Beyond Empires - film project a two week odyssey in India
Why would a Hindu nation honor a Christian missionary with a week of celebration and a postage stamp three hundred years after his arrival in India? A film crew of three people from Boston, made up a team of five in Chennai, in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu to find out. From August 17 to 29, they filmed the first stage of a feature documentary to explore the question.
For more than four years, Australian-American director/producer Christopher Gilbert has been working with Dr. Daniel Jeyaraj, Professor of World Christianity at both Liverpool Hope University in the UK, and Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts, to tell the untold story of a twenty three year old German who brought spiritual and cultural renaissance to south India in 1706. Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg and his partner Heinrich Plutchau were the first European Protestant missionaries to anywhere, and they were sent by the King of Denmark to preach the Gospel of Christ to the native people in the Danish East India Company Port of Tranquebar. What caught Gilbert's attention was the way Ziegenbalg was celebrated.
"How many people can we name that are celebrated by a foreign culture three hundred years after they lived?" Gilbert asks. "And how do we explain that while India inaugurates a week of celebration and a postage stamp to honor him as a cultural hero, the English speaking west is ignorant of him, while Europe confines the memory of his legacy to scholarly texts and a foundation's archive?"
The documentary "Beyond Empires" is so named because of the counter intuitive way that Ziegenbalg was befriended by the poorer Tamil population, and responded in kind - akin to contemporary Saudi Muslims embracing a white American Baptist and treating him as an honored guest while providing access to everything about their religion and culture. Three hundred years ago, Ziegenbalg returned such a favor in spades, so that the spoken Tamil gained literary form for the first time, schools were begun for girls for the first time in South Asia, Europe was introduced to Tamil culture as a truly classical culture, and the language was taught in European Universities before Ziegenbalg died at age 36. It's not surprising that the Christianity that took root there among local Tamils, has been carried forward to over four million Indians who can trace their faith and their freedom from caste based fatalism to Ziegenbalg's work in Tranquebar.
For the entire film crew, including Muslim journalist Syed Ali Mujtaba, and Christian film makers, Jon Cairns and Paul Van Ness it was a journey of four years, inspired by the story's chief character Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg, and along with Gilbert and Jeyaraj also Christians, they gave their skills and talent to the project at no cost.
The crew made their base in the film district of Kodambakkam in Chennai at the Cine City Hotel - traveling first to Vels University and the ancient city of Mahabalipuram. Then, for five days to Tranquebar - now a small village but still wearing the 17th century and 18th century structures built by the Danes. In these three places they interviewed students and their teachers, a musician, historian, and experts on Ziegenbalg to unpack the multicultural dimension of Ziegenbalgs achievements through the eyes of contemporary Indians.
"The same kind of hospitality that Ziegenbalg enjoyed was offered to us wherever we went, from the Cine City Hotel, to the Ziegenbalg Spiritual Centre in Tranquebar," said director of Photography, Paul Van Ness.
In spite of monsoonal weather the film shoots seemed to go better than planned and and the work finished ahead of schedule before crew members began their individual jet treks back to Boston, and Liverpool.
"It was a real immersion in contemporary and ancient Tamil culture throughout the trip, and while it was hard for us to relate to the density of population, and the overt poverty of so many of the people, yet the generous hospitality, and kindness of the people we encountered is the overwhelming memory of the trip," said Christopher Gilbert. "It will help in the editing process that we now have a better sense that it takes a 'Beyond Empires' mentality, a 'beyond globalization' mentality to live at peace with people so very different from ourselves."
This completed filming expedition will eventuate in a TV half hour program, and short film for the documentary film festival circuit, by February 2011.
Gilbert hopes that the story will attract the attention of foundations and global public television. "I want it to be fully told, so that twenty to thirty year olds might believe that their unique lives in such a diverse world can make powerful impact for good, and become celebrated by future generations. There's so much need for us to engage in the way Tamil people and Ziegenbalg pioneered."
The film crew received a lot of attention from Indian newspapers and from Reuter's television news, Indian division. Stories appeared in The New Indian Express, the Deccan Chronicle, The Statesman and a Tamil language newspaper.
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