Saturday, 27 February 2016

Daljit Ami: Filmmaker

Daljit Ami
Daljit Ami  (b.1971) is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. Born in Daudpur, Ludhiana Punjab, he started making films in 1999, most recently Seva (2015), A Historian on Call: Kirpal Singh (2015) and Not Every Time (2006).

He holds Masters in Ancient History, Archaeology & Culture and a Masters in Mass Communications. He has worked with some of the leading media organisations of the region including Punjabi Tribune, Day and Night News, BBC Hindi. He has contributed articles in Economic and Political Weekly, Dainik Bhasker and Punjabi publications including Nawa Zamana and Punjab Times.

In January this year, I heard Dajlit Ami was visiting the UK from India, at the end of a European tour. Intrigued by his work, and curious to find out more I headed to west London. Where I met him at the home of artist Kanwal Dhaliwal, to ask him a few questions about his practice and his recent short film “Seva.

In “Seva” (2015), I think you’re drawing parallels between the erasure of ‘heritage’ in Iraq and the burning of books in Punjab, can you tell me more about this?

I did four case studies from Punjab. I realised the vulnerability of heritage is not Punjab specific; it’s a global issue. I decided that I’ll focus on the specifics of Punjab and give some references from the global scenario, which will be complimentary and supplementary to each other and simultaneously it will invite the audience, which is not from Punjab, not from India, not from Asia to recollect their own specifics. Every community or country has it’s own history of heritage, so global references facilitate audience to relate to the film.

There’s a tension in the film between ‘living’ history and conservation, where do you stand on this?

I think the audience needs to decide what stance I am taking, as I have completed the film. My understanding is that heritage needs to be preserved at any cost and wherever the issues involve contradictory practices or some people make this issue as very important for their religious rituals, we need to discuss. Are those rituals important in the contemporary time or not or we need to revisit those rituals. This is my issue.  I’m not just saying that whosoever are against the heritage needs to be discarded or trashed. I think we need to engage with that understanding of heritage. Heritage is important to them too. For me heritage is a universal issue, communities need to engage with other communities individuals need to engage with other individuals, and countries need to engage with other countries and so on. It is a kind of eternity that made me decide that is was not only Daljit Ami making a film, it’s an issue that has come to me and it will keep on going. I start the film with a jerk and end the film with a jerk. There is no beginning or end of the film.

Tell me about the visual language used the film…

As far as Sewa is concerned..there were certain things as far as the visual language is concerned…if you are into digitisation or you are a scholar, or you are not into conservation or you are into cremation the language is going to be the same. You have to turn the page one by one so that was a common thread, and I used that language to shift from one story to another story, in the end it is through the same language that they are narrating their story. Another aspect is when I was visiting the crematorium at the Gurdwara, they didn’t allow us to shoot the crematorium. But I was made to stand there so whatever I watched over there I shot that in silhouettes so it’s the same process that is happening in the crematorium, is in the silhouettes. So in the beginning I was thinking it was a loss for the film but when I decided to use the silhouettes is in the film it became more important.

The film remained in a very tight frame, you’ll find the close up going close to close to close, the only long shot  is the wide shot is the crematorium, which I could shoot from the outside. I think that was part of my politics,my language, when I’m going  show you the visual in wide shot or long shot. For me it was just like a concentration camp, and I have found audiences coming to me and saying it’s like a concentration camp.

For the first time in my life I came across someone invoking Gurbani and cremating literature indiscriminately. Most of the time through those Shabads, Gurbani is invoked to talk about the solidarity or the common thread in the diverse faiths. It’s about diversity, that we are diverse people still we are one. But when one is cremating and saying we don’t discriminate between Guru Granth Sahib and other religious and secular literature in crematorium. For me the space was just releasing smoke. From smoke you can’t identify the material or individual cremated.

Documentary filmmaker, Deepa Dhanraj said “how do we make something that’s not on TV” what do you think?

Documentary film is something more than journalism. TV is instant, I think Deepa is trying to differentiate between TV and documentary film.

Do you aim to do that?

My issue is entirely different I’m trying to understand the marginalised. There are people, who are voiceless, who are neither part of any accident or event nor do they have a voice, I’m just trying to hear their voices, to reach out to those spaces. For me the issue is entirely different, most of the times mainstream media ignores these issues. Documentary films are alternative media.

Are you impressed by how much effort we make (in the west) to preserve ‘heritage’?

I’m really impressed by the amount of effort these countries are putting into preserving their heritage and the amount of heritage they have looted from other countries. These countries had ruled all over the world so they had the surplus of everything, they had the surplus in human resources, they had the surplus in wealth and they had the surplus in art, so whatever they found interesting or important in their colonies they bought it here.
And they had a tradition, they are preserving their buildings like anything and then through that heritage they are teaching the next generation who they are. Their art galleries and museums are well maintained and updated with new technologies.

Isn’t it always the heritage of the elite?

No it is not the heritage of the elite but it has been preserved by the elite and it has been displayed and interpreted from elite’s point of view. Its human heritage, it belongs to all of us. Whenever I’m talking about heritage I am talking in this context, Punjab’s heritage is not just Punjab’s, Punjab is part of the globe so when one tries to preserve local heritage one is trying to do work which need to do as a global citizen too.

Do you work with a team of people?

Most of the time I’m working with a team but that team is not formally attached. I’m discussing with friends, who are colleagues and at editing table I keep inviting people to see whatever footage we have. I keep on sharing ideas with my friends. For me the process has become so important that at times before completing the film the process gets complete, then for me it is really difficult to complete the film.

Most of the time when I’m working on a film and I’m not able to complete it due to any reason, but I have gone through a process and no reason can deny me that experience. It is a kind of catharsis that happens, so you leave your film, you leave your subject.

Thank you Daljit, before we finish, can you tell me about what you’re working on next?

I’m making a documentary film with reference to my village, that is Daudpur in Ludhiana district, working title “Daudpur: whose village?” About the relation of migrants, people coming from different states to Punjab and working there as agricultural labour and then the people who are settled there, I prefer to call them natives, and then the diaspora, the people who have migrated to other countries or states.

I’m trying to understand the relationships, tensions and the experiences. A couple of people from my village are in Germany and a girl from my village is in the UK and then Punjab has an interesting and important relationship with the UK. With reference of Udham Singh, Indian Workers Association and then a lot of people who are illegal immigrants here, they are being discussed all over the world. I want to make this all part of my film.

I asked Daljit Ami to list some of his favourite films.

“They are all equals. I think I have left out many. Anyway, these are the films I appreciate a lot”, Daljit Ami.

Father, Son and Holy War (1995) by Anand Patwardhan
The film explores the complex relationship of masculinity, religious intolerance and jingoism.

Manufacturing Consent: Chomsky and the Media (1992) by Peter Wintonick 
The filmmaker engages with media and uses appropriate imagery to define its character based on selective truth.

Goodbye Life (2006) by Shah Hosseini
This film brings out the brutality and futility of war through a character who decides to end her life by being witness of 'blessings of the war.'

Four Minutes (2006) by Chris Kraus
This film deals with incest, stigma, repentance, resistance, torture, sexuality, war and music in breathtaking manner. The interaction of intense characters at cross-roads make the film an engrossing experience. 

Hunger (2008) by Steve McQueen
It is an Irish political film based on the historic struggle for prisoners’ rights. The debate between the rebel and the church interrogates the role of human body as political space. The film redefines the concepts of conviction, belief, legitimacy and resistance. 

Zuzu Angel (2006) by Sérgio Rezende
A Spanish mother takes on the state after his son disappears. A fashion designer politicize her profession to decode the brutality of state structure. She brings politics to spaces unknown to question establishment and finds state apparatus present in its brutal forms.  

Interview by Tajender Sagoo