Documentary in remembrance of a war past - Shillong-based filmmaker's tale of Meghalaya workers in World War I to premiere in London

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By Andrew W. Lyngdoh
  • Published 11.09.17

The DVD cover of Because We did Not Choose

Shillong, Sept. 10: The involvement of indigenous communities - Khasi, Jaintia and Garo - in World War I has been revisited by a Shillong-based filmmaker, and which will premiere in London next week.

Because We did Not Choose, a 92-minute documentary directed by Wanphrang K. Diengdoh, will premiere at the Nehru Centre, London, on Wednesday.

This is perhaps the only film from India so far that examines the participation of labourers from India in World War I, which broke out in 1914 before culminating in 1919.

"One hundred years have passed since World War I began - the war that was the beginning of all wars. Nations and communities all over the world have directly or indirectly been affected by it. Some of these experiences are evident today while some have been forgotten as time glosses over pages of history," Diengdoh said.

Wanphrang K. Diengdoh

The documentary, he said, examines World War I and the involvement of indigenous communities at a time when spaces inhabited by them were transitioning and struggling to accommodate modernity and the rest of its implications.

The film was researched and shot over a period of four years, and it tells the story of the participation of Khasi, Jaintia and Garo labourers in World War I in France and Mesopotamia.

Diengdoh said the film is a meticulous documentation of the journey made by the labourers to the warfront.

Research and filming was carried out in India and abroad.

These include Shillong and other adjoining areas, including Jowai, Wahaiajer, Sohkha and Tura of Meghalaya. The filmmaker also travelled to Guwahati, Calcutta, Chennai (where the German sinker Emden struck a portion of Fort St George in 1914), London, Liverpool and Wales. The film was also shot in France with the help and support of the Commonwealth War graves Commission.

In the film, songs that were sung 100 years ago, were once again performed by family members of those who went to war.

"Personal diaries were also accessed and print material during the war that further complicates the relation of indigenous Khasis, indigenous Presbyterians and Catholics. These were examined to understand the implications of the war on indigenous society," Diengdoh added.

After it will be premiered in London, the film will be screened in various parts of the country and Shillong in the coming months.

Several Khasi, Jaintia and Garo labourers who formed the Khasi Labour Corps and the Garo Labour Corps were sent to France to assist the Allied Forces during World War I.

Diengdoh made his debut film in 2011, named 19/87, and bagged all the awards at the Guwahati International Short Film Festival. In 2013, he was awarded the Early Career Film Fellowship from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, for his documentary proposal Where the Clouds End - a documentary about tribal identity and border politics.

The film was screened at the Royal Anthropological Institute, Bristol and also at RAI festival in Los Angeles. It was also screened at the United Nations World Urban Forum, Medellin, in Columbia.

He is now filming his full-length fiction film set in Shillong and Brighton that deals with the intricacies of Khasi matrilineal society.