Commemorating Altab Ali

Still from the film “Altab Ali and the Battle of Brick Lane”

The memories that shape our sense of who we are aren’t always of events we experienced first hand. Memories and relationships to the past can be inherited, communicated across time and reinterpreted by successive generations. In order to understand the dynamics of identity within the Bengali community in the UK today, it’s really important to understand what pasts get passed on, how they are communicated, and the ways in which they’re made sense of by each new generation. This tells us a lot about changing Bengali identities in the UK. 

My doctoral research explores the intergenerational transmission of memories of key historical experiences within the Bangladeshi diaspora in the UK, from memories of the 1947 Partition, the 1971 Bangladeshi independence to local histories of the community and their settlement experiences here in the UK. These processes of communicating the past can be hard to describe in words so I’ve been using drawing and animation as a method for exploring how these processes work. 

As part of my research, I worked with Kazi Ruksana Begum from Tower Hamlet’s Council to develop a participatory animation film project with people from the Bengali community in East London in 2019. The film, titled “Altab Ali and the Battle of Brick Lane”

It documents the events surrounding the murder of Altab Ali, a young Bangladeshi migrant worker, amidst the rise of the Far-right racism in East London during the 1970s. It explores how this racist murder mobilized the community to take action and fight in a united manner against the violent racist forces of the time. 

Bengali communities have historically struggled for visibility and representation in the UK. This has resulted in critical histories of the community being forgotten and marked absences surrounding these pasts amongst the younger generations. The project represents an attempt to understand how participatory animation methods can be used to explore memories of difficult pasts. The project also explored how collaborative film making can facilitate the communication of critical but fading memories across generations in the Bengali migrant community. 

I wanted to produce a film that involves the participation of young community members. Three young adults from the Sylheti Bengali community participated in the film project and were involved in all stages of the process; from research, to pre-production, to animation. The aim was to provide them with a space and creative tools to develop connections to the past experience of older generations. 

Here are some of the reflections of the participants on how this journey helped evolve their own understandings on these pasts:

“Before this one project I had no idea who Altab Ali was, I didn’t even know he had a park (laughing)…. I’ve never been informed of like the racism at that time in this country. So now it’s just like it’s good to be knowledgeable, good to have knowledge on it”

Zahra

“Yeah, I feel more knowledgeable, it’s something I had no idea about. It was just like 10 minutes away from me. I was like oh, okay, that’s cool, didn’t know about that, I mean, that’s part of like our history you know”

Arif

These reflections show how participation in the project helped transform their connections to these critical pasts.

 Stills from the film

As seen from the stills above, the film uses a striking and contrasting visual palette towards an impactful retelling of the story of Altab Ali. The animated form, with the freedom for visual and creative expression that it provides, helps in a creative reimagination of these troubled histories. Animations are also easy to disseminate and are engaging with younger audiences. By representing this overlooked history through the powerful testimonies of activists from the community, the film combines memory work and creative practice. It highlights the possibilities for positive social impact through the use of creative research methodologies. The film has since been screened online to commemorate the death anniversary of Altab Ali and received great feedback:

“The film brought me to tears, took me back to my own time and memories of my youth, and yes we do need to share our history and tell the young people so that they learn from this to create a better future.”

Anonymous viewer

From the responses, it is evident that the film resonates not only with audiences of the Bangladeshi community but is relevant to people from other migrant communities and wider audiences as well. The film is currently under consideration by a number of film festivals in the UK and abroad and willl eventually be made available online on video platforms so that it can be a resource that continues to inform the younger generations of the importance of the Bengali community in the struggle against racism for years to come. 

Diwas Bisht
D.Bisht@lboro.ac.uk

You can follow MMPI’s journey on Twitter and find more information about their memory curation projects by clicking on each of the project posters below:

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