Nazi into nationalism?
Nationalism and its varied aspects featured at the Canadian International Documentary Festival held recently in Toronto. Anand Patwardhan's "War and Peace" was received with warmth by the audience, says CHANDRA SIDDAN.
A still from "War and Peace".
IF one were to list the top themes for the 2002 Hotdocs the Canadian International documentary festival now in its ninth year having grown to a phenomenal 10-day event with over 100 films from 24 countries shown in two theatres in downtown Toronto, nationalism and its implications would figure strongly.
Other issues were celebrations of sexual difference, portraits of idiosyncratic individuals besides corporate/ environmental horror stories.
The long lines and full houses testified to the coming of age of the documentary genre as did the Frederick Wiseman retrospective, spotlight on Germany and discussions such as the Innovator series where the Indian documentary film-maker, Anand Patwardhan, was included. His "War and Peace" was in good company among all the films that questioned the validity of nationalism, this archaic sentiment that still wreaks havoc pretty much all over the world starting with the post 9-11 USA.
The relationship of patriarchal discourse to nationalism continues to be explored for the insights it offers. Karin Jurschick's "It Should Have Been Nice After That" presents a personal portrait of the film-maker's parents' unhappy marriage that ended with the suicide of the mother. But the film-maker's on-camera interrogations of her 91-year-old former Nazi father turns out to be a psychological study of fascism/nationalism and an indictment of a whole generation that based itself on the opposition of efficient impersonal masculinity and sensitive ineffectual femininity.
Patwardhan's own earlier film "Father, Son and Holy War" has pointed out the same hyper masculinity of the BJP rightwing Hindu rhetoric. The holy war was seen as a result of the crisis of male identity.
Other films at Hotdocs on the subject included "Marlene Dietrich, Her Own Song" by David Riva, her grandson, which celebrates the passionate life of an anti-fascist star. "The Settlers" by Ruth Walk, documents Jewish home life protected by massive military presence in Hebron and questions Israeli presence in Palestine while "Wedding in Ramallah" and "The Inner Tour" presents Palestinian life in the shadow of Israeli nationalism.
A sure sign that we were in a pocket of privileged post-nationalist feeling was the warmth with which Anand Patwardhan's "War and Peace" was received by the audience. The only entry from India, (which is an indication of the status of the documentary genre in the biggest producer of the world's fiction films), the three-hour film addressed the prime question of the moment which has been shaping itself threateningly into a mushroom cloud over South Asia.
What has led to this monstrous predicament when the lessons against nationalism should have been learnt long ago, as far back as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear holocaust?
Anand Patwardhan... in good company.
Patwardhan's tale is epic in its scale through its rich collage of small voices from four different countries India, Pakistan, U.S. and Japan. Despite fears to the contrary, the film turned out to be a massive feel-good and a hope-inducing document, due to the space given to voices for demilitarisation and grassroots peace process.
My favourite parts were those shot in Pakistan where the voices of dissent from the hawkish party line spans the whole range from school children to those of retired military generals. Sufi dancers and pop bands emphasise love and erasures of boundaries appealing to the general South Asian propensity to mystical abandonment and romantic longings love is the only answer.
One could actually hope for a free cultural exchange and bonding in South Asia if only the BJP high command and the scientific establishment, out to rake in as much defence funding as possible, could be deterred from their nationalist project.
Putting it all in the global context, he includes a section on Japan dealing with post nuclear horrors and a section on the U.S. dealing with the censorship of the Smithsonian curators who questioned the need to drop the H-bomb on Japan challenging the official U.S. version of history.
While the satirical exposé of popular celebrations of the bomb are close to the black humour of Michael Moore, Patwardhan's emphasis is on the peace movement with Gandhian overtones that he gives equal, if not more, space in the film.
The Dalit movement figures in the film strongly to critique Hindu hierarchies, as do environmental groups measuring the endangerment of the indigenous populations living near the nuclear test areas. These are the voices that lead one to hope.
Patwardhan offers a post script to this epic piece: a couple of his films slotted to be shown in the Museum of Natural History in New York as a part of a series on Hinduism recently were almost cancelled (but was shown in New York University) because of the Hindu nationalist threats. The U.S. government's anti-terrorist stance looked the other way when faced with Hindu fanatic attack on freedom of statement. But that does not surprise Patwardhan.
The U.S. encouragement of the Islamic fundamentalism in the 1980s has led to the current impasse in South Asia. He points to the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan as the moment when the religious genie was released from the bottle. And the eventual fall of Russia led to a weakening of the left and the rise of religious fanaticism and nationalism everywhere. Goes without saying, a wide viewing of "War and Peace" is a must in South Asia where nationalism is confused with de-colonisation and therefore seen as a good thing. Nazi Germany as an extreme example of nationalism obsessed with establishing a strong national identity is not seen as a warning as it should be.
In the Innovators series interviewed on stage by Ali Kazimi, a Toronto based film-maker (who is also the Director of Photography of the Canadian film "Bollywood Bound"), Patwardhan spoke of his background in activism and the problems he faces in getting his films out in India. The privatisation of television in India has not helped Patwardhan. He plans to spend the next six months touring with the film all over South Asia.
"Bollywood Bound" the glamorous closing night show stopper by Nisha Ahuja offered an ironic counterpoint to the question of identity (national or otherwise) faced by South Asian star wannabes who head for Bombay from Canada in search of fame. As one of the protagonists says, when will a South Asian face appear in a Hollywood film likeApollo-13? If being Apu on the Simpsons is the only option to the South Asian minority in the boondocks of North America, heading to Bombay for a whirl in a wet shirt is not a far cry. (Could be worse: disenchanted British youth of Asian origin went east to join the Taliban.)
But the Canadian kids' return to India is not a search for national authenticity; it is more a need to be "someone" in a place where their race is not an issue. But what is "being someone" in these times of floating identities and 15 seconds of fame? According to Ruby, a VJ who splits her time between her parents in Canada, a glamorous Star TV job in Bombay and the strong religious life she nurtures in private, everything is a role; "there is no me".
The writer is a documentary film-maker based in Canada.
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