Firstly, double Oscar-winning documentarian, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (Saving Face) and BAFTA winning history writer and broadcaster, David Olusoga (Black and British: A Forgotten History) sit down in the remarkable Hallé St. Peters in Ancoats to talk about the challenges to power systems that they have made their careers on.
Obaid-Chinoy is presenting HOME1947 at the Manchester International Festival, an immersive exhibition at The Lowry exploring the unheard stories around the partition of the British India in 1947 onwards. About this history she says it is ordinarily 'textbook history' rather than experiential. It also explores the unfinished conversations resulting from Partition between Hindu and Muslim neighbours forced to move. Fundamentally, an exhibition of this premiering in Britain forces us to ask about Britain's responsibility in the ensuing violence.
"[Britain hasn't] learnt from 1947," remark both of them. "No lessons have been learnt from history in so many ways," they refer to the Syrian refugee crisis.
For the first time, Obaid-Chinoy has created an intrinsically personal piece for which she chose stories for 'maximum resonation'. She is irked by the version of history that tells us that Partition and the pain and violence that came from it had to happen. For her, that co-existence couldn't happen was the greatest tragedy.
Bringing in his own specialism, Olusoga remembers that, ten years ago, speaking about Imperialism was wrong insofar as it was best left under the carpet. Now, however, things are even worse as people increasingly believe that the British Empire was something to be proud of regardless of the ruination – two thirds Britons believe this based on a YouGov poll. As a result, it's more important to talk about Imperialism than ever and to encourage a 'holistic viewpoint' on the phenomenon.
"You need enough people in society to be pains in the asses," Obaid-Chinoy puts it.
She reveals that she's in the rare position of being able to say that her grandparents had more rights than she did back in pre-Partition and new Pakistan. She uses film to regain those rights – her filmmaking has brought about changes in law in Pakistan. "Film can be used as a tool to campaign, lobby…my work has emboldened to many young women to affect change."
Pakistan is, of course, a military state and so to be such a radical figure is dangerous, Olusoga puts to Obaid-Chinoy. "Danger is a very relative term these days," she responds, to laughter. People accuse her of be anti-Pakistan and unpatriotic. "Moderate voices, voices of reason are being drowned out by people who just want to scream and shout," she says of her detractors, "to be patriotic is to have a selective memory." The pair agrees that, the more divisions we have, the more voices are needed to talk about the issues. Olusoga points out that, in Britain, we are now more bifurcated than we were during World War II and so we need 'tough love patriotism' rather than an idealistic one.
Obaid-Chinoy's last film, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness (2015) addresses the honour killings rife in Pakistan and follows one survivor of this crime. This follows Saving Face (2012) about the habit of acid violence in Pakistan. Olusoga points out that the national and international pressure put on Pakistan to crack down on these crimes begs the question whether she should go into politics. She answers, "I flirt with danger, I'm not stupid."
Clearly, she brings about enough positive change for women without being in Government. Next, she'll release a 13-part series of short films, each as a how-to guide for the women of Pakistan on how to exercise their rights. How to report a rape and other crimes, how to approach inheritance, possession of land and more.
A question from the audience: how does the pair respond to accusations about needlessly bringing up dirty pasts? Olusoga has never experienced accusations that his studies of slavery, World War I and more are pointless or anything but constructive. But, were he to encounter these, he'd remind people that it's important to talk about our pasts in order to learnt from our mistakes. Obaid-Chinoy points out that in forty or fifty years we'll have another war and nothing will have changed about how we fight it.
Another question brings up the mythologised version of events leading up to Partition. Obaid-Chinoy reminds us that people were told that it needed to happen but had no clue when it was going to happen, who needed to move and where they'd end up as well as the fact the Partition included Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Burma. These parts are forgotten because history is about damage limitation.
Finally, they're asked how people who aren't filmmakers and journalists and historians can make a difference to the rose-tinted versions of the Empire. Olusoga exclaims, "It's not viable to talk about British soldiers in 1914 without mentioning that a quarter of them were from India." They conclude on the importance of asking questions, getting the whole story. If we can get answers, find them. If you can't, then continue to be a pain in the ass.
- The remaining Interdependence talks will cover Community, Technology, Truth, and Change over the coming two Saturdays for £5. Find details about these talks on the MIF website.