Essay: Longing and Belonging, 1990s South Asian Film and Video

Essay: Longing and Belonging, 1990s South Asian Film and Video

By Zool Suleman

The 1990s are the new “decade of the moment.” Driven in part by the nostalgia of the baby boomer generation as they relive old memories, this cultural throwback has reignited conversations which are also “new” once more — some of which include the very circuits of knowledge formation. Identity politics, race, belonging, migration, empire, colonialism, class, religion, LGBTQ2++ identities, Indigenous rights, and more are the topics that increasingly dominate conversations in the academy, the street, the home, and the universes of media and social media. In his influential essay, “Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation” [1], cultural theorist Stuart Hall references Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, Jacques Derrida, Homi Bhabha, Kobena Mercer, and others as he explores what constitutes cultural identity. He posits a complex, layered definition that recognizes the “ruptures” and “discontinuities” of the historical, and the “traumatic” character of “the colonial experience.” He writes:

Cultural identity… is a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as ‘being’. It belongs to the future as much as to the past. It is not something which already exists, transcending place, time, history and culture. Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they are subject to the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture and power. Far from being grounded in a mere ‘recovery’ of the past, which is waiting to be found, and which, when found, will secure our sense of ourselves into eternity, identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.

Hall’s comments provide one possible lens through which to view the films within the Longing and Belonging program.

While the exercise of marking decades is false ab initio, since histories do not break into such easy demarcations, the 1990s were a time of significant cultural production within Canada’s South Asian arts communities. Influenced by the 1980s Black Arts Movement in Britain, and in opposition to state-sponsored multiculturalism paradigms in Canada, South Asian became a generous identifier for a variety of communities united by more than the geography of South Asia. No contemporary art production history of these communities from that time period can ring true without referencing Desh Pardesh, a multi-disciplinary arts festival that emerged in Toronto and operated from 1988–2001 [2]. Desh Pardesh was the “scene” that influenced the foundation of Rungh and where the first issue of Rungh magazine was launched in 1992 [3].

The Longing and Belonging program consists of three screenings, loosely structured around themes of diaspora, desire, and identity. Diaspora: Shorts Program includes two films, Ian Rashid’s Surviving Sabu (1998) and Leila Sujir’s The Dreams of the Night Cleaners (1995). Desire: Shorts Program includes Shani Mootoo’s The Wild Woman in the Woods (1993), Ian Rashid and Kaspar Saxena’s Bolo! Bolo! (1991), and Michelle Mohabeer’s Coconut/Cane & Cutlass (1994), and Ali Kazimi’s feature film Shooting Indians: A Journey with Jeffrey Thomas (1997) completes the program. These six films cannot possibly represent the large body of South Asian film and video work produced during the 1990s — to do so would take a festival unto itself. What these six films try to do is provide a small sense of the rich, multivalent intersections that were explored in that era, as well as after, in film and video.

Diaspora is much more than geography and migration, and both of the films in the Diaspora program rely on family histories and archives. In Surviving Sabu, Rashid explores the story of Sabu, an Indian film actor who featured in orientalist films such as The Thief of Baghdad (1940) and Elephant Boy (1937), as a point of contestation between a father and a son in Canada. Is Sabu a representative of Hollywood success, or a tragic icon of cultural colonialism? In the end, as father and son watch Sabu on the screen, the father wryly says: “Relax. It is only a film. What harm can a film do?” In The Dreams of the Night Cleaners, Sujir traverses a different cultural terrain, weaving together drama, a fable, the story of a missing family member, and a look at the labour of racialized immigrant women. Banff, Alberta serves as the backdrop to this production, co-produced with the Banff Centre for the Arts and the National Film Board of Canada.

Desire is only a part of the thread stringing together the three films in the program that carries its name. In Bolo! Bolo!, which debuted at Desh Pardesh in 1991, Rashid and Saxena document conversations with South Asian activists in response to the AIDS crisis. Mootoo explores butch/femme signifiers in The Wild Woman in the Woods and encounters a goddess in the forest. Coconut/ Cane & Cutlass is an Indo-Caribbean journey by Michelle Mohabeer that broadens notions of the South Asian diaspora and traces oral histories.

Two of the winners of 2019’s Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts were artists Ali Kazimi and Jeffrey Thomas, but twenty-two years ago Kazimi was the filmmaker and Thomas the “subject” in Shooting Indians: A Journey with Jeffrey Thomas. Of course, when two media artists are involved in a dialogue about Edward Curtis, photography, and Indigenous rights and land, the notion of a “subject” becomes more nuanced and complex. A groundbreaking film, then and now.

Although much remains unexplored in the Longing and Belonging program, diving into the archive proves to be a rich and revelatory experience. This “activation” of the archive is a part of the journey for Rungh and DOXA as we continue to explore, in the present, the lasting themes of 1990s South Asian film and video.

[1] Originally published as “Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation” in Framework, The Journal of Cinema and Media (1989) (Volume 36) (Special Issue on conference papers presented at the Theory and Politics on Location Symposium).
[2] The South Asian Visual Arts Centre (SAVAC), a non-profit, artist-run centre, has compiled an archive of Desh Pardesh, which can be found here: https://www.
[3] The first issue of Rungh magazine, focusing on the “proceedings” of Desh Pardesh in 1991 and other newly commissioned works (Volume 1, No. 1 and 2) (1992), can be found at the Simon Fraser Digitized Collections here: rungh-collection/rungh-south-asian-quarterly-culture-comment-and-criticism