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July 7, 2000
Scouring her past -- on celluloid
When Shanti Thakur had to make a film for her master's thesis, she chose to focus on her roots and family background. The result was a sensitive documentary, which has won her awards and accolades beyond the groves of academe.
Seven Hours to Burn is a nine-minute, 16mm colour film. It was adjudged the best documentary, both at the Philadephia City Paper Independent Contest and the Cleveland International Film Festival; it also bagged the director's choice award at the Black Maria Film Festival.
The foundation and inspiration for the film is the story of her Danish mother and Indian father's experiences. Her mother survived Nazi-occupied Denmark while her father went through some devastating riots in India between Hindus and Muslims. Both of them immigrated to Canada, where they met and married, after discovering that both had had similarly tumultuous experiences in their past.
Their daughter takes their histories, combines them and makes an expressive visual documentary on her father's return to India at her grandmother's funeral. The film records his thoughts and memories of his life and his mother's. Thakur recalls her father telling her that it takes seven hours for a body to burn.
"My dad remembers seeing dead Muslims at his door and my mom grew up in Hitler-occupied Denmark where there was all this talk of a pure race. They came from radically different cultures, which emphasized on race," said Thakur, 34, who teaches film-making and lives in Philadelphia.
"The film allowed me to understand my past and myself. It is a celebration of who my parents are. It is very positive."
She also believes that documentaries are the "best form in which stories can be told", but is currently working on her first feature film. Her work has been screened in 22 countries internationally and BBC will air Seven Hours to Burn in September.
Thakur has researched, written and directed documentaries for the National Film Board of Canada as well as short experimental work. "I really love making issue-driven films made for social change. There is a pressing need for films like this, which are made in collaboration with society," she Thakur.
In 1992, she made Crossing Border, based on a black man murdering a white woman and the tension it created for blacks in a white neighbourhood. Two years later, she created Domino, a perspective on interracial families as seen through the eyes of the children of mixed races.
In 1997, Thakur focused on aboriginal justice in Yukon Red Indian tribes in Circles. A year later, she experimented with a documentary on gender called Two Forms, which explored gender through the simple, sensual gestures of two hands.
"I have been so inspired and so fascinated in working and learning from the different communities, their different cultures; for instance, from the Red Indian tribe I learnt that the community bands together in sentencing the person who has committed the crime," she said.
She admires a broad range of film-makers like Fredrick Wiseman, a British documentary maker, Mira Nair, Deepa Mehta and Gurinder Chadha.
Born in Vancouver, Canada, Thakur immigrated to the United States to do her graduate degree in film at Temple University, Philadelphia, where she still lives. She obtained a bachelor's degree in communication from Concordia University, Montreal, and another in psychology from the University of Ottawa. Her parents, who she is reluctant to name, still live in Canada.
"I'm Canadian, but I am a citizen of the world," Thicker confesses.
The one difference Thakur has discovered between Canada and the US is that people "tend to assimilate and mix more" in the former "because it is an immigrant culture".
She is married to David Semmes, 40, a scientist. "We both believe we have something in common in our professions. We both experiment with things," laughs Thakur.
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