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Third leap across the line

"It is no good condemning people without understanding them. You have to jump the dividing line. I work with people as a director works with actors... I have to be mindful of not betraying that trust. "   Mira Hamermesh

Brigit Grant, HAM & HIGH, 1st June 1990

An elderly Indian woman weeps as she tells how her husband and grandchildren were shot dead by landlords who massacred a village of so-called untouchables - another atrocity inflicted on the slaves of Hindu society in this hidden form of apartheid.


 In June 1988 more than a dozen villagers aged between 6 months and 50 years were wiped out in a midnight raid on their homes after one dared to voice demands for the statutory minimum wage instead of a meagre half a kilo of rice a day.


 Their killers are still at large and the survivors fear they will never be brought to justice in a society built on a rigid system which condemns a quarter of the population - 150 million to 200 million Indians - to a life of discrimination because they were born into the lowest caste.


 This case is just one of the 10,000 officially reported human rights abuses and many more unreported, inflicted on the outcasts by compatriots. They include gouging out the eyes of a man for buying land, forcing others to eat human excrement, and the gang rape and murder of a 25-year-old woman.


 It is revealed to a Western audience by painter-turned-film maker Mira Hamermesh in a project she wrote, directed and produced, focussing on the social-tier system based on Hindu ideas purity, impurity and re-incarnation that sanctions supremacy.


 CASTE AT BIRTH is the last in her trilogy of films on social injustice that started with the exploration of apartheid through the relationships between black household workers and their white bosses in the award-winning MAIDS AND MADAMS, and continued with TALKING TO THE ENEMY, on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.


 All three bear the hallmark of an artist whose self-confessed obsessions are with war, women and injustice, and whose training as a filmmaker specialising in drama as opposed to documentary leads her to see her role as one of telling a story through "jumping a divide" - presenting all sides of an argument and allowing women space to have their say.  


 At her home in St John's Wood, she said the common theme was the exploration not of political right-left conflict but of cultural sickness, a kind of malaise. Taking an intensely personal approach, dealing with issues she feels can help shed light upon her own background as the daughter of Polish Jewish parents murdered in the Holocaust, tackling the issues of caste was initially difficult.



"South Africa was a place I went to find out how my mother must have lived in a ghetto and what I as a child escaped. That idea and that particular pain or sorrow demanded I went to a place where there was still a classical example of social arrangements whereby one lot of people take upon themselves the right to define others as inferior or lesser."


"TALKING TO THE ENEMY was much closer to home. I have family in Israel and I needed to find out what it feels like to be on the other side of the fence. Most films on the subject are seen as pro-Arab or pro-Israeli. I wanted to see if I could find another way of entering this conflict between neighbours who are enemies.”


When a friend, Indian writer Mulk Raj Amand, who wrote, 'Untouchable,' on the plight of caste in the 1930s, urged her to expose the continued injustice in his country, she at first found it hard to make the link with her own background. "I am not English, so colonial history is not in my psyche, but eventually the idea he planted germinated inside me because my parents during the war were reduced to the status of outcasts which killed them. Through this angle I found a raw nerve which made the connection possible."  


Visiting India, she discovered and documented an avoidance and psychology of denial or self-delusion amongst the middle classes to the problem, an attitude many of those filmed talk about with startling ease. The film weaves the breath-takingly complacent views of the comfortably-off with the harsh and humiliating realities of day-to-day life as an untouchable, forced to live outside the village walls or on the city streets in abject poverty, barred from using common wells, beaten by priests for attempting to worship in temples.


Excuses trip lightly off the tongues of those who explain it away as the natural order of things - if you are born into the lowest caste you must have done something in a previous life to deserve your present punishment. At a dinner-table discussion, members of a comfortably off family explain that things have changed in the forty years since independence - their parents wouldn't have allowed an untouchable in the house, now one is allowed to clean the lavatory.


The dean of a medical school reassures the camera that discrimination for college places were eradicated by the laws guaranteeing reserved spaces to students of the lowest caste. What he fails to mention is that these people are given no access to education and so most are illiterate. They themselves eloquently explain the other side of the coin - survival by scavenging, sweeping and cleaning, and as bonded labourers for land-owners.


The skill in capturing people talking with ease about their prejudices lies in refusing to point the fingers at individuals, seeing the problem of social injustice in a wider context as a conflict bought on by a system deeply ingrained in society, says Mira Hamermesh. "It is no good condemning people without understanding them. You have to jump the dividing line. I work with people as a director works with actors, I get to know a lot about them before I film them. It is a matter of trust and I have to be very, mindful of not betraying that trust."

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