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Film Still | Neel Akasher Neechey (Under the Blue Sky) | Mrinal Sen | 1958 | India | B&W | 133 min

Breaking down walls through truth and film


By Chung Shefong / NNFF Curator

Translated by David Chen

On the morning of April 14, 2018, I'm walking on a quaint, tree-lined brick path in Taipei. The sun is shining through the leaves, and children are yelling and screaming with joy as they play on a jungle gym with a UFO-shaped canopy. They slide down, climb up the ladder, and do it again. The smell of ham and eggs wafts in the air from a breakfast shop across the way, intermingling with the scent of stewed pork from the next-door neighbor -- it all looks and feels like a normal day in a normal Taipei neighborhood.


Except that elsewhere, it's anything but a normal day. The US has just bombed Syria, escalating an already tragic conflict at the country's borders. On the World Socialist Website, there's talk of an impending World War III. But such thoughts are obscured here in the blinding comfort of Taipei life, where Taiwanese media gives Syria a mere passing glance and the average person on the street barely hears the drumbeat of a war that's far away, yet actually quite close. Before anyone can comprehend what's happening, the world's leaders have moved on to other things. Some leaders have started stoking the flames of racial strife and nationalism –- a sleight of hand that distracts us from the fact that these same leaders lack useful solutions.


Meanwhile, the walls separating us by religion and ethnicity continue to grow taller. Hostility and hate are on the rise. A sense of justice seems to be disappearing in many places; technology is turning us into a different species, and not for the better. Old beliefs are disappearing; new ones are being born. Right now we're in a time and place where values are colliding and becoming blurred. What does the future hold?   


We can always turn to history for insight. I've been thinking a lot about Ken Loach's film, Jimmy's Hall (2014), a drama based on a true story which begins in Ireland during the 1930s. The main character, Jimmy Gralton, the leader of the Revolutionary Workers' Group (a precursor to the Irish Communist Party), stands in front of a buggy carriage, addressing a group of farmers and labourers. In a memorable speech, he says, “Do you think the interests of a labourer are the same as the earls? The interests of a miner or a factory worker the same as the owners, his bankers, his lawyers, his investors and the prostitute journalists hired to write their lies? Do you think they give a damn about our old, the sick, the unemployed, the hungry, the homeless and those forced to leave our shores desperate for work? ”  


The 1930s -- the era of Jimmy Gralton and the Great Depression -- is a mirror that illuminates the world today. The upheaval of the 30s also serves as a backdrop for the film Under the Blue Sky (Neek Akasher Neechey, 1958) by Bengali director Mrinal Sen. In this story, two people of different races and classes -- one a well-to-do Indian woman, and the other a Chinese immigrant labourer from Shandong-- share a common experience of having to cope under the shadow of colonial power, with India under British rule and Eastern China occupied by the Japanese.


Of the film, Sen, whose stature equals that of the great Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, does not hold back from criticizing his own work, calling Blue Sky overly sentimental and lacking in cinematic quality. Yet he still stands behind his motive for making the film, which was to express a political idea, namely that "our struggles for national independence is inseparately linked with democratic world's fight against fascism."


It's rare to see a Chinese person playing a main character in an Indian film, not to mention a full length feature. Blue Sky also happened to be the first film to be banned in post-independence India, albeit briefly, due to India's brief conflict at its border with China at the time of the film's release. While the Chinese have been living in cities like Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta) since the 18th century, a gulf of understanding has long stood them and the Indians. This historical backdrop makes Blue Sky seem ahead of its time, with Sen demonstrating a macroscopic view that treats ethnic differences with some nuance. Although this is a mainly documentary film festival, and Blue Sky is not a documentary, we have chosen to show it for its unusual narrative view of the 1930s in India and China. Through messages sent through his son, Sen, who is now in delicate health at the age of 95, has granted the New Narratives Film Festival permission to screen Under the Blue Sky as the closing film.


War, political turmoil, and poverty of have all been major factors contributing to Chinese migration. Chinese people have forged new lives in Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Americas, working as coolies, carpenters, shopkeepers and running laundries and restaurants. These menial jobs became closely associated with Chinese immigrants in these places, and it was rare for them to participate in other endeavors such as the arts. But that would soon change. The Hakka Chinese were in Jamaica as early as 1854, and a few of their descendants later would go on to play an important role in popularizing reggae music.  


Namely, it was Vincent "Randy" Chin, Leslie Kong, and Clive Chin, all second and third generation Hakka Chinese immigrants to Jamaica, who contributed to reggae's rise to popularity around the world. The Chin family ran a record shop, Randy's Records, which grew into the international label that later became VP Records. During the late 1960s and 1970s, when the anti-war and black power movements emerged, these Chinese Jamaicans were busy producing, manufacturing and distributing the first records by then-aspiring musicians who would go on to become legends, such as Bob Marley and the Wailers and Lee "Scratch" Perry."


The Story of Randy's, the NNFF's opening film, tells this little-known story about reggae. We also learn more about Chinese immigrant life in Jamaica from films by Jeanette Kong, a Jamaican of Chinese descent. We're pleased to host personal appearances by Kong, who will be on hand for the screening of three of her films, and aforementioned producer Clive Chin, who will share first-hand stories about his contributions to reggae music.


This year marks NNFF's first Director-in-Focus series. We have invited Amir Muhammad to Taipei to oversee the screening of four of his films: The Big Durian (2003), The Last Communist (2006), Apa Khabar Orang Kampung (2007) and Kisah Pelayaren Ke Terengganu (2016). Muhammad, whose distinctive style is characterized by sharp observational skills and a balance of fantastical and realist elements, offers a unique look at his country outside of a Malaysian-Chinese perspective. Two of these films, The Last Communist and The Big Durian, are currently banned from public viewing in Malaysia by its government.


In preparing for this series, I made a trip with the NNFF team to Kuala Lumpur to conduct an in-depth, wide-ranging interview with Muhammad. Then we traveled to the Malaysian-Thai border, where we visited the Malaysian state of Kelantan, where Islamic Law is strictly enforced. We went to the capital, Kota Baru, and met local punk musicians, independent book publishers and music label owners. We talked about the intersection of Islam, anarchism, and punk, and came away with a new perspective on the cultural divide between the underground and the mainstream. The experiences and work of these people have compelled us to offer a platform at NNFF to explore topics that would otherwise be difficult to discuss freely and openly in Malaysia.


The significance of history, and the questions it poses, offer ways to think about the road ahead. This year's New Narratives Film Festival continues a tradition of re-visiting historical archives, documentary footage and oral history to bring us closer to truth and reality, and to remind us that ideals of social justice cannot be erased. This year marks the 30th Anniversary of a social movement and campaign to revive and allow the free use of the Hakka language. That effort, which began with protests on the streets, not only won the right for citizens to use their mother tongue as opposed to only Mandarin Chinese -- it helped to bolster a generation that cherishes progressive values and encourages us to fight for our ideals. The people who participated in that movement are now the leaders of today, and we look to them to help guide the next generation, for we all aspire to have a future without walls to divide us.

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