The short film Beulah in Lahore and other places consists of family photographs shot with light reflecting on them and passing through them.
Beulah had kept the photographs in envelopes which traveled with us in the hold of a ship that sailed from Karachi to Liverpool. In England, for nearly half a decade, these photographs remained unexamined, until our arrival in Toronto, when my mother glued them into an album which had empty black pages. These pages contain some kind of acid, which corrupts the photographs.
Taken during the 1940's up to the early 1970's, the images are filled with faces and scenes captured in the freshly made Islamic nation-state which came into existence in 1947; both Pakistan and the Jewish State, within roughly a year of each other, emerged as nations based on violent religious separation.
Most of the photographs are about 8 x 10 cm and most are black and white – technically closer to the era of early photography than the era of mobile phones and the world-wide web. Brownie cameras and the like were used: unexposed film is unspooled for a few centimeters and then inserted into a slot on a take-up reel which collects the exposed frames.
For videotaping, I needed to remove photos from the family photo album. As I carefully detached the photographs, some of the black acid-filled paper remained stuck to the back of the photos, forming abstract patterns on the non-emulsion side of the photographs.
My editor, José Garcia, skillfully merged these abstractions, created by both the incident and reflected light, with photographs of family and friends. Beulah holding a flower on a roof garden in Lahore turns, momentarily, into an approximation of a Jackson Pollack drip painting. A feminist aunt is seen combined with black shapes which look like Robert Motherwell's "Elegies to the Spanish Republic", followed by my brother Allan, looking up into Franz Kline's black and white abstract bridges. In 1966, in Warlingham, Surrey, I hold a bicycle beside my English friend, and due to José's ability, am covered by a de Kooning from the same era.
I've become an expert at twisting and flipping my family's photographic history.
The photograph of the boat ride marks a turning point in this short work: my editor gave this image a longer sustain. The symbolism is clear: boat ride, Ravi River, departure. The shot durations decrease. In the blink of an eye, my mother and aunt Zareena both wearing saris, and Pamela, wearing a yellow dress with purple flowers, are walking in Kelvin Grove Park, Glasgow. It’s the mid-sixties. The Beatles have colonised America. We left Lahore, Karachi, Glasgow, Warlingham, we left Urdu in the Islamic Republic. Here's Beulah in 1967, wearing black slacks bought at Woolworth's, a Canadian passport in her purse, standing in front of Niagara Falls on a September day, the temperature hovering around 293.15 Kelvin.
I've become an expert at twisting and flipping my family's photographic history: we see a Doris Day record spinning at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute mixing with the Urdu inscription on the back of the photo.
Four confident women stand in front of trees; another distant aunt, Gladys, smokes a ciggy in front of everyone at Shalimar Gardens; inescapably, another feminist. Then, abruptly, we see photos of a funeral. In macro close-up, I move the camera across a photograph of the grave stone for Samuel Kahan-Singh, my grandfather, author of high-school geometry text books.
Beulah in Lahore and other places is a replica of an earlier film that also uses photos: Lettre du caire (1999) in which Egyptian-Canadian, Mona Fahmy, shows her life in Cairo, Paris and Montreal.
Societies, no matter how thin-skinned, are only worth defending if they can brook criticism: Quebec's film funding institutions are incurably tribal.
I've stopped making films. Why? There is an insurmountable barrier for minorities to get larger funding for projects. Societies, no matter how thin-skinned, are only worth defending if they can brook criticism: Quebec's film funding institutions are incurably tribal. Those not of the tribe are proscribed from consequential funding. I've addressed this issue in many essays, most recently in Montreal Serai: "Is Canadian cinema evolving?" Welcome to Canada (1989) and Monsieur Lazhar (2011).
Pakistani Islamic nationalism is the reason why my mother, Beulah, took us to more tolerant countries, England and Canada.
Parts of this current article extend a similar article published in TicArtToc 18, Printemps, Montreal: 2015.