Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Department of Homeland Insecurity

No matter how much any of us complain about being unhappy with where we live, our choices have usually been determined by family or work obligations.  We have not been sent to exile in a barren gulag or forced to live somewhere against our will.  With the exception of those who have had to relocate due to natural disasters (flooding, hurricanes, etc.) we have, for the most part, been able to maintain our cultural roots and ethnic identities.

That's not always the case where cultures are at war with each other and ethnic cleansing a common occurrence.  It's not just the Jews who suffered at the hands of the Nazis -- or the Armenians who suffered at the hands of the Turks -- during the 20th century.  If we look at the tinderbox that is today's Middle East, we see bitter, long-standing struggles to assert cultural dominance among the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish populations of Iraq as well as between Israelis and Palestinians.  No matter how one approaches the massacres in Somalia, Rwanda, Darfur and Sudan, the question of genocide quickly rears its head.  

"I think it's wicked murder on a huge scale," the chairman of the British Parliament's group on Sudan (Hilton Dawson) once noted, "but I don't believe that it's the simple targeting of one ethnic group by another.... There's a more complex mix of races and cultures than one would assume from simply being told that this is Arabs against Africans or vice versa."

Try telling that to the residents of the Bengal and Punjab provinces which lie between India and Pakistan.  In August of 1947, the Partition of India resulted in the largest and fastest population relocation in history.  Although 17.9 million people were forced to leave their homes, only 14.5 million arrived at their destination.  The loss and bitterness remain to this day, like a cancer affecting the subcontinent.

As part of San Francisco's 3rd "I" South Asian Film Festival, audiences will have a chance to experience Sarah Singh's troubling documentary The Sky Below.  Though often difficult to understand because of the numerous and sometimes thick accents of the film's talking heads, Singh's documentary will introduce many viewers to a conflict they know almost nothing about. 

As part of her film, Singh interviews many survivors of the original partition to ask if all of their suffering was worth it. The conclusion? It may have been worth it for some politicians and military figures, but for families that were murdered, raped and/or torn asunder -- not so much.

Whether in Karachi or Kashmir, Singh's quest for a deeper understanding of the situation delivers no easy answers (other than the revelation of more misery than she could ever have imagined).  A lot of the camera work is quite shaky and it is often difficult to follow the meandering train of thought.  Still, this is a very disturbing film.

Equally poignant was the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco's  screening of Memoria (shown in conjunction with the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival as part of its series about Italian Jews During Fascism).   In his 1997 documentary, filmmaker Ruggero Gabbai interviewed about 90 Italians who survived the Holocaust after being sent to Auschwitz.  Many of the survivors were interviewed at home in Italy, but the filmmaker also traveled back to Auschwitz with a handful of survivors to visit the former concentration camp.  

On a series of cold, wintry days, the survivors take Gabbai on a tour of their barracks.  Surprisingly, one person wishes she had never left Auschwitz.  Why? Because the pain and nightmares that have followed her have had a devastating effect on her life.  

Others recall how their departure from Italy was triggered by the lie that they were going to a new job -- and describe the jobs some of them ended up performing, as mere children, in the crematoria.  

Although highly informative and deeply saddening, these films never can and never will qualify as "edutainment."  However, like learning to eat your vegetables, viewing such documentaries in order to gain a greater understanding of man's inhumanity to man is supposed to be good for you.   

Dismal rather than happy experiences, to be sure.  But lessons worth learning, nonetheless.

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