Diaspora and Disappearance: ‘Letter From Your Far-Off Country’ and ‘Maat Means Land’

by Ruairí McCann

“Remember, Shahid
Memory, diaspora, is moving through emerging modes of thinking and learning,
Physical presence, and gesture”

These few lines appear near the end of Letter from Your Far-Off Country (2020), by Indian-American experimental filmmaker called Suneil Sanzgiri, echoing a poem by the same name by a fellow diaspora, the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shadid Ali. Sanzgiri uses Ali’s verse—an object of self-reflection under the masquerade of fiction and distancing, an act of investigating something disparate and indirect under a supposedly direct, two-way communication–as a very appropriate tipping-off point for a broader meditation and mediation. A multimedia investigation into individuals, places, and struggles that make up Sanzgiri’s attempt to delve into and constitute his family history and its wider implications. In a video call between Sanzgiri and his father, they chew over the family’s connections to Kashmir, and Ali, but also a long deceased distant relative, Prabhakar Sanzgiri, the biographer of the anti-caste system activist and Dalit intellectual B.R. Ambedkar. To the late and elder Sanzgiri, the filmmaker writes and intersperses his own open letter. This criss-cross of communication, across medium, generational and geographical definition, along with Sanzgiri’s own intuition, are at the root of a groundswell of further connections. Its reach goes beyond Kashmir and back to the origins of the Indian state, with a figure like B. R. Ambedkar, an anti-caste system activist and co-drafter of the Indian constitution. The murder of playwright and activist Safdar Hashmi or to recent times, with the Muslim women led Shaheen Bagh movement in Delhi in 2019 and 2020. 

Safdar Hashmi

Sanzgiri’s formal choices echo this intellectual sense of time-traveling trauma and trans-generational bonds, in that he interweaves and layers both superannuated and latter-day forms. The film is mostly shot on the gritty textures of expired 16mm, with the full film gate visible, yet it is chock-a-block with digital surfaces: instant messaging and video call interfaces and an extensive use of 3D animation and modelling. A frozen CGI scene of Ambedkar, suited and staged with his back against that long-lasting symbol of education and ancestry, a tree, initially has the tangible quality of wax figure placed in a museum exhibit. This impression is dispelled by a switch to Sanzgiri puppeteering this now clearly virtual mannequin to imitate Ambedkar in the throes of an impassioned speech. The close-up focus on the animation’s dramatic hand gestures recalling a similar zoomed-in focus on the hands of an anonymous street performer and protester, emphatically delivering Ali poem in a video found by Sanzgiri on the internet. Though the way they physically enunciate may be similar, there is an otherwise sharp contrast between this nameless, flesh and blood speaker, delivering a poem whose subject is multitudinous, therefore ambiguous—the voice is Ali himself but standing in for everyone and anyone Kashimiri, or the land, embodied, bleeding and pleading—versus this recreation of a famous individual, as an ultra-digital icon. Sanzgiri’s film then is not only wise in how creative and amorphous task it is to piece together one’s own family tree and national heritage, and therefore one’s own identity, but the dizzying fluctuations in meaning that take place depending on the form and format into which these tides and individuals of history are fitted.

B.R. Ambedkar 

Fox Maxy’s short film Maat Means Land (2020) also trades in political and ethnic identity as a diffuse entity and language, though to a more extreme degree. His film is more than twice the length of Sanzgiri’s, and yet it is both a denser and more formally far-flung object, rife with rapid cutting and a refusal to establish fixed spatial and temporal dimensions. At near-breakneck speed, it cycles through images and sounds of downtime and of an overtly political dimension; of nature, its destruction—with scenes of wildfires—and urban spaces. The primordial and the modern are interlaced, as it deals with centuries of accumulated collective memory and pain, but there is also a palpably post-human aspect. In this regard, it has its own, distinct bent towards the exploration of digital textures. Slightly more retro than those that appear in the Sanzgiri film but still, all the same, jarring with some of the rougher, home-video-like footage. Certain sequences are backed and bordered with footage of an animated, alien terra, or else are inserted into a television prop in The Sims

Though resolutely emergent, the film does have the thorough line–sometimes explicit, sometimes shadow–of indigenous life in Los Angeles and California. It is most pronounced during a sequence featuring a found interview with a Tongva woman. She talks about a fenced-in field in the middle of LA, which for her people is a sacred spot. She says it has a timelessness: the field exists as “one space in time”, carrying the same spiritual weight since the time that the Tongva people first tread on its domain, straight through to a present where it is surrounded by concrete obelisks, the stain of the land’s future colonial masters. Maxy, who is Ipai-Kumeyaay and Payómkawichum, aligns this notion of a spiritual ineffability with political and personal identity. When the community you belong to is disenfranchised, when it is limited in the civic realm and does not function as a relatively holistic geographical and political expression, it creates a mentality that spreads out, potentially coating everything that you see and how you see it. Whether the situation overly involves colonialism or not. The film is stocked with rhetoric about genocide and colonialism, includes footage like a protest against the building of a border wall that will cleave indigenous land, but also draws in less obviously connected issues such as the pittance paid to prisoner-labourers and the Harvey Weinstein trial, as well as ideas of animism and leisure. Maxy’s collage approach, arranging a cluster of overgrowing threads and tangents, expresses this potential for unremitting interconnectivity. At one and the same time the glut counters the tendency to encase people within totemic structures and stereotype, to be indigenous, to be a person, can mean anything. And you not only have to deal with very concrete results of power but “kill the colonizer in your head”.

The films mentioned in this article are currently streaming (free, worldwide) as part of the inaugural edition of Prismatic Ground (April 8-18th). You can peruse the full line-up on Screen Slate.

Ruairí McCann is a writer, musician and film critic from County Sligo in the Republic of Ireland and who is currently based in Belfast. He sits on the boards of the Spilt Milk Festival and Sligo Film Society and has written for Photogénie, Electric Ghost Magazine, Mubi’s Notebook and Screen Slate. [Twitter]

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