22 February, 2007

The Half-Moon Files

The Half-Moon Files

By Sushma Joshi

I happened, by accident, to hear about 'The Half-Moon Files.' The Berlinale, Berlin's international film festival, is the biggest in Europe after Cannes, and there were 250 films competing for attention. But the woman who told me about it was certain I would be interested. It was about the POW (Prisoner of War) camp in Berlin after WW 1 and had interesting anthropological elements, she said. 'It is about Indians in the POW camp,' she said. As soon as she said 'Indians', I knew I had to watch it. It was the last day of the festival, but I had no hesitation chucking my ticket to the Hongkong action movie and heading to the Arsenal, a theatre located in the basement of the Filmhause of Berlin.

The documentary was in German, which I do not speak or understand. But it was probably the most interesting film I, as a Nepali, watched in the entire festival. The reason was this-- the film, an ostentious 'ghost story' in which filmmaker Philip Scheffener goes out to track down the voices of prisoners-of-war imprisoned in a camp in Berlin after WW1, features old archival sound files, a four minute film footage, and a treasure trove of photography.

The filmmaker spends a great deal of time shooting the bureacrat at the Indian Embassy and the difficulties he encounters trying to get a shooting permit to India. This lavish attention to Indian bureacracy seems to lead him astray. For what I saw on the screen were not 'Indians', but face after face with distinctive 'Nepali' features. They had names like Dhanbahadur and surnames like Budathoki. They said they were 'Singhs', but the accent--rough mountain voices with a Nepali accent, gave them away as not the fieresome Tigers of the Sikh Punjabi regiments but Gorkhalis who had descended from the hills to make a living in the British regiments.

There was an old photograph of a court with men in Nepali topis. The four minute footage, the only extanct one as far as I could tell, features a Dashain ceremony in which men perform a vedic ceremony before a goat is taken to be sacrificed. In the background, there is a dance performed by dhami-jhankri. Anybody who has taken a look at contemporary shamanistic cermonies in Nepal will instantly recognize this cermony. This was not Dusshera, as the filmmaker explained to me later, but Dashain--a very distinct form of celebration with its own geographical and cultural connotations. The causal disregard that most Indians hold for cultural distinctions between Nepalis, who have a distinct national and geographical reality, and Indians, was apparent in the way the researchers in India had informed the filmmaker. The Sikhs stand around watching but there is a little excited scamper as a group of Nepali men cluster around the priests who perform the fire ceremony, just before the white goat is brought to be sacrified.

The film also tracked the way scientists used the POW camp as a rich treasure trove of ethnic groups to practise their first anthropological and ethnological experiments on. They measured body parts to figure out why the Germans were not as hardy as their enemies. This was the beginnings of the scientific racism of Nazi Germany which would manifest twenty years later, with tragic and far-reaching consequences.

A german girl sitting next to me was kind enough to translate. The film ends with a funny story--although the filmmaker has never been to India, he appears in several news reports in India, 'shooting in Andhra Pradesh' on this story. The filmmaker, it appeared, was open to the humor of narratives, to the ways in which stories are made up and in which reality is often constructed and open to interpretation. I wondered how he would react if I told him his story was not complete.

The ghost may have been tracked, but he seems to have left some important details out. Did he know that about fifty percent of the people he shows as POWs are not Indians, but Nepalis? So I asked him in the Q and A. Had his research assistant in India, by any chance, not told him that the men were Nepalis, speaking Nepali?

The filmmaker, disappointingly, said that he had been aware of that they were Gurkhas, speaking a mixture of Khas and Hindustani, but that he had not felt it was important enough to distinguish between the many different groups from India. This would have complicated the story. I pointed out that Nepal was already a different nation state in the 1700s, far ahead of the Indians, but this apparently was not historically important to distinguish. It seemed incredible to me that an European researcher at this day and age, working with serious historical materials, would feel this was not pertinent, but apparently such was the case. The filmmaker talked a great deal about colonialism. I sat in the audience and thought of the irony of how the Nepalese reality, once again, had become submerged into a larger Indian one, but the critic of colonialism couldn't fathom this important distinction.

There were large segments of black footage during which one can hear the voices talking. As I heard the Nepali voices from almost a hundred years ago talking about how their King would recall them back to their homeland from the terrors of Germany, I thought about how things haven't really changed. Nepal sends its men and women out to Malaysia, Korea, Iraq and Jordan these days, instead of Germany. But the faces and the voices are still the same, and the simple faith that their country, no matter how impotent, will save them eventually is still the same.

'The Half-Moon Files' moved me, not only because the voices from so far ago talking about displacement and loss were never heard by their countrymen, or understood by their captors, in their own time. It also moved me because this remains the case to this day--that Nepalis, to this day, remain an invisible group in the global conciousness.

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