Taran N Khan
The road in Yirmiyan Arthur Yhome’s documentary, This Road I know, carries the weight of many metaphors. At the beginning of the film, it takes us into the memories of the director’s idyllic childhood. As the narrative unfolds, it turns into a device to explore ethnic divisions and the history of violence that marks the region where Yhome grew up.
The road in question is the highway between Nagaland and Manipur. As the filmmaker notes, it is a symbolic, as well as an economic, lifeline to the rest of the country. Blockades are often enforced on this road, causing terrific damage to local economies and hardships to residents – a note that is sure to have resonated with the audience in Kathmandu during Film Southasia 2015. The capital is reeling from shortages due to the blockage of fuel and other goods on its border with India, now in its second month.
The film traverses geography and history through the lens of Yhome’s personal journey across the terrain of these states. The first glimpse of Kohima of her childhood, for instance, is of a city of light, accompanied by singing of her siblings as they made their way home. Her coming of age coincided with state excesses, insurgency and ethnic divides between Nagas and Kukis. With time, she says, came an awareness of the army presence along the highway. And with adulthood came the scrutiny at the checkpoints on the road, that made residents feel like they were “living in a zoo”, in the words of one student activist. In one sequence that appears to have been shot surreptitiously, Yhome, who has lived in Delhi for many years, speaks in passable Hindi to a soldier at a checkpoint as he searches her car. This can’t be easy for you either, she tells him. And he agrees.
On this road, she recalls, she had a gun held to her head, once by the security forces and once by an “underground” or insurgent. Along with the conflict, her film documents the voices that rose against the killings. Yhome channels stories of incredible courage along the road. Like K Matia, who returned to her village on the border between Nagaland and Manipur to attempt to do what she could to stop the violence. From her roadside stall, she recalled getting into buses and urging people to get down and buy what they needed without being scared, as there were “mothers” there to protect them. A far cry from Yhome’s childhood, when the road was dotted with abundance, from pineapples to bamboo shoots, to dried mushrooms, especially picked up from Kuki towns.
The tallest figure in the film is Irom Sharmila, who appears in the film tangentially, through her mother. The well-known activist has been on a fast since November 2000, demanding the repeal of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts (AFSPA), which gives the Indian army sweeping powers in the state. She has been forcibly fed through a nose tube, and has spent years in prison or under custody in hospitals. In a moving sequence, Irom Sharmila’s mother shows a pillow given to her by her daughter, filled with flowers. She takes it with her everywhere.
The most valuable aspect of This Road I Know is such foregrounding of women’s experience of war. Yhome uses the experiences of iconic activists like Rosemary Dzuvichu of the Naga Mothers Association (NMA), who talks of the challenge of dealing with patriarchal controls as well as state brutality. During the years of conflict, the NMA emerged as one of the foremost voices from the region protesting against atrocities by the armed forces as well as demanding justice from Naga groups. Dzuvichu tells the director that, contrary to popular belief, women are not well-represented in Naga decision making bodies. And demanding such representation leads to push back from the community, which tries to dismiss it as interfering with ‘traditions’. Caught in the midst of these pulls and pressures from all sides, Yhome’s voice describes how the road, tortuous as it is, is even more difficult to negotiate for women.
It is a complex landscape and Yhome’s film raises important questions, even as it suffers from prosaic camerawork and unimaginative editing. The television style cuts and dissolve are a disservice to the importance of its protagonists, and the vitality of their voices. The music is an uplifting element throughout the journey, and one wishes for more of the distinctive sounds of the region that Yhome uses with love and skill. Despite these setbacks, This Road I Know is an insider’s account of an underrepresented terrain, and a valuable woman’s perspective on the conflict, and possible roads to peace.
~Taran N Khan is a Mumbai-based journalist who writes on cinema, Islam and gender. She has been traveling to Kabul since 2006 where she worked closely with Afghan media producers and filmmakers. Her work can be seen at www.porterfolio.net/taran.
~This article is part of a series of column on cinema by Taran N Khan for Himal. Read her earlier column on three documentaries screened at Film Southasia 2015.