The Half-Moon Files

By Sushma Joshi
published in Kantipur Online

I happened, by accident, to hear about ‘The Half-Moon Files.’ The
Berlinale, Berlin’s international film festival, is the biggest in
Europe after Cannes, and there were 250 films competing for attention.
But the woman who told me about it was certain I would be interested.
It was about the POW (Prisoner of War) camp in Berlin after WW 1 and
had interesting anthropological elements, she said. ‘It is about
Indians in the POW camp,’ she said. As soon as she said ‘Indians’, I
knew I had to watch it. It was the last day of the festival, but I had
no hesitation chucking my ticket to the Hongkong action movie and
heading to the Arsenal, a theatre located in the basement of the
Filmhause of Berlin.

The documentary was in German, which I do not speak or understand. But
it was probably the most interesting film I, as a Nepali, watched in
the entire festival. The reason was this– the film, an ostentious
‘ghost story’ in which filmmaker Philip Scheffener goes out to track
down the voices of prisoners-of- war imprisoned in a camp in Berlin
after WW1, features old archival sound files, a four minute film
footage, and a treasure trove of photography.

The filmmaker spends a great deal of time shooting the bureacrat at
the Indian Embassy and the difficulties he encounters trying to get a
shooting permit to India. This lavish attention to Indian bureacracy
seems to lead him astray. For what I saw on the screen were not
‘Indians’, but face after face with distinctive ‘Nepali’ features.

They had names like Dhanbahadur and surnames like Budathoki. They said
they were ‘Singhs’, but the accent–rough mountain voices with a
Nepali accent, gave them away as not the fieresome Tigers of the Sikh
Punjabi regiments but Gorkhalis who had descended from the hills to
make a living in the British regiments.

There was an old photograph of a court with men in Nepali topis. The
four minute footage, the only extanct one as far as I could tell,
features a Dashain ceremony in which men perform a vedic ceremony
before a goat is taken to be sacrificed. In the background,
there is a dance performed by dhami-jhankri. Anybody who has taken a
look at contemporary shamanistic cermonies in Nepal will instantly
recognize this cermony. This was not Dusshera, as the filmmaker
explained to me later, but Dashain–a very distinct form of
celebration with its own geographical and cultural connotations. The
causal disregard that most Indians hold for cultural distinctions
between Nepalis, who have a distinct national and geographical
reality, and Indians, was apparent in the way the researchers in India
had informed the filmmaker. The Sikhs stand around watching but there
is a little excited scamper as a group of Nepali men cluster around
the priests who perform the fire ceremony, just before the white goat
is brought to be sacrified.

The film also tracked the way scientists used the POW camp as a rich
treasure trove of ethnic groups to practise their first
anthropological and ethnological experiments on. They measured body
parts to figure out why the Germans were not as hardy as their
enemies. This was the beginnings of the scientific racism of Nazi
Germany which would manifest twenty years later, with tragic and
far-reaching consequences.

A german girl sitting next to me was kind enough to translate. The
film ends with a funny story–although the filmmaker has never been to
India, he appears in several news reports in India, ‘shooting in
Andhra Pradesh’ on this story. The filmmaker, it appeared, was open to
the humor of narratives, to the ways in which stories are made up and
in which reality is often constructed and open to interpretation. I
wondered how he would react if I told him his story was not complete.

The ghost may have been tracked, but he seems to have left some
important details out. Did he know that about fifty percent of the
people he shows as POWs are not Indians, but Nepalis? So I asked him
in the Q and A. Had his research assistant in India, by any chance,
not told him that the men were Nepalis, speaking Nepali?

The filmmaker, disappointingly, said that he had been aware of that
they were Gurkhas, speaking a mixture of Khas and Hindustani, but that
he had not felt it was important enough to distinguish between the
many different groups from India. This would have complicated the
story. I pointed out that Nepal was already a different nation state
in the 1700s, far ahead of the Indians, but this apparently was not
historically important to distinguish. It seemed incredible to me that
an European researcher at this day and age, working with serious
historical materials, would feel this was not pertinent, but
apparently such was the case. The filmmaker talked a great deal about
colonialism. I sat in the audience and thought of the irony of how the
Nepalese reality, once again, had become submerged into a larger
Indian one, but the critic of colonialism couldn’t fathom this
important distinction.

There were large segments of black footage during which one can hear
the voices talking. As I heard the Nepali voices from almost a hundred
years ago talking about how their King would recall them back to their
homeland from the terrors of Germany, I thought about how things
haven’t really changed. Nepal sends its men and women out to Malaysia,
Korea, Iraq and Jordan these days, instead of Germany. But the faces
and the voices are still the same, and the simple faith that their
country, no matter how impotent, will save them eventually is still
the same.

‘The Half-Moon Files’ moved me, not only because the voices from so
far ago talking about displacement and loss were never heard by their
countrymen, or understood by their captors, in their own time. It also
moved me because this remains the case to this day–that Nepalis, to
this day, remain an invisible group in the global conciousness.



Filed under Anthropology, News from Nepal

2 responses to “The Half-Moon Files

  1. Hello, Your site is great. Regards, Valintino Guxxi

  2. Thanks but the credit goes to Ms. Joshi who published this article.

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