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Continuous Journey: Ali Kazimi's new documentary tells the story of South Asians who challenged Canada's racist immigration laws in 1914.

The sidewalk outside the Bloor Street Theater in Toronto is packed with brown folks. The white Starbucks-sippers who normally fill this artsy neighborhood do double takes as older men in neatly pressed suits, young women in Mango Tribe T-shirts and hip-hop Sikh boys rocking Million Youth March gear fill the street, lining up early for the premier of Ali Kazimi's long-awaited documentary, Continuous Journey.



Eight years in the making, Continuous Journey will have its U.S. premier at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival in March. The film is the story of the hundreds of South Asians who challenged Canada's racist anti-immigrant laws in 1914, at a time when Canadian politicians wanted to bar brown folks from entering the country. Sound familiar?

There were about 6,000 South Asians in Canada by 1908, prompting politicians to pass a law requiring immigrants to come by "continuous journey" from their country of nationality. That is, no stopovers. To emphasize the point, Immigration Canada, the country's immigration bureau, forced the Canadian Pacific Company to shut down all ship service to and from India, continuous or not.

Immigration from South Asia slammed to a halt. But in the spring of 1914 Sikh entrepreneur Gurdit Singh chartered the Japanese ship Komagata Maru and found 376 Indians who were willing to set sail to test Canada's "Continuous Journey" law. They should have been permitted entry. Many aboard were also veterans of the British Indian Army. As British subjects, they should have been able to pick and choose a home in the Empire they had fought to defend.

Upon arriving in Vancouver's harbor, Canadian authorities forced the ship to stay half a mile from the shore, while the courts battled over the issue. The men were denied food and water and so practically starved, while racist mobs raged against them. The local radical South Asian community united. Many of the South Asians in Canada at the time were already part of the militant Ghadr Party, which united Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus to fight the British Empire. Together, they raised $15,000 on dollar-a-day salaries to pay fees that the immigration bureau was demanding.

In the end, the men aboard the Komagata Maru were forced to return to India. Once there, the British open fired on them. It was reported that about 40 people were murdered or went "missing." But those who did survive joined the Ghadr Party's armed struggle.

The film Continuous Journey tells a story we know but need to hear: that we are not new additions to this continent. It tells stories most of us don't know: that the blockading of the Komagata Maru rocked the British Empire to its foundations and united South Asians across ethnic and religious lines within the Ghadr Party to fight together for armed revolution against the British.

It's no surprise that this documentary comes from Ali Kazimi, one of the most important radical South Asian filmmakers today. Kazimi consistently creates crucial, riveting films addressing issues in the South Asian diaspora that no one else touches. His work includes Shooting Indians, a look at relationships between South Asians and First Nations people and the work of First Nations photographer Jeffrey Thomas. His film Narmada: A Valley Rises is about the people's uprising against the Narmada Valley Dam in India, and Some Kind of Arrangement examines arranged marriage in the diaspora.

In December, I talked with him in a noisy Starbucks about immigrant rights past and present, ghosts and forgotten desi histories.

You start the film by telling this incredible story of these 376 South Asians, and you end with a shot of Project Threadbare's 2003 "No One Is Illegal" demonstration outside Immigration Canada. It's depressing, but it made me think, has anything changed when it comes to North American states deporting brown people?

One thing that has changed is that South Asia as a whole is now the leading source of immigration to Canada. China comes second. So these two communities that once bore the brunt of overt exclusionary immigration practices are now on the top tier.

Now, most liberal Canadians on hearing this would say, "See, things have changed!" But the change hasn't happened because there's been a complete turn in the ways South Asians and Chinese people are perceived. It's because in 1976 Canada realized that immigration from the traditional source countries, which essentially meant white countries, was drying up. What Canada does now is get highly qualified, cheap labor. It's one of the highest recipients of so-called Third World brain drain in the world. And then Canadians go on about brain drain to the U.S.--which drives me up the wall.

There are many, many systems in place today which are very much akin to the Continuous Journey regulation--where as an immigrant you can come in, but only up to a certain point, and then you hit a brick wall. The other current parallel I see to Continuous Journey is the Third Safe Country Agreement [a 2003 law requiring refugees to be processed in the country where they land, rather than the country of their choice, limiting options for asylum seekers].

What hasn't changed is that [the exclusionary policies] are always seemingly neutral. They're always on the surface, just the way things are done, for safety, etc., but they're bluntly and purposely racist.

What's the response to the film been like?

A second-generation Sikh young man came to me and said when he watched the film he kept saying, "This couldn't have happened." He grew up with a deeply nationalistic vision of Canada--he has maple leaves strewn all over his bedroom, he has a shrine to Wayne Gretsky, he's the quintessential young Canadian. And he kept saying, "My country could not have done this to people like me."

Even South Asians who I know who are very well versed in South Asian American history didn't know about the Komagata Maru, and even fewer knew about the Ghadr Party. Watching the film and seeing that these were Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus united across class, across culture, in the 1920s, who were organizing for armed revolution in India was amazing. Why do you think their history has been erased?

India has its own mythology of a nonviolent, almost saintly freedom struggle that was bloodless and led to independence. Which is completely false, but if you want to maintain that mythology everything else has to be weeded out.

The Ghadr movement was way ahead of its time. The Indian nationalist sentiment at the beginning of the First World War was very much for Home Rule within the empire; it wasn't for independence. But these guys were. They were some of the first South Asians in the diaspora, and it made them absolutely for Indian independence, by any means necessary.

But the armed revolutionary aspect of them was only one aspect. Gushwan Singh talks about the fact that at the time, most Sikhs in the Punjab would not allow Muslims to come into their homes. The Ghadr movement sought to address this in a very radical way. You have a Sikh temple in Vancouver run by Ghadrites, with Muslims and Hindus on its board of directors. This is a truly revolutionary act.

So you have all these survivors of the Komagata Maru who go back to India, who work for armed, anti-colonial revolution. How do you think this experience transformed them?

The more I've learned about them, the more deeply I've come to respect them. I think the Komagata Maru had a profound impact for the survivors, one that has continued down the generations.

One survivor who was also on the ship--he never talks about the Komagata Maru again, but during the time of Partition in India, his village, like other villages where Ghadr members were, is one of the few villages where there are no massacres. There's a Muslim man in a neighboring village who's killed, and as he's dying tells his 11-year-old son, "Go to Baba's village"--they're all called Baba, which is a term of honor for all the Ghadr survivors. So this kid runs to the village, and Kirpal Gil's uncle takes him in and says "No one touches him"--and by taking in a Muslim at that time, he's risking the lives of his entire family. He raises this kid as his own son 'til he's 19. And then, news comes that his family has survived, and they're on the other side of the border, so he takes the kid over to the border and hands him over to his family.

So the essence of the movement for me was this tremendous, tremendous solidarity, which continued and was passed on.

Continuous Journey took eight years to make, I'm wondering if you ran into resistance getting funding or support for it.

All the time. People I pitched to said, "It's not sexy enough, we don't do history" ... But the thing is, they do, they just do white, male history. Or people would just stall; they would never put themselves on the line to say, "We don't want to do this film because of (the politics)," but months go by, they don't get back, the film doesn't come out. Censorship happens in a lot of different ways.

Ultimately TVO [TV Ontario, public television] did come in, but it was interesting. I did the film, and their response was, "We disagree with the links to the present, keep it in the past," and also, "These are not your people." And I said, "What do you mean by that?" And they said, "Well, you belong to some other sect."

So, in the end they held me to my contract to do a one-hour version, which meant I couldn't put any of the contemporary stuff in. People are very afraid right now to draw references to what's happening in the States, to the new imperial politic.

But the response from the community has been tremendous. It is the ultimate accolade for me to have people to be moved enough to sit down and handwrite a letter, in this day and age and say, "This is what you did to me." I'm going to do a Punjabi translation of it for the older generation and launch it at a gathering of the surviving Ghadrites, Ghadri Baba Mela, which happens in Vancouver every summer.

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a Toronto-based queer Sri Lankan writer and spoken word artist.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:culture
Author:Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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