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An Action Film
KET Newsletter Autumn 2013

What happens when memories fade? 

Filming in Jotsoma
David S Percy and the crew interviewing WWII veteran Vikienyü Nagi in Jotsoma

Too often nothing.  They pass into oblivion.  At best they become vicarious, passed, as oral history to new generations, or recorded for future readers, listeners or viewers.  Memory by definition belongs to the past.  The best way to give it future meaning is some action which involves the younger generation and which is self-sustaining.  Only thus can memories be sustained.  Otherwise they are crumbling storehouses. 

This belief underlies the Kohima Educational Trust, the idea for which arose in 2004, sixty years after the battle.  Survivors had met annuall, to keep memories alive, to renew friendships and to honour their dead comrades.  Now survivors’ numbers were dwindling.  There were 135 veterans at the final reunion in 2004.   The memorial service at York Minster in 2013 was attended by seventeen.  But the total attendance has not decreased.  There has been an infusion both of the second and third generations of veterans’ families, and of people to whom the Kohima story was entirely new.  What aroused their interest was very simple: The theme of gratitude. 

The Trust is dedicated to assisting the education of the descendants of the Nagas who were allies in the battle.  Together the British and the Nagas have formed an understanding which is helping to shape the tomorrow for which those who died at Kohima gave their today.  Their story has led to action.  The action is on two fronts – one in Nagaland where volunteers implement all kinds of measurers, large and small to help the cause of education, and the other in the UK, where volunteers raise the funds which make the projects in Nagaland possible.

The most dramatic recent action has been the production of the film KOHIMA: An Exploration of War, Memory and Gratitude.  This is no ordinary film.  The man who made it, David Percy, is a quiet genius.  Documentary filmmakers don’t become personalities.  They are invisible.  They are known by their works.  KOHIMA is exceptional because it skilfully mingles opposites which are fundamental to human life – war and peace, youth and age, living and dying, joy and sorrow – all set in a remote mountain village which nearly seventy years ago became a scene of death and destruction where two armies met head on in a do-or-die battle.

KET York PremiereKOHIMA Premiere York

York PremiereKOHIMA Premiere York

York PremiereKOHIMA Premiere York

York PremiereKOHIMA Premiere York

York Premiere
KOHIMA Premiere York

York Premiere
KOHIMA Premiere York

York PremiereKOHIMA Premiere York

After I had seen the film several times, I said to David that each time I saw it I perceived something new.  He said that he had the same experience.  This is not a film to be seen once and stored away.  It is both a witness to the past and a promise to the future, skilfully melded in words and pictures of two totally different peoples flung together with brief intensity by the fortunes of war, then separated by history and then brought together again sixty years later in pursuit of a better life.  Permeating all the apparent opposites blended in the film are giving and receiving: gratitude.

Film-maker at work

I was a privileged witness of the film from its conception to its triumphant premieres in London and York.  Innocent of any knowledge of filmmaking, I learned, by watching one of the masters of the art, that it requires endless resources of patience and persistence; an intuitive understanding of what makes a picture tell a story; an ability to make what is carefully planned look as if it was happening spontaneously; a casual mastery of technology; meticulous attention to detail; and the complete immersion of a creative artist. 

David asked me at the planning stage to draft a script, for which, on the face of it, I was qualified, having been to Kohima twice since the battle, having read everything written about it, having written a war memoir, and having studied the history and contemporary problems of the Naga people.  Writing a film script, however, was a new challenge.  The words, while subordinate to the picture, have to be those of both a cool historian and a passionate observer. 

One day David came to my house to do what looked like a relaxed interview in my living room.  I took him two hours to set up his equipment to make sure that the sound and lighting were to his satisfaction.  The interview was unrehearsed, with Rob Lyman as my off-screen interviewer.  It lasted two and a half hours, of which three minutes were used in the film.  David even meditated doing another session, but in the end he decided this one spiel would do. 

A quality which filmmaking has in common with publishing is the skill of invisible editing.  The book editor’s job is not only to help the author to do justice to himself, but to help him write better than he thinks he can.  Similarly, the film editor’s role is to make the picture tell more than it does at first glance.  This is done not just by choice of images, but by regimens of timing and continuity, which, like editing, are invisible to the audience but which they experience in the feelings which the film inspires.  It did not surprise me to learn that David (who made his first film at fourteen) is also a photographer, designer and author.  When he is at work, you don’t know he’s there.   

Of course, indispensable to a great film is a great story, and Kohima is one, an intense human drama bridging the past and the future, portraying a whole world in the actions and experiences of a few individuals.  The filming in and around Kohima was done in an exhausting eight days, driven by David, aided by his partner Frances Pinter as camera assistant, and guided by Sylvia and Robert May, my daughter and son-in-law, who were on their ninth visit to Kohima.  David and I had devised in advance a thread which appears in the opening shots, intermittently through the film, and in the final shot.  Those who have seen the film will know what it is.  I leave those who have not yet seen it to find out.

The most amazing scenes in the film are of the battle itself.  There were very few film cameramen in Kohima in April to June 1944.  Their footage, grainy black-and-white and without sound, had been archived   unseen, at the Imperial War Museum   for nearly seventy years.  What David has done with this scanty material is startling.  You are transported in a flash, after the opening idyllic shots, to be a participator in primitive combat amid mountains and jungle, to scenes of mud, misery and savagery, in a battle subsequently, although not at the time, rated as one of the epic encounters of World War II.  The film emerges seamlessly from this tragic past into a hopeful future, in which key players are veterans, both British and Naga, and Naga children of today, assisting whose education is the film’s redemptive theme.

The making of this film is an example of memory converted to action.  The film itself is more than that.  It is the ambassador of an idea, which cannot be grasped in a single viewing.  It leaves no one untouched.  After I first saw it, I sat in silence for several minutes.  Since then I have seen it on different levels, and have begun to understand the reaction to it, not just by veterans and their families, but by people who knew nothing about Kohima until they saw it.  

Battlefield memories 

When I visited Kohima ten years after the battle, a ten-year-old boy guided me to the village above the town where eighty-eight men of my battalion had been killed.  After he had shown me round, gravely explaining the bullet riddled corrugated iron and the grass filled foxholes, he scampered off to continue playing with his companions in the yard beneath the memorial, on which the names of the dead are inscribed in bronze alphabetical permanence.  Fifty years later, when I first mentioned the idea of the film to David Percy, I realized that the seed of the idea had been planted then. 

We don’t have ideas; ideas have us.  We are the messengers.

Gordon Graham, October 2013


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