DOCUMENTING CHANGE THROUGH FILM
If These Walls Could Speak
History changes when a community is neglected; when a community’s cultural significance goes unpreserved. These are the fatal happenings of Slave Island. Slave Island was once a predominantly Malay settlement, a fact that is still reflected in street names such as, ‘Malay Street’ and ‘Java Lane’. But these landmarks are being erased, forever changing the history of its people. Filmmaker Zeeshan Akram Jabeer attempts to document the stories of the people, he records the history of the community and the vivacious lives that once existed through ‘If These Walls Could Speak’. The documentary is part of a project from Colomboscope 2022 and explores the consequences of displacement and its effect on histories, cultural identities and the emotional turmoil that follows, while exposing the cause of the community’s disappearance.
‘If These Walls Could Speak’ is an investigative documentary with enlightening narrative drama, If These Walls Could Speak examines the effects of displacement and the emotional conflict following the urbanization of the culturally diverse suburb of Colombo, Slave Island. Written and Directed by Zeeshan Akram Jabeer, set in the dark underbelly of suburban Sri Lanka, ‘If These Walls Could Speak’ exposes the disturbing predicament: the consequences of displacement and identity discontinuity following the emotional conflict of urbanization. Centered around the 150-year-old de Soysa Building and its residents, the latest in the long line of victims to the ever-changing landscape of Slave Island in the name of redevelopment, this film delves headfirst into the effects of urbanization, displacement, and dispossession and explores the slow burn repercussions it has on cultural values, identity and histography while drawing parallels between history and memory. In conversation with Zeeshan, we look into the making of the film and the premise that begins the documentation.
Q | What of Slave Island’s character do you admire most?
A | That would be for me personally, the life, this sense of ever-dynamic busyness within the suburb whilst also being warm, friendly and accommodating to the outsiders. Though it exists within this mass concrete jungle, Slave Island exists almost in a bubble, culturally rich and socially intact, untainted if not for urbanization. I would say, it's straight out of a Sri Lankan postcard, but unfortunately, we can't have nice things.
Q | How did your journey begin to these works?
A | I moved to Sri Lanka when I was around 12, I think the most formidable years of my life were spent being a hermit, a complete outsider. I guess you could say escapism led me to fall in love with films, but this was just for consumption, I never thought I'd end up being a filmmaker but expect the unexpected as every little choice from writing to being to creating content for the internet to producing an episode that won an award at the Indian Television Awards to producing docu-series for Fashion TV, everything snowballed to this moment. If These Walls Could Speak is nothing short of a dream come true.
I'm just in my element when I'm consumed by these projects, the process of turning an idea, something that is in your head that only you understand into something tangible that you can share with everyone else is truly a blessing. I'm just grateful that I can be a medium through which I tell stories, in hopes that it bridges the gap and people can see these stories unravelling in front of us the way I see it.
Q | How best does the medium of film capture the gentrifications and effects of the transforming Slave Island?
A | Even though If These Walls Could Speak is primarily a film about the effects of displacement and the emotional conflict following the urbanization, centered around the magnanimous de Soysa building, in its true essence it's a story about the people, a window to their soul if you may. I was very keen on not making a film about glorifying a building or an area, but a film about the people, their lifestyle, and culture that makes a place what it is, that gives it meaning and therefore value.
As humans, we bleed emotions and that really shows in stories like this. There were instances in the film, where I deliberately let the camera keep rolling a few seconds more as the interviewees conveyed their most heartfelt and emotional thoughts. I could be biased but something like that is most effectively captured through this medium, most of the interviews are so beautifully poignant, it makes the weight of their suffering yours. I think that's the beauty of it at the end of the day, you can take everything away from a person, their religion, culture, and everything that contributes to their sense of identity but, humans always have a way of making any place home.
Zeeshan Akram Jabeer is a Creative Director and Filmmaker. His career has seen him move from working in a traditional print environment, advertising, and on-to television and documentary production helming widely acclaimed and award-winning projects; including shooting an episode for NDTV that won Best Fashion & Lifestyle Show at Indian Television Academy Awards 2019. Producing two highly acclaimed 5-episode documentary series for Fashion TV in 2019. More recently, directing a highly acclaimed feature documentary film: 'If These Walls Could Speak' which was co-funded by Deutsche Gesellschaft fuer Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, European Union, and British Council. Work is seen on CNN, Fashion TV, NDTV. Zeeshan launched 'Mastering Mediocrity', in the wake of the pandemic and ranked #15 on Most-Listened Podcast on Apple Podcast in Sri Lanka, with over 15k streams and accessible on Youtube, Spotify, Google, and Apple Podcast.
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