Published in Rungh
What is remembered matters. As a filmmaker and, later as a writer, I have been exploring how we remember, through the preservation of material objects for the past couple of decades.
The power to define our understanding of the past, to frame our present and envision a future, stem from the archive.
At the personal level, every day we unconsciously whittle away our own archives, we make choices of what to keep and what to throw out, what we retain is a reflection of our own identity and history at a particular moment.
At the national level, similarly, archivists, like immigration officers, make choices. They are gatekeepers, legally vested with great discretionary power. Immigration officers, with little accountability can determine who can enter the country and who cannot. Similarly archivists, in the national archive have the power to determine what material enters the collective memory of the nation and what is discarded. Archivists have the immense power to shape what generations will learn about their histories. What is collected and made accessible by them, primary source material, will get used by historians, lawyers, writers, journalists, students and genealogists and the like. Choices are made which reflect not only the zeitgeist of the time but who the archivists are. From the national to the local level, archivists have been, and for the large part continue to be, white. Since the national identity of Canada for its first hundred years has been of “A White Man’s Country”, it is would be fair to assume that groups historically excluded by racist immigration laws are also barely represented in the collections.
The process of making meaning from fragments of primary evidence becomes increasing creative as the evidence becomes spotty and sparse. Hence a single piece of primary source material, such as an uncaptioned photograph would need a total act of imagination and creativity, to conjecture what might have been going on at that time the image was created. It would essentially be fiction based on surrounding contextual facts. A single piece of evidence about a racialized group, otherwise ignored, would have huge significance for an artist who could have a field day exploring the enigma represented by this evidence.
In my own family photos, there are images from a hundred years ago for which there is nothing but a single name. A few photos have no name at all, in a photo album carefully created by a grandparent. Clearly these were important and meaningful relatives. Three generations later all we can do is guess and, if we care imagine, and if we do not—then discard the photos to reshape the contours of our family visual history by eliminating the unknowns.
I feel it is the artists from groups, such as South Asians in Canada, who barely register in the collective historical memory of the nation. Such forgetfulness is occurring at the same time as when we are using archives as touchstones, as points of departure as well as interrogation. We are using primary evidence to challenge and question the official historical record. Through my own work, I have come to recognize the vital importance of the archive in seeking truth and drawing new meaning from the margins both about the people at the margins as well as seeing the centre anew from the periphery.
In short a visit to the archive can be both transformative and radicalizing.
I encountered the notion that Canada was a ” white man’s country” expressed in many documents while researching for my feature documentary Continuous Journey (2004) about the turning away of the Komagata Maru. Immigration records hold not only details of arrivals, deportations and more, they also contain letters, memos and telegrams which reveal much about how the immigration officers and their superiors in Ottawa viewed with growing alarm the arrival of South Asians in Vancouver, what was to be dubbed ” the Hindu invasion”. Occasionally there are letters from ordinary Vancouverites that offer more insight.
The process of going through the reels of microfilms, (immigration records, prime ministerial and ministerial papers, parliamentary records, etc.) and finding assertions of white supremacy in the writings of Canadian icons, such as prime ministers MacDonald, Laurier, Borden and Mackenzie–King was both, gut wrenching and exhilarating. I was not by any means the first to look these records.
The first popular account was A White Man’s Country by journalist Will Ferguson (1973), and then came playwright Sharon Pollock’s The Komagata Maru Incident (1976) followed by the seminal academic study The Voyage of the Komagata Maru (1979) by Hugh Johnston. I was fascinated to see how the same evidence had been used by all of us to reach different conclusions in small ways. None of these works emerged through a cursory walk through the archive, they required a dogged commitment to do the necessary work. As I read these works and conducted my own research, it started to dawn on me that this was not just an ” incident”, it was in fact a part of the ” whites only” intent of Canada’s immigration policy. The above–mentioned writers either acknowledge this in a cursory manner or just focused on this ” shameful chapter”.
A “whites only” immigration policy is in sharp contradiction to the self–image, as well as the global image of Canada as the ” great white north”—open, inclusive, welcoming and diverse. When I reached my conclusions, I have to confess that I felt some trepidation outing and naming this hidden history. In 2003, at one community test screening some people expressed deep anxiety and a degree of panic. They felt I was being too direct and too radical, I would alienate white people. It was at that moment I knew that I was on the right track. The challenge and the focus became not only to make meaning from this fragmentary evidence but to also weave this into a compelling film.
I had been told that it would be impossible to make a documentary about the Komagata Maru because there were only about two dozen images in the national, provincial and city archives in British Columbia. I had an intuitive feeling that someone must have filmed the boat in the harbor. By 1914, motion picture technology had been around for nearly two decades and was quite widespread.
On July 31, 1914 an epic drama played out in Vancouver harbour; alongside the Komagata Maru, was the Royal Canadian Navy warship the HMCS Rainbow with all its guns aimed at the unarmed steamer. On shore Canadian militia, fully armed with live ammunition and fixed bayonets were on standby to board the cruiser and take control of the Komagata Maru by force. Given the epic scale of events I was convinced that someone must have been there with a motion picture camera.
I was about to learn a lesson in what it means to see the archive as a repository rather than a precisely catalogued library. A friend and colleague, filmmaker and scholar, Richard Fung had made a wonderful hybrid work Dirty Laundry. Richard had asked the national archive to transfer all the moving image reels documenting early Chinese arrival in British Columbia. The shots were scattered in a random compilation of professional and amateur moving images from the 1910’s in BC. I had had the professional Betacam SP tape sitting in my edit suite for years and had finally got a transfer done to VHS.
In the fall of 2002, I had hit a new low about the film, the dearth of material and the lack of completion monies had convinced me that the past six years had been for naught and I had truly taken on an impossible task. While talking to a friend on the phone, I fast–forwarded through the VHS tape, I noticed that while some scenes had captions others did not and were consequently not listed on the contents of the tape. As I watched a sequence labeled as the Governor General’s visit to Victoria, the film cut to a shot of soldiers in kilts wearing pith helmets, with bulging bandoliers diagonally strapped across their chest and fixed bayonets on their rifles marching down what I recognized as a Vancouver street. My heart skipped a beat; I knew from the detailed immigration records that the Highland Regiment of Vancouver militia had been mobilized for a possible attack on the Komagata Maru, as far as I knew this was the only peacetime mobilization of the militia in that city. I will never forget the moment the next couple film shots appeared on the tape, people in all kinds of small craft—from sailboats to rowboats bobbing in the harbor—and then there it was, the Komagata Maru.
After six years of trying to make the film, I knew that there was no going back. I had been given a unique gift. I was the only person to recognize a major event in early 20th century Canadian history captured on film. Clearly, those who had compiled the reel, those who had catalogued it and the many who had screened it, had looked at these scenes but had not really seen them for what they were. The footage lasts less than a minute—yet within a few seconds I was able to connect the dots. It was a remarkable gift. A moment I will never forget. An intimate knowledge of the history of this event, and a detailed reading of the primary archival materials, coupled with military and cinematic history, allowed me to win this archival lottery of a lifetime. I remember cutting short my phone conversation, replaying the footage and then I wept. I knew there was no way I could not finish the film.
To this day that particular sequence remains uncatalogued, and therefore would be impossible to find. Why that uncatalogued is a related but different story.
This lost sequence is made even more remarkable since no one has found any moving images that show the early South Asian community in Canada. In fact, in terms of moving images there are hardly any shots, let alone sequences in all types of archives across North America that show people of colour. Most of the time it is a random appearance within a shot, like glimpsing a mythical creature. For example in all the material in the archives of the National Film Board of Canada, there is one shot showing a South Asia person in Canada before 1950. A turbaned Sikh man is seeing walking across a downtown street in Vancouver.
Across the humanities the archive is essential and necessary, yet the focus is for the most part overwhelmingly on the textual records. The photographic and moving image records, in my view, continue to be ignored by most when in fact they can reveal new details, while confirming or refuting others.
For the follow up book Undesirables: White Canada and the Komagata Maru—An Illustrated History (2011), I found myself supplementing all the known photographs of event surrounding the Komagata Maru, by building my own collection/archive. This is an expensive process both in terms of time & money but in the end cheaper than the alternative of acquiring images from thriving commercial, for–profit image archives. Luckily, other collectors generously offered material from their collections.
My own archival journeys have made me reflect on the attempts to create South Asian archives outside institutional frameworks. While I applaud the intention, I have deep misgivings about the long–term survival of these materials. I also feel that these initiatives take the pressure off institutional archives to not only make their collections more diverse, but also to ensure diversity among their archivists. Community based archives can be used as starting points but they cannot be seen as substitutes for inclusion of these materials in public institutions. Use is the essential life force of any archive. Each time an archive is used it is activated. What is needed is an ongoing engagement with archives and how they are used.
When Continuous Journey was launched in 2004 it received wide critical acclaim, even the National Post, an avowedly right wing Canadian newspaper grudging acknowledged the facts. When the book was released the African–Canadian poet/novelist, George Elliot Clarke, in his review for The Calgary Herald wrote, “….good history is radicalizing.” A white colleague while admiring the design of the book said—“This is a coffee table book that would destabilize any coffee table.”
I could say the archives turned me into a radical whose work destabilizes, if not coffee tables, then the Canadian sense of self. Archives have the possibility to create new interpretive, intersectional, and critical histories but we have to invest in these archives and nurture their radicalizing potential.