[MUMBAI ATTACKS FULL COVERAGE: SAJAforum closely tracked the Mumbai attacks of November 2008. We posted more than 30 stories (see full and press coverage of our coverage) and hosted 50+ speakers/experts/witnesses in 15+ hours of BlogTalkRadio webcasts.]
(from left) Director Victoria Pitt, executive producer Jared Lipworth, foreign policy analyst Mira Kamdar and Al-Jazeera English journalist Todd Baer in a post-screening round table discussion. Photo by Miranda Lin.
On Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2009, Australian filmmaker Victoria Pitt, debuted her latest documentary at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. An audience of approximately 80 people sipped chai, helped themselves to kathi rolls and gathered to watch. “Mumbai Massacre” is the title of her episode for WNET-13’s “Secrets of the Dead,” a PBS documentary series which uses forensic science and modern technology to examine iconic moments in history.
The title sequence opens with images reminiscent of a Marilyn Manson video. The first words spoken echo a recurring theme throughout the episode: "You never know what a human being is made of, until they're placed in stress." Layered over ambient sound and accompanied by a haunting piano melody, survivors of that fateful day in November 2008 when terrorists rampaged through Mumbai testify to the thoughts that raced through their heads. But instead of sounding jumbled and random, their narrative seamlessly flows into a living stream of consciousness that surrounded the attacks.
Through a sequence of real-time shots, the audience is taken from Marine Drive to the bustling Victoria Terminus (VT), Mumbai’s rail and transportation lifeline. A time-lapse sequence speeds through the day, when gunfire suddenly rings out and the fast-forward edits slow to a crawl. Computer-generated maps of Mumbai then zoom from VT, to the Taj Mahal Hotel and later, the Trident Oberoi Hotel. This is the introduction to a 60-hour-long siege and the stories of those within the Taj and Oberoi hotels, who survived.
A second storyline, running parallel to the siege of the two five-star hotels, is the Indian media’s coverage of the attacks and the role it played in reporting the events in real-time, to both the hostages and terrorists. In a widely-criticized move, an Indian radio station aired a live phone call with a politician trapped in the Taj. The unnamed politician gave the reporter his location, a little-known, well-hidden area called “the chambers,” and divulged how many people, including foreigners (the attackers’ primary targets) he was with. The terrorists’ handlers in Pakistan then called them, after hearing the interview, and directed them to those locations.
When the attacks were finally over, one gunman, Ajmar Kasab, was taken into custody. The other nine are still lying in a Mumbai morgue. No one has claimed the bodies and the Indian Islamic Council refuses to give them a proper Muslim burial.
Ultimately, the episode focuses on two themes—the survivors’ decision-making and the intertwining of their fates—weaving them into a classic three-act structure (ambush, siege and release). A post-screening panel discussion was led by Sree Sreenivasan, SAJA co-founder and Dean of Student Affairs at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He and director Pitt were joined by series executive producer Jared Lipworth, author and foreign policy analyst Mira Kamdar and journalist Todd Baer of Al Jazeera English.
The panel weighed in on the film’s backstory and took questions from the audience. In response to a question about why the episode didn’t give more air time to the attacks at VT and the famous Leopold Café, Pitt stated because it was because she wanted to convey "the experience of being under siege" (while the attacks at places like VT where more momentary). Another audience member asked why the episode’s focus was primarily on the two hotels, which housed mostly white, wealthy tourists, and less on VT or the Cama Hospital. Kamdar replied that the Taj and Oberoi were the media’s focus because they were bastions of the elite and iconic to India in a way that the Twin Towers were to New York. Lipman added that, from an editorial perspective, they wanted to get inside the psyche of a victim who was trapped.
From editing decisions, the questions turned to the role that the Indian media played in enabling the terrorists. Baer commented that the media’s handling of the situation was, “like a little child learning to walk" because very few Indian journalists had any experience covering such events. He added, "This was as bad a mistake as you can possibly make." But almost everyone in attendance agreed that the attacks in Mumbai marked a turning point in India's digital coming-of-age; it was the first time that technology enabled the real-time coverage of a high profile, ongoing news event.
But when the subject of Pakistan was broached, the feelings in the room were divided. A native Pakistani asked why the episode kept referring to Pakistan’s involvement and not “Lashkar’s,” a reference to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani militant group accused of planning the attack. Kamdar mentioned that equating Lashkar with Pakistan “is and isn't correct.” Providing a counterpoint was a filmmaker from Lahore who noted that in Pakistan there is a "culture of denial" in what’s happening in the world, because of its role in it.
In closing, Kamdar said that the one aspect of the documentary which stood out to her the most was that none of the hostages who survived their ordeals bore any animosity to their captors. To Baer, the Mumbai massacre was more shocking than anything he ever covered in Gaza and Lebanon. To Pitt, it was “an amazing privilege to make this film.” She ended by saying, “I would’ve done it three times over.”
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