from production to distribution. There were film and video co-ops. There were many ways I could engage in the world. It was the willingness of people to accept you for what you could bring to the table that was key.

POV: Through the Alliance and the Caucus, the notion of culture being both aesthetic and political must have hit you.

ALI: Absolutely. It was a continual process of learning and engaging politically, not just in the subject matter of the film but in the politics of filmmaking in the country. When I moved into the Caucus, we did a lot of lobbying around rules and regulations, access to funding, opening up various broadcasters: all that was really important. Looking back on it, at times it got all consuming. I got to know the intricacies of decision-making in the country but it led to strong friendships and professional working relationships across the country.

POV: Not only indies accessing television funding was an issue. So was multiculturalism. What was it like to be in the forefront on issues of representation?

ALI: A lot of groundwork had been done earlier on by people like filmmakers Clarie Prieto, Roger McTair and video artist Richard Fung. Still, there was a lot of resistance, even among artists, who were already competing for very limited pools of funding, and dealing with the older issues of regional representation and linguistic representation between French and English. When you would bring up a completely new issue of cultural diversity, there was bound to be a lot of resistance. It was draining.

I remember writing a paper along with Premika Ratnam to the CRTC when they had their big structural hearing. Keith Spicer, who was the head of the CRTC at the time, stopped Premika when she was reading out the intervention and said something like, ‘I don’t get it. What does skin colour have to do with culture?’ I remember thinking, ‘this says everything about where things are at and how far things have to change.’ Even now, there’s still a long way to go.

POV: Are we progressing?

ALI: Important changes have come about. When people look at the Arts Councils, there is more than just lip service paid to the issues of representation and cultural diversity: there are real changes. When you walk into a context where those debates haven’t taken place, it strikes you how radical a change has occurred.

The Film Board has opened up opportunities through its various programs. Now you have Omni and other stations that are offering so-called third language funding sources for documentaries. People are being ghettoized, though. There’s always the suggestion: ‘why don’t you go to Omni for funding?’ The answer is, ‘We want to be part of the mainstream. We want to be integrated, not slotted into these market-driven demographic slots.’ Institutions have to be committed to a larger social, political agenda.

POV: There’s a 6-year gap in your recent filmography. What did you do between Passage From India and Some Kind of Arrangement in 1998 and your 2004 feature-length personal doc, Continuous Journey?

ALI: Over the five years, I found myself working as a cinematographer and nominally as a director on television doc series. Primarily, I was trying to keep my head above water. I’d get back to Continuous Journey from time to time, trying to get it financed.

Working on TV documentary series is interesting up to a point. It’s journey man work. You’re hired for the experience you bring but, in the end, it doesn’t amount to much: you’re completely interchangeable. You’re a cog in the wheel. It truly is an industrial process.

POV: Continuous Journey is such a compelling story, I find it surprising that you were stuck doing TV for so long. Refusing the ship, the Komagata Maru, and its South Asian passengers safe entry into Vancouver harbour in 1914 reminds me of a similar refusal, to the boat the St. Louis and its Jewish travelers at the beginning of the next World War, in 1939. And that story has been made into a major feature film, The Voyage of the Damned. Couldn’t funders see its audience appeal?

ALI: Actually, the precedent for the refusal of the St. Louis was the Komagata Maru! The Komagata Maru was turned back by a regulation devised by Mackenzie King, who 25 years later, was the Canadian Prime Minister whose government turned back the St Louis. This is not coincidental: there is a direct link between the two stories. The social-political linkage is that in both cases, the ships were turned back because the Canada that was imagined at that time was not just a white Canada, but a white Christian Canada.

The ‘discourse’ of the time was openly about the creation of the country along these lines. This wasn’t a hidden backroom deal: this was in newspapers, in letters to the editor, in editorials, in speeches, debates in Parliament. There is a national mythology that is getting more deeply entrenched of Canada as a wonderfully tolerant multicultural country. It’s a great ideal and it’s wonderful that the country is striving toward it. But it’s dangerous to resist any examination of history that goes contrary to the contemporary reality. It’s dangerous not to see the direct linkages between what happened a hundred years ago and its continuing legacy today.

POV: Why was there such a delay in getting Continuous Journey moving?

ALI: I couldn’t get enough financing to make the film. Funding did come through from my peers on the juries at the Arts Councils. That was great, but I wanted to do something longer and more ambitious that needed more money. It was virtually impossible to get a broadcaster. When people don’t want to do your project and they don’t want to say no, you’re kept dangling. You never get a clear response. People ask me why the Film Board wasn’t involved. I have a long, checkered history with the Film Board. They did come on Board for an “investigate,” but then they wanted me to link it to violence in Sikh temples, and I couldn’t fathom that connection. What was the connection between exclusion in 1914 and the outbursts of violence in some Sikh temples in the mid 1990s? I couldn’t see the connection. But that was not the only thing. There was a degree of ambivalence there, of not knowing how to deal with the subject.

When I went to broadcasters, they would say, ‘It was a terrible chapter in our history. Do us a favour, blame it on the British.’ I looked for glimmers of irony, but then I realized it wasn’t a joke: it was said in all seriousness. Other broadcasters in this demographically based, slotted world would tell me, ‘If you do history, watch out! Because History is watched by men from the ages of 35-55. They’re white. Race doesn’t sell. So bump up the cloak and dagger stuff.’

This was all told to me in asides, but it was an interesting insight into why people didn’t want to tell the story. The more resistance I got, the more compelled I was to make the film.

POV: The Komagata Maru Incident took place in 1914. Was it difficult acquiring archival material in order to tell the story pictorially?

ALI: I was dealing with an era where a lot of the material is in the public domain. I have come to appreciate public archives greatly. They are a national treasure of remarkable wealth, which will become even more important as years go by. My challenge was that everyone thought the event was undocumented. I put out a plea on the internet to moving pictures archivists a few years ago asking them to send me any footage they had of the Komagata Maru. I got calls back from all over the world, basically

But I found it. Amateur filmmakers—mainly wealthy, privileged people, who had access to cameras—would go out and shoot all kinds of stuff 90 years ago. I felt certain that somebody must have gone out to document this incredible drama that was unfolding in Vancouver harbour, particularly in the last couple of days when The Rainbow, one of the two Canadian battleships, was brought along side the Komagata Maru. There were three hundred militiamen with fixed bayonets and full weaponry ready to charge; there were 30,000 people watching from the shores; there were hundreds of boaters and yachts circling both ships, waiting to see what would happen. It was a huge public spectacle.

I thought I had seen everything from that era at the National Archives in Ottawa. Richard Fung had given me a tape, which had been sitting in my office for four or five years on betacam. I hadn’t transferred it because it was material that was labeled as being shot in 1916, not 1914. I finally got it transferred, after I’d exhausted everything else.

I was on the phone to a friend as I watched the silent tape. Suddenly, interspersed between footage of the Governor General’s visit to Victoria, were these random shots. First, I saw troops marching through a city street, which I immediately recognized as Vancouver. Then, there were shots of boats in the harbour. Then, I saw it: a shot of a ship, which looked remarkably like the Komagata Maru.

I quickly got off the phone. I was completely stunned. The hair on the back of my neck was standing up, I was sweating. I had a lump in my throat: I couldn’t even verbalize to myself that I had found the footage. I rewound the tape; then, went back over it very slowly. It was the Komagata Maru. It was remarkable.

I actually stopped and wept. It was such an incredible gift, a small nudge toward saying that the story is revealing itself to me, more and more. ‘Why am I the only person who has noticed this in 90 years? I guess I have a responsibility to finish this film now!’

POV: The Komagata Maru Incident took place 90 years ago. Does it have contemporary relevance?

ALI: Just a couple of days ago, the Safe Third Country Agreement came into effect, which essentially is a reinterpretation of the Continuous Journey regulation that kept the Komagata Maru and its passengers out. Now, it’s airplanes and political refugees that are being denied entry into Canada unless they arrive on a direct route; then, it was boats and immigrants.

I had a huge disagreement with TV Ontario about my drawing of this comparison. Here, I’ve made a point of view documentary. It’s my ‘pov,’ and I take full responsibility for it. There will be people who agree with me or disagree with me. As a consequence, they held me to my contract, to deliver a one hour TV film, although they have the power, and have done so repeatedly, to show much longer versions. The contemporary connections get cut out of the shorter TV version.

It illustrates the point I’m making with the film: to make a film about history is to engage with the past and to dialogue with those events. It’s a dynamic process. Not being able to show a television audience the direct linkages is part of the ongoing dialogue. Metaphorically, my journey with the film represents the voyage of the ship: you can come so close to shore, but you cannot land.

Their response is, ‘you can show that in the theatrical version.’ But there is no true theatrical version. There’s a longer version of the film, which I go out and show as much as possible, but getting audiences, theatrically for documentaries, is very very difficult. For Canadian feature films, let alone feature documentaries.

POV: How did Indian audiences react to your first feature doc, Narmada: A Valley Rises?

ALI: It was an interesting response. The first time I saw Narmada was at the Bombay Film Festival, along with other films from India. It struck me at the time that I had changed and my work did not fit into the culture of documentary filmmaking in India. Narmada came out of a very specific Canadian context, in terms of story telling, even though it was shot in India. It is a reflection of my own sense of self and my life in two places. The response was tremendous but there was no venue to get the film out to a larger audience, to a television audience. Very privileged audiences saw it. I keep hearing stories of people who saw pirated versions here and there, and that’s great.

I made a Hindi version of the film and went to the Narmada valley to screen it. Anand Patwardhan very generously loaned me his brand new video projector. We went out with a generator and a VCR and a video projector to villages that did not have any electricity. These were people who had participated in the struggle that I had documented. We showed Narmada over two weeks, the time I could spend, going village to village. It was a fabulous response. It was wonderful to take it back.

One screening was to 6000 people: it was the largest gathering since the events I had shot in 1991. The tent maker who was putting up the public event sewed together three huge sheets for an outdoor screen. We plugged the projector into the public address system. We showed in on the huge screen; it was pitch black outside and the projection worked beautifully. It was one of the most successful screenings I’ve had. At the same time I looked up at the night sky. You could see the Milky Way, and you could see satellites moving across the sky. And this was when satellite television was just beginning. Those things are beaming down to close to a billion people, and a film like this could go on the air, but there’s no way that it will.

I sometimes get discouraged by that, but I’m deeply encouraged and inspired by filmmakers who go out and travel with their films and make sure the films get seen by people who are committed. It’s very hard to measure the impact of a film.

POV: Do you see yourself as a filmmaker or an activist?

ALI: I’m a filmmaker first and foremost. I’m a lousy activist in terms of engaging in struggles away from my filmmaking. My work is my activism.

Issues of social justice move me. The inequities caused by lack of social justice are at the roots of the violence in the world we live in. From a small interpersonal scale to the largest public sphere, it’s the imbalances in power relationships that lead to violence and horrific suffering. I’m always inspired by small groups of people who stand up to injustice at enormous personal cost, both to themselves and to people around them. They have done the best they can, even if they’ve been forgotten or ignored or lost. They energize me.

My work has become more personal and has incorporated more elements of my own life. I used to resist that tremendously. Putting the ‘I’ into a larger struggle was in some ways egotistical or would take away from the real struggle that was going on. In Narmada I brought myself in only to locate myself as a witness to what was going on. With Continuous Journey it was more pressing to reveal myself in the film. It was scary. It was not something that comes easily to me, but to draw out the meaning of the story, I had to reveal how it affected me and who I am today. By exposing that layer of my search, my obsession, it allowed theaudience to step in and understand why I made thefilm. It allowed them to get the larger story.

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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