Walls that divide people

Shoma A. Chatterji on Supriyo Senís 12-minute documentary Wagah, which
won the Berlin Today award recently

A 12-minute documentary by Supriyo Sen, Wagah, which bagged the Berlin Today 2009 Award recently, is about an extraordinary event that takes place at the only border crossing between India and Pakistan. Every evening, thousands of cheering spectators gather to witness a patriotic parade for the ritual closing of the border.

 Supriyo Senís Wagah looks at the concept and  ideology of border
Supriyo Senís Wagah looks at the concept and ideology of border

Every evening, thousands of cheering spectators gather to witness Beating the Retreat ceremony which is held at the Wagah border every evening for the ritual closing of the border
Every evening, thousands of cheering spectators gather to witness Beating the Retreat ceremony which is held at the Wagah border every evening for the ritual closing of the border
Tribune photo: Rajiv Sharma

"I was fascinated by the way around 25,000 people from both sides of the Wagah border (that draws the metaphorical and political lines between India and Pakistan) in the north, gather in crowds just to watch the parade," says Sen about his inspiration for the film. The Berlinale Talent Campus announced this competition last year inviting filmmakers to make a 12-minute short film on the concept and the ideology of Ďborder.í

Wagah, produced by DETAiLFILM, was short-listed among the five finalists from around 350 entries from 106 countries. The competition is held under initiative of the Berlin Festival funded by the Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media, in co-operation with the European Union and UK Film Council.

The award is not surprising. His two-part documentary Way Back Home and Imaginary Homeland won the Audience Award at the Commonwealth Film Festival in 2003. It was made with a grant from the Jan Vrijman Fund of the International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam. Way Back Home is a personal and intimate journey by the parents of the filmmaker to their homeland in Barisal, now in Bangladesh. As one moves along, the film slowly raises the larger question of communalism across and within the borders of India and Bangladesh, closing in on the tragic reality of human hate cutting across time and space.

"Since I was a child, my mother has been telling me stories of a village, a river and people she left behind as a girl of eleven. As I grew up, my father explained how the colonial rulers, religious fanatics and political power-mongers cheated the nation. All this made a deep impact on my development as a human being haunted by parents who were cut off from a cherished past for 50 years," Sen recalls.

Senís first film Wait Until Death was a 54-minute investigative documentary that explored the genocide caused by a stone-crushing factory in a tribal village. As he began his research, Supriyo found that he had become actively involved in the cause. He built up public opinion, mobilised villagers and finally followed the case up to the Supreme Court. In this way, the film reached a framework wider and deeper in scope and impact than it had set out to do. It established legal rights of the stone crushing factory workers whose safety had been compromised by the employers leading to tragic death and disease for most at a very young age.

Senís next film The Dream of Hanif was commissioned by television channel Planet. It documented the story of one of the last traditional scroll painters of Medinipur in Bengal. The Nest bagged the National Award for the Best Film on Environment and Conservation and the BFJA (Bengal Film Journalists Association) Award for the Best Documentary in 2001. The 38-minute film is a documentation of the life of Jatin Mahato, whose love for the open-billed stork that fly in droves to nest, mate and breed in and around his home has cut him off from the rest of the village. His wife Sushila, three school-going daughters and a son, are his source of support in this lone crusade.

Hope Dies Last in War made a couple of years ago, narrates the struggles of the families of some of the 54 Indian soldiers taken as Prisoners of War during the Indo-Pak war of 1971 who are yet to return home. Their lives are defined by a perennial struggle between hope and despair. But they refuse to give up the crusade for the restitution of basic human rights ó the right to live and die in oneís own country, the right to come back home, the right to a national identity. The fight has been on for nearly four decades. It is a saga of their individual and collective struggle, spanning three generations, to get their men back. It records a tragic stalemate, sufferings of love and shining moments of humanity, courage and hope.

"I discovered that children who live near the border, actually run an indigenous business in selling CDs and DVDs of films made on this parade and the watching crowds. My film is a point-of-view depiction by three children of this parade," informs Sen. Wim Wenders, reading from the juryís statement, concluded that the film is "a convincing manifesto against any wall that divides people." Interestingly, Sen has never trained in filmmaking but holds a Mastersí Degree in Journalism from the Calcutta University. His transition to films is motivated by his fascination for the power of the audio-visual media.