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05 Sep 2003 16:10
Asian blood courses through my veins and as a child, I sat through hours of my father’s gruelling tales of India’s fight for independence, and the inter-religious violence that the British left in their wake.
The most graphic of these tales was the tit-for-tat train massacres of 1947, when Northern India was carved up and Pakistan was created.
Thousands of Hindus and Seikhs living in the now Muslim part of Punjab were slain in carriages when they were forced to flee their homes and head south.
In the 1980s Seikh agitation for an independent state led to an upsurge of state-sponsored repression, culminating in a bloodbath in the Golden Temple of Amritsar. When Indira Gandhi, the Indian prime minister, was gunned down by her turbaned bodyguard, anti-Seikh sentiment reached a crescendo and all hell was let loose.
We were Hindus living far from the violence and my father kept very silent on the ensuing wave of butchery of Seikh men and boys by angry mobs of Hindus throughout Delhi, while police turned a blind eye. Thanks to My Mother India, which will be showing at the Three Continents Film Festival next week, I now know some of the reality of those awful events.
The film opens with humorously narrated family stories that allow us to glimpse the experience of a young girl, Safina. Born of an Australian mother and Seikh father, she struggles to find an identity in a post-colonial India.
The family is tenuously held together by the parents’ strong bond and a passion for collecting kitsch calendars. And if this is not quirky enough for Safina, who is crushingly aware of being different from her peers at school, she has a paternal granny who hates men with a vengeance, and a brilliant guru for a grandfather.
Safina’s granny, like my father, is a natural storyteller and it is through her explanation of how her marriage broke up that Safina begins to gain insight into Seikh history and culture — and to find her foothold as an Asian woman.
At the same time, her grandfather’s descent into madness and protracted death — coinciding with the troubles in the Punjab — initiate her father’s return to the Hindu faith.
Often it’s the simple, personal stories that tell us more about the meaning of big events than history books ever can.
My Mother India represents such a story, beautifully told through the eyes of a child growing up in an unconventional and complex family, whose response to being culturally marginalised is not to run from but to embrace a long-lost identity.
Another compelling film showing at the film festival is Chavez: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.
It follows the tremendous failure of the Venezuelan ruling class to illegally replace Hugo Chavez and his government with a rogues’ gallery of dodgy individuals who represent big business, corrupt trade union leadership and dissident army generals.
This attempted coup took place in April 2002 and stumbled at the first hurdle despite being supported by a “deeply concerned” United States White House and a privately-owned media machine that would make Stalin blush. The question is, on what grounds did the interlopers make their claims about Chavez’s threat to freedom in Venezuela? Did he abuse civil liberties? Did he suppress the right to a free press?
To the contrary, Chavez insisted on freedom of the media despite private TV channels dominating the airwaves with stories of his mental instability and human rights violations.
His only “crime” was that he won a landslide victory in the 1998 presidential elections on a ticket to redistribute Venezuela’s oil wealth by breaking the elite’s monopoly over the state-owned oil company.
In Venezuela, one of the richest countries in Latin America, the majority of people live in a permanent state of dire poverty. The capital city, Caracas, with its stunning views, is home to millions of Venezuelans living in shanty towns, built on steep-sloped wasteland.
The poor, from their hillside vantage point, look down upon the residences of the rich — a tiny minority of mostly white Venezuelans, who languish in luxury homes with servants and swimming pools. The election of Chavez, Venezuela’s first indigenous president, has seen a steady dismantling of a kind of unlegislated apartheid.
Events take a dramatic turn when Chavez’s political opposition — led by Pedro Carmona, head of Venezuela’s biggest business organisation, and Carlos Ortega, trade union leader — manages to stir up intense grassroots activity among the prosperous and the gullible.
Insecure about the prospect of an “uneducated mass” depriving them of their privileges overnight, they take to the streets in protest at Chavez’s “appallingly” egalitarian style of leadership, while pro-Chavez marchers mount a counter-demonstration.
Shots are fired at the crowd and in the ensuing chaos, the Chavez lobby is blamed, giving the coup leaders and their cronies an excuse to seize the presidential palace and arrest Chavez. An illegal interim government is formed within hours and every vestige of constitutional democracy is scrapped as Venezuela descends into dictatorship.
The film is a must-see, not only because the Irish filmmakers go to Venezuela to interview Chavez and stumble upon a coup that they manage to capture on film, but also because of the political Zeitgeist of our time — where leaders like Chavez, who try to offer an alternative to US-led neo-conservatism, struggle to survive.
A year on, amid calls for a referendum to revoke Chavez’s mandate, Venezuela is recovering from a series of anti-government strikes and US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has urged the imprisoned leader to “right his own ship”.
Venezuela is the US’s third-largest supplier of oil and the question is whether the US administration will allow its first citizen to openly side with the anti-globalisation movement and allow it to succeed in its backyard?
One thing’s for sure — the way US foreign policy is going at the moment, this is an issue worth watching.
My Mother India and Chavez: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised will be screened at the Three Continents Film Festival, opening in Johannesburg on September 12 and in Cape Town on September 19.
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