Mara Ahmed’s A Thin Wall is a personal, engrossing documentary, that manages to somehow look at Partition without focusing on violent images. I know both director Ahmed, and producer Surbhi Dewan, and they’ve made a film that takes a documentary form, but is closer to something like essay.
It’s hard to talk about Partition without going into some gory detail, and though A Thin Wall features many firsthand, harrowing accounts, its tone is somewhere between memory, nostalgia, and, surprisingly, optimism.
Ahmed’s film isn’t historical accounting, nor is it biased demonization (though, the British do, deservingly, get some of the brunt). There are Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs represented here. I found it interesting that we even get some Christian imagery. The strategy seems to be to do away with categorizations by, in fact, showing all categorizations.
Some of the interviews in this film are heart-wrenching. One woman’s account of her father warning her about her own brothers was hard to watch. You can hear the tremor in her voice.
The film feels essay-ish not only because of Ahmed’s own voiceover, but also because Dewan is featured visually and aurally throughout the film. Through her own words we get something like recollection and confession. It might be tempting to dismiss those beats as derailing us from a central narrative, but that would be trying to pigeonhole A Thin Wall into an accustomed form, which is precisely what the filmmakers want to avoid.
There’s such a mixture of form here: talking head, staged interviews; two voiceovers; handheld, spur of the moment interviews; animation; traditional B-roll. It’s collage, but also a good example of the myriad ways to recall and/or discuss a difficult event – just sitting down and talking won’t do it justice, you have to get at it from multiple angles.
It’s the uncommon film that maintains the feeling of refusal to look away, while also, and seemingly contradictorily, refusing to show those images that we might typically look away from. Much of that comes from the openness with which the subjects in the film speak, including on-the-street interviewees (though I’m sure many didn’t make the cut).
I have no doubt that if Ahmed had wanted to she could have found a trove of images, testimonials, etc, that delve into the horror show that was much of Partition. It’s not that these aren’t worthwhile, it’s that she hopes we know the history already, and that we can put our focus on the human, living element.