Lunchtime at an MST 1 settlement, where we’ve been taken in busloads to see what happens when peasants revolt. Under a tree amidst wine and laughter, I try and make a man understand that I need vegetarian food. My friend Kevin intervenes in his passable Spanish – I catch the words Muslim, halal 2 and vegetarian. The man, carrying slabs of barbecued meat on a skewer, shoots me looks of frank dislike and suspicion, until something clicks and he nods, he beams. Pointing to a shed very far away, he tells Kevin “But of course, we have special arrangements for Muslims and Vegetarians right over there”. We all shouted with laughter, I tell Naima later, but she is distressed, puzzled. “But Taran, why didn’t you explain to him? What does a Muslim even say to a vegetarian?”

Conversations at the Forum tend to often thus intersect. I could well ask Tseretó – what does a Brazilian Indian say to an Indian Indian? This article draws from our crosstalk at Porto Alegre in 2003 and Mumbai in 2004. Our exchanges appear as fragmented snatches of talk between the three of us, jagged and untidy around the edges. Read together, with their interruptions and arbitrary connections, I will attempt to use them as a thread of enquiry into the many layers of identity. The WSF connects these issues as the physical space where these exchanges happen as well as the virtual context for our relationship. It is the one reference point we have, the sole constant in our conversations that span media / mediums, continents and even language. The article will attempt to examine how open the Forum is to the expression of various layers of identity – some being more comfortably received than others. Through the combined arch of our experiences, I hope to offer an insight into the very nature of the networking sought to be achieved by the Forum, and how these relationships can move from the ephemerality of the Forum to an enduring connection.

My conversation with Tseretó began much before I met him, in November 2002, with the emails that assembled our working group for our film. “Help make a documentary on the World Social Forum” ran the posting on the Indymedia website. The project was an experimental collaboration, where the film would be crafted from the perspective of protagonists and their journey through the Forum. The aim was to create a personal account of the Forum, by following the protagonists as they encountered new and familiar concerns at the Forum. I was to be one, Tseretó the other. Through the background note on the postings, I found that he was a Xavante indigenous Brazilian and had worked as a videographer for NGOs that dealt with various issues affecting communities like his. Quite a mouthful, but not so different from my own background blurb. A collaboration between two Indians, ran one somewhat retrograde interpretation With the slight edge of competition already between us, we met in the Indymedia house in Porto Alegre. I already knew we didn’t share a language – after an excruciating half-hour of laborious translation of meaningless commonplaces later, I was convinced that we didn’t have a thing to say to each other.

Porto Alegre was bristling with film crews during the Forum. Tseretó and I, carrying cameras, got lost in the crowd of guerrillas wielding representation technology quite easily. Naima stood out, in her headscarf that she prefers to call a veil. A year later, in Mumbai, I asked her if she hadn’t felt awkward in Brazil at being the only woman around for miles in her hijab. But no, she said, I feel stranger here, you know why? In Porto Alegre, nobody asked me about my veil, they did not even look strangely at me, even though everyone there was wearing very little clothes. But in Mumbai, she said, a city full of Muslims, burqas 3 and all varieties of veiled women, she was made to feel singled out. She didn’t say it out loud, and neither did I, but we both sensed that behind the curiosity of the glances and the unabashedly rude, aggressive questions, there was deep discomfort at a white woman, a French woman living in London, wearing a costume of the repressed. It was only when after prolonged questioning her Algerian roots had been established that an acquaintance of mine heaved a satisfied sigh. ”Oh”, he said, “she’s an Arab. That’s why.”. Stripped of her French credentials, Naima would have been happy, perhaps.

Imagining global communities: snapshots of civil society A nation, or the idea of belonging to a nation, is essentially a feat of the imagination (Anderson, 1991). These imagined communities are cemented and bonded by cultural products, particularly the media. In Anderson’s analysis, the advent of print had much to do with the spread of capitalism over Europe. “Newspapers create imagined linkages between ‘communities’; their reading is a mass ceremony which knits together a community in anonymity yet confident of its existence.” (1991, p. 33) The community thus imagined is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship, regardless of actual inequality or exploitation that may exist within it. A similar sense of affinity, a forging of an extra-territorial community of global citizens, united in their striving for “another world” is evident at the WSF and the writings around it (Waterman, 2004). There is a heightened awareness of living in a global system, a sense of people no longer being separated by physical obstacles or by temporal distances (Virilio as quoted in Vishwanathan, 2001). This comfort with movements composed of diverse networks and activists scattered over the globe is one of the features that distinguishes “New” Social Movements (NSMs), of which the World Social Forum is the apex expression.4 The practical basis for this new form of “global civil society” (Gill, 2000, p. 138) lies in the ability of activists to create political links between different, distant events so that they will become more than “distant proximities” or isolated moments of resistance against globalisation. The contribution of the WSF has been to this way of seeing the world – a willingness to perceive connections across contexts and receptivity to resonances.

The relationship of the media with this movement to create a new form of “planetary citizenship” (as the WSF charter calls it) is critical. “The Internet enables activist groups and movements to make their ideas available directly to potential sympathizers via websites and to communicate instantly with a large number of supporters via email.” (Shaw, 2004, p. 47) Notable examples are the Save the Narmada Movement in India and the Zapatistas in Mexico, which used the Internet amongst other means to reach out to a global community of supporters and collaborators and gain visibility in the international media. Other than creating and nurturing this support base, the objective of (new) media practitioners associated with these movements is to protest against the hegemony of the deeply compromised corporate media and to offer alternative news feeds and images. Again, this community of media practitioners is imagined as being global, democratic and authentic.

Nowhere in the Forum is the project of imagining another world given more urgency than in this collective of new media warriors. Nowhere are the results of their efforts more immediate; Polaroid-like, the “reality” of the Forum is preserved for all to see at the end of each day. André Bazin, in his classic essay on the desire underpinning the documentary impulse, wrote, “Only a photographic lens can give us the kind of image of the object that is capable of satisfying the deep need man has to substitute for it something more than a mere approximation. The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it.” (quoted in Renov, 1999, p. 2). Perhaps this is behind the near compulsion to record the Forum, the glut of documentaries, videos, and photographs. The attempt is to establish the “truth” of the Forum by ensuring its permanence through the “incorruptibility of optics” (Richter as quoted in Renov, 1999). There is tremendous energy, a sense of euphoria at the possibilities, excitement at being part of a movement that is at once inclusive and creative. In this charmed circle of horizontal power, Tseretó and I charged around happily, following our interests through the Forum, helped by our crew. Thrilled at this chance to tell our own stories, each of us perhaps only dimly realised that we were not listening to the story of the other.

Gujarat was on my mind a lot in Porto Alegre, it was my big story.5 I spoke about the pogrom all the time. While interviewing people or when talking to panelists, I would ask them, have you heard of what happened in Gujarat? Mumbai is very close to Ahmedabad, the location for the most gruesome sequences of the carnage. At the 2004 Forum in Mumbai, several of the large NGOs and donor agencies working in Ahmedabad mounted an exhibition called “Window on Gujarat”. Part of it dealt with the pogrom. It was large and impressive; exploring various themes thrown up by the pogrom through professionally designed sets, Angst-filled animation pieces and abstract video frames. Many people saw it, and by all accounts it was a successful and effective installation. A very little way away I ran into Shafi, camped out in a lawn in front of one of the larger halls. I had seen him last on a rain soaked balcony in one of the relief camps in Ahmedabad. A riot survivor, he had come to the Forum to find support for an NGO he and some friends had launched to help others who had lost everything in the dhamaal (riot) and to rebuild ties of trust and harmony in their city. One of the fundamental reasons behind the undeniable significance of the WSF, one that is trotted out most often for the sake of sceptics or observers when they ask “what is the point?”, is that the Forum is an open space for exchange and sharing. Specifically, “as a framework for the exchange of experiences, the WSF encourages understanding and mutual recognition among its participant organisations and movements, and places special value on the exchange amongst them.”. Further, “As a context for interrelations, the WSF seeks to strengthen and create new and international links amongst organisations and movements of society.” (see the WSF Charter of Principles, 2001).

The disconnect between Shafi and the exhibition that had such an intimate link to his life – which in a sense represented “his” cause and his story – at a mega-event in support of global networking is significant regardless of the many defences that can be offered for the circumstance. The fact that Shafi remained outside on his patch of green, peddling pamphlets to passers-by already overburdened with paper, is indicative of lacunae that are thrown into sharp relief at the Forum, but are by no means exclusive to or limited to it. The social distance between Shafi and the “Window on Gujarat” is far greater than the few steps between them. The creation of networks and genuine connections, which I return to later, would thus appear to require more than stated aims and shared tent space.

Airbrushed images: being Muslim at the Forum Naima has the most amazing story about the way Muslims have integrated into the anti-war movement in Britain. It was November 2002, the third day of Ramadan, and she was part of a protest march against the US occupation of Afghanistan. The march of several thousands culminated at Trafalgar Square, close to the evening hour when the fast is broken. It was the most incredible feeling, she told me, when one of the brothers (in Islam) gave the call to prayer from a platform right there under Nelsons’ Column. In the very heart of London, Muslims and their comrades of other faiths broke the fast together with dates and water. Then, in one corner of the Square, a group of Muslim men and women gathered to pray.6 I see it for myself during those many marches across the streets of London, which would often end with large jamaats (congregations) praying in Hyde Park before dispersing. Talking to one of the members of the Stop the War Coalition, I realized that this level of integrated participation and confidence is not accidental but the outcome of a lot of hard work. It took a conscious decision to reach out to the Muslims after 9/11, liaison sessions with imams of mosques all over the country, confidence building measures and a visible and consistent anti-racist stance to create the impressive spectacle of Muslim participation I saw.7 The integration is by no means seamless – there are moments of discomfort with the clothes, appearance, demeanour and slogans of the Muslim organisations, particularly when the word “jihad” is used. However, it is important to understand that there are plenty of Muslims who are not affiliated to an Islamist group, who join the protests since they feel it provides a legitimate platform for their resistance. Crucially, their participation is as Muslims. Also as other things, but the religious cultural component is overtly expressed as part of their identity and their politics.

It is this foregrounding of Muslim-ness that is almost entirely missing from both meetings of the Forum. In Porto Alegre, Naima walks around in her Progressive Muslim Network T-shirt, hoping to be stopped and asked what a Progressive Muslim may be. Her idea is to emphasise that being Muslim and being anti-capital / anti-war are not mutually exclusive. Further, that it is possible to have a roster of reasons for opposing the war that includes ideas linked to her religious identity and yet remain altogether progressive. She is thrilled when a few women ask her about her T-shirt, tells me it felt good to perhaps change the way they saw Islam and Muslims, to contribute her bit against the demonisation of Islam. The PMN is the only Muslim organisation I encounter in Porto Alegre, and I was looking hard for more. My search does not imply that I seek to pigeonhole activists according to religion (or any other ethnic / social tag), or that I feel more comfortable associating with activists professing the same faith. Merely that I am intrigued at the absence of spaces for faith-based mobilisation and participation should one choose to attend the Forum (or some part of it) in that guise. This discomfort with practiced, expressed religious identity has some comic aspects, as when I was repeatedly asked by a British trade unionist if a revolution was really possible “in my religion” without a drink or two. Identity is a fluid concept, a set of hats we change and swap according to our context. My attempt here is to point out the subsumption of one set of hats at the Forum because the context does not encourage their being flaunted.

Further, it is disturbing to note that this discomfort appears to be more pronounced in the case of Islamic organisations. The appearance of the Students Islamic Organisation (SIO) delegation midway through the Forum produced a reaction that Buddhist monks, Brahmakumaris and Catholic associations had somehow avoided eliciting. The SIO is not my favourite organisation, and I suspect the sentiment is entirely mutual. Nevertheless the hostility and uneasiness the presence of their modest group of bearded men wearing white tunics and offering congregational prayers in their stall elicited would seem to indicate a presence of the very phobias and images about Islam that so many at the Forum claim to be fighting. This is all the more dangerous since in the trajectory of expansion of the WSF and constituent movements, Islam and Muslims form a significant thread – through 9/11, the US war on Afghanistan and then Iraq. Rather than airbrushing out the skullcaps and the beards, it may be more sensible for the Forum to try to “build bridges with the world of faith” (Sen, 2003, p. 5).

A kind of silence: Tseretó talks at last Three days into the Forum in Porto Alegre, I am intrigued by Tseretó’s single-minded pursuit of enquiry into the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movement. Finally his persistence moves me to ask – why, Tseretó? They impress him, he explains in his careful way, taking his time over his sentences. He is interested by the way a group on the very margins of society has managed to gain some degree of acceptance. At the same time he is touched by their pain, at the daily humiliations they face in defence of their chosen way of life. Does he know anyone who is homosexual, someone in his tribe perhaps? No, he says, faintly surprised by my question, but definite. None of his friends or acquaintances is gay. But he can understand what they feel like, being on the margins of society.

His response provides an aperture through which the relationship between technology, power and meaning at the Forum can be explored more fully. Gramsci talks of the creation of the “myth” – a dramatic form or idea created by the fusion of political ideology and practice (as quoted in Gill, 2000, p. 137). The myth he proposed was of a modern democratic political party that would construct a new form of society and state. In the context of media practitioners at the WSF, the myth is the result of the fusion of low cost, accessible technology with egalitarian practices and ethics of representation. The drama of the myth (as I have mentioned earlier) lies in the idea that this has created a level playing field; that everyone now has the means to tell their own, authentic stories. This is a powerful idea, one that is being played out in many forms in different arenas. However, as a mobilizing / organising “myth” contingent upon the imagined egalitarian community of media players, it is flawed on several counts.

The politics of approaching the Forum as a filmmaker “belonging” to a disadvantaged / marginalised community are far more complicated. Scratch the surface of the horizontal fraternity and the same hierarchies and power structures emerge. Like the rigid hierarchy of the media centre in Mumbai, with its colour-coded badges, stern gatekeepers and exclusive spaces that would, I am sure, have baffled Tseretó. The deterministic assumption that wider availability of cheap digital technology in the developing world implies a democratisation of representation ignores the fact that it is social structures that determine both access and impact. There is no inherent virtue in technology that will allow it to bypass already existing hierarchies – the digital divide is superimposed on other, earlier divides. Even when the technology comes with no strings attached, as it did for us in Porto Alegre, the tendency is to confirm to a pre-conceived agenda – to produce images that correspond to the expected / familiar for the audience. This audience is seldom the same as the constituency the filmmaker herself “represents”. The filmmaker positions herself in a “behalfist” mode, i.e. speaking on behalf of her constituency, representing “their” problems to an external audience. The authentic stories that emanate from this indigenous source may thus still be skewed, the power equation will remain asymmetrical – albeit in a more subtle, unconscious manner.

I am this potentially flawed source; a possible distorting megaphone claiming privilege for my voice based on the invisibility of my “kind”. This awareness comes from the fact that my work derives its substance and vigour from the stories that surround me. Stories from the past, of the journeys taken by women before me. Of my current reality, and the baggage that I carry – of being young and a Muslim in India today. A montage of images flickers each time I try to define this stream of experiences that flows through my work, binding and shaping it in a hundred subtle ways. Midnight raids in the narrow lanes of localities where Muslims live in Delhi, where young men were arrested on suspicion of being terrorists because they used a cybercafe too often. (Every family I know has at least one such story of a young male relative who was taken away by the police and held under pre-emptive terrorist “prevention” laws. Some returned after months of torture or just imprisonment. Others did not return at all.) I think of a medieval mosque that was destroyed not far from where I live. Conversations that fluttered and extinguished when I walked into a room. The very real fear in my cousin’s eyes when his brother refused to shave his “al-Qaeda” style beard. Explaining to school teachers that no, my father did not have four wives, actually. Many people crowded together in relief camps in Ahmedabad, children grown hideously old, a chilling hatred taking root in their eyes.

As a filmmaker, my telling of these stories (in actual and unseen forms) requires a constant alertness, a form of reflexivity that has come to characterise most documentary filmmaking today, in the sense of acknowledging the film-maker’s own stake in the spectacle being documented. In my case, the internal dialogue runs to a repeated checklist against focusing on issues that would be perceived as coming naturally from an Indian Muslim woman, as being relevant to her as a matter of course. Half a world away from the location of most of my dramas, I am reminded of the different ways in which this almost subconscious resistance works, often against tremendous odds. With his crew from across the world gathered around him, waiting to hear his stories, Tseretó chose to talk of resonances, to locate his work around issues that had meaning outside his immediate context yet were linked in myriad ways to his lived existence.

We had a conversation soon after this, one that required no translators because by some trick of communication, Tseretó and I found we could understand each other even when speaking different languages. We spoke that day of the similarities in the problems faced by Muslim and Xavante youth in getting a job, being accepted by the mainstream, the insidious forms of discrimination they face. We spoke with words but also with our bodies, studying the other closely to grasp the meaning of intonations and gestures. What flowed between us was not language alone, but a form of empathy, which must be the basis of all communication.

The term “poetics” describes the principles of construction, function and effect specific * to non-fiction film and video. These are described by Renov (1993, p. 21) as:

  • to record, reveal or preserve,
  • to persuade or promote,
  • to analyze or interrogate,
  • to express.

The exigencies of the modes of communication and representation emerging at the WSF would argue for the articulation of a new poetics of contemporary documentary-activist work, which will have as its basis a kind of silence.8 Tseretó’s silence can be understood in this sense as a refusal to participate in a compromised exchange – it is in effect, what he has to say. This kind of silence would be a refusal to fetishise the object of documentation and a protest against the marketing and colonization of people and meanings by the camera / person. “The world is closed in a frame and hung for exhibition. It is no longer the world in fact but a world of artefacts, little remembrances or fetishes, and the space for exhibition of these fetishes... In response to these anthropological and video-logical problems, (we) propose a non-pological immersion, the goal of which is to build human relations through cultural exchange, explore non-captured video and photography, to situate our selves (to frame our shots) not according to the marketability or exhibitionability of our experience but according to curiosity and possibility, and finally to relearn to love to forget.” (Brown, 2003) 9

Towards closure: the Forum as memory A fairly representative Forum journal excerpt runs like this. “By the time the Forum opened, I had met Breton French organic farm activists and a famous South African anti-apartheid poet, an accordion playing Communist MP from Switzerland, Italian veterans of the battle of Genoa and many more.” (Wolfwood, 2004, p. 81)

Naima, Tseretó and I have never met as a group. They do not even know of the other’s existence. Yet we are connected in as real a way as the groups mentioned above, if not more intimately. There are many ways of sharing the Forum, which links us and reinvents us from three points in a triangle to a trio. This assertion is linked to a particular way of seeing the Forum, which insists on going beyond the enjoyable yet ephemeral meetings that are so celebrated by journal writers of all varieties. The creation of enduring connections, as I have mentioned earlier, is a matter of sharing more than a space. It demands a proactive effort towards putting systems in place that guarantee inclusiveness. It cannot be enough to create pretty pictures – the premium needs to be placed on creating a culture of openness and an active pursuit of relationships that endure beyond listings of exotica picked up on travels. There is also a need to acknowledge the significance of the arena of conflicts related to material reproduction and distribution to new social movements and to the WSF in particular. The view that new social movements (and by extension the Forum) are more concerned with conflicts over abstract issues of cultural reproduction – the struggle over identity, meaning, specific causes – has served as a justification for vacuous and unrooted modes of exchange, functioning and representation. The result is dilemmas like Shafi’s, marooned outside his own meaning. It is important to recognise that “conflicts of race, religion and nationality, real as they are, actually stand for something else, even when they take on lives of their own. These are material conditions, but they reverberate in the economic, political and cultural-ideological spheres.” (Sklair, 1991, p. 231). This awareness provides the bedrock for the linking of movements into a politically coherent and potent force that gives the Forum its strategic and ideological strength. It is also the foundation on which the flurry of movement and meetings that characterizes the Forum can be nurtured, transformed into relationships or conversations that acquire a life of their own in the lived existence of social actors, where they may in some way effect change, prompt action or take stories forward.

The bond between Naima, Tseretó and myself in this sense represents a crystallisation of this understanding of the Forum. Our refusal to assume that two filmmakers from the underdeveloped world will “naturally” have something to share, our refusal to accept that two Muslim women will connect largely because they are both Muslim indicates that it is this materially grounded, holistic experience of the Forum that holds us together. Simultaneously our trio stands for the potential that is offered by this gathering of diversity and resonance. Our conversations flow like threads on a spider’s web, meeting at odd, arbitrary yet ordered intervals, supporting a whole we cannot see but try to guess at. Like characters in Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies, our stories have points that intersect, have moments that may perhaps inspire other stories from a different time, and continue to their conclusions. The sum of our exchanges – which span the unconscious coherence of faith and the self-conscious power of image manufacture – is perhaps most succinctly summed up by an SIO poster that asserts that another world is indeed possible “…but only if God help you”.

Notes . My heartfelt thanks to Naima Bouteldja and Tseretó Tsahõbõ for their generous sharing of ideas and experiences. Any inaccuracies in statements attributed to them or misrepresentations of their intended meaning are my responsibility alone. I am also indebted to Kevin Brown and RJ Maccani for many of the ideas that are expressed in this article, particularly regarding the documentary project of which they were a part. A special thanks to Giuseppe Caruso for his company on that mad, magical trip across Brazil. A separate tribute is due to the SOAS Stop the War Group, which provided partial financial assistance for my trip to Porto Alegre in 2003. 1. Movemento Dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, the Brazilian landless labour movement. This incident occurred at one of their model communes on the outskirts of Porto Alegre. 2. Food (prepared in a manner) permitted to Muslims. 3. A long dress, a form of covering for women commonly worn across the Indian subcontinent. 4. This does not imply that the Forum is composed exclusively of new social movements, or to deny its role as a meeting ground between old and new social movements. What I am trying to suggest here is that the range of issues and global sweep of the WSF has made it internalise and epitomise the ethics and practice of new social movements. 5. In February 2002, the Indian state of Gujarat was torn by communal conflagrations on an unprecedented scale, sparked off by the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. The subsequent violence was targeted almost exclusively against Muslims, particularly in the capital city of Ahmedabad, while the state apparatus either remained inactive or participated in the killings. For evidence of the planned and targeted nature of the violence, as well as state complicity in the killings, see Crime Against Humanity: Concerned Citizens Tribunal, Human Rights Watch Report, and “We Have No Orders to Save You”. Gujarat Carnage 2002 Report to the Nation by an Independent Fact Finding Mission. 7. See “À part, bien sûr, Mme Thatcher” by Naima Bouteldja (www.voiceoftheturtle.org). 8. The Stop The War movement has succeeded in building one of the most broad based anti-war movements in Britain, largely through its pro-active attitude in reaching out to various sections of civil society and policy and practice of inclusiveness. It is thus supported by groups that have startlingly diverse views on a gamut of issues, but have come together on a common platform to condemn the war. 9. This phrase was first used to describe the documentary project by Kevin Brown. 10. See the web posting “Outline of an Experiment” on , Kevin Brown, April 2003.

References Anderson, B., 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso. Gill, S., 2000. Towards a postmodern Prince? The battle in Seattle as a moment in the history of globalisation. Millennium, 29(1). Renov, M., ed., 1993. Theorizing Documentary. New York: Routledge. Renov, M., 1999. New Subjectivities: Documentary and Self-Representation? in the post-Verité Age. Yamagata Film Festival Documentary Box. Sen, J., 2003. The Long March to Another World. Unpublished MS. Sklair, L., 1991. Sociology of the Global System. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf. Shaw, M., 2004. Western wars and peace activism: social movements in global mass mediated politics. In: Sarai Reader Crisis / Media. New Delhi: Sarai. Vishwanathan, S., 2001. The Problem. Seminar (Internet) 503. (available online at http://www.india-seminar.com/semframe.htm. (external link)) Waterman, P., 2004. The global justice and solidarity movement & the WSF: a backgrounder. In: Sen, J., Anand, A., Escobar, A. & Waterman, P. (eds), World Social Forum: Challenging Empires. New Delhi: The Viveka Foundation, 55-66. Wolfwood, T., 2004. Another world is possible: globalisation by the people. In: Sen, J., Anand, A., Escobar, A. & Waterman, P. (eds), World Social Forum: Challenging Empires. New Delhi: The Viveka Foundation, 81-86.


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