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Chat with Indo-Canadian filmmaker

Cinematographer Ali Kazimi talks about struggles, triumphs, and politics to Ami Dalal.

india Updated: Feb 24, 2006 12:46 IST

Filmmaker Ali Kazimi almost left his dreams by the wayside a few years ago.

"As I sat in the library, wondering why I even made films, a student walked up to me and said how my films have changed her life," he says. "Small things kept me going when I was on the verge of quitting. It showed me that my films are a tool of social change."

An award-winning Indian filmmaker based in Toronto, Ali Kazimi says that he taught himself photography when he was thirteen, but "got frustrated with the still image. I wanted to tell stories and photography wasn't enough." Years of sneaking into the India International Centre (IIC) in New Delhi to watch documentaries catapulted him into filmmaking after receiving a BSc from St. Stephen's College.

Renowned in Canada, Kazimi has long graduated from his first camera, his father's 1940 Kodak Brownie, into moving media. "In the early 80s, there was no place to learn film but at institutes. There was a joint programme between Jamia Milia Islamia University and York University in Toronto," he says at the screening of his latest film Continuous Journey (2004) at the IIC on Wednesday, "I went for a one-year exchange in Canada, won awards for my films, and they asked me to stay."

It is particularly poignant for Kazimi to screen a film at the IIC because it was there he first discovered his love for film. He never returned to India as a filmmaker because "in India, you need access to larger circles and networks to get money." Kazimi is visibly happy to be back in New Delhi and introduces his film to a large Indian audience with a beaming smile.

After the film screening, Kazimi is surrounded by young people and families vying for an autograph. He receives dozens of congratulatory hugs and hands shakes from audience members and is barely able to slip away for an interview. "It took eight years for me to decide to stay in Canada, but the reality was that filmmaking was a difficult proposition at home," he admits, "I had the feeling that I could make a fresh start in Canada."

Kazimi's films have been screened in festivals around the world and broadcast nationally in Canada. Among his award-winning productions are Narmada: A Valley Rises (1994), Shooting Indians (1997), and Some Kind of Arrangement (1998). Though it has not been financially easy for Kazimi to pursue his career in Canada, he says that "although filmmaking is a vow of poverty, I am passionate about it and I am constantly learning." He thanked his wife, Heidi, for her support and encouragement throughout the years.

"Your passion has to be strong enough to withstand attack," Kazimi advises other aspiring artists, "Which includes outright rejection, brutal criticism, and devastating responses that undermine the foundation of yourself." His demeanor is modest, but he speaks with quiet confidence. "You need to remind yourself why you're doing what you do. Remember, it's a choice."

Eight years in the making, his most recent film Continuous Journey premiered in San Francisco last March. It tells the story of how 376 Indian immigrants en route to Canada were forced to return after authorities held them for 40 days half a mile from Vancouver's shore. The day after Continuous Journey was shown in Vancouver, the mayor named May 23rd in honor of the immigrants portrayed in the film.

In a discussion about racial politics with the audience, Kazimi asserts that "there exists the mythology in Canada that its multiculturalism has always existed, but this is not true." He continues: "Canada differentiates itself from North America by presenting its history as without racism. Canadians are not even taught that slavery took place. There was a covert White Canadian policy."

Kazimi believes that Canada is a more socially progressive, inclusive, and tolerant place than the United States but "it is a great fallacy to believe that it has reached its ideals of multiculturalism. History is forgotten as much in Canada as it is in India."

Continuous Journey won the Audience Award at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (2005) and was nominated for the Director's Guild of Canada Award. Recently, he was awarded the Golden Conch at the Mumbai International Film Festival for documentary, short, and animation films.