Continuous Journey: Ali Kazimi's New Documentary Tells the Story of South Asians Who Challenged Canada's Racist Immigration Laws in 1914

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The sidewalk outside the Bloor Street Theater in Toronto is packed with brown folks. The white Starbucks-sippers who normally fill this artsy neighborhood do double takes as older men in neatly pressed suits, young women in Mango Tribe T-shirts and hip-hop Sikh boys rocking Million Youth March gear fill the street, lining up early for the premier of Ali Kazimi's long-awaited documentary, Continuous Journey.

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Eight years in the making, Continuous Journey will have its U.S. premier at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival in March. The film is the story of the hundreds of South Asians who challenged Canada's racist anti-immigrant laws in 1914, at a time when Canadian politicians wanted to bar brown folks from entering the country. Sound familiar?

There were about 6,000 South Asians in Canada by 1908, prompting politicians to pass a law requiring immigrants to come by "continuous journey" from their country of nationality. That is, no stopovers. To emphasize the point, Immigration Canada, the country's immigration bureau, forced the Canadian Pacific Company to shut down all ship service to and from India, continuous or not.

Immigration from South Asia slammed to a halt. But in the spring of 1914 Sikh entrepreneur Gurdit Singh chartered the Japanese ship Komagata Maru and found 376 Indians who were willing to set sail to test Canada's "Continuous Journey" law. They should have been permitted entry. Many aboard were also veterans of the British Indian Army. As British subjects, they should have been able to pick and choose a home in the Empire they had fought to defend.

Upon arriving in Vancouver's harbor, Canadian authorities forced the ship to stay half a mile from the shore, while the courts battled over the issue. The men were denied food and water and so practically starved, while racist mobs raged against them. The local radical South Asian community united. Many of the South Asians in Canada at the time were already part of the militant Ghadr Party, which united Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus to fight the British Empire. Together, they raised $15,000 on dollar-a-day salaries to pay fees that the immigration bureau was demanding.

In the end, the men aboard the Komagata Maru were forced to return to India. Once there, the British open fired on them. It was reported that about 40 people were murdered or went "missing." But those who did survive joined the Ghadr Party's armed struggle.

The film Continuous Journey tells a story we know but need to hear: that we are not new additions to this continent. It tells stories most of us don't know: that the blockading of the Komagata Maru rocked the British Empire to its foundations and united South Asians across ethnic and religious lines within the Ghadr Party to fight together for armed revolution against the British.

It's no surprise that this documentary comes from Ali Kazimi, one of the most important radical South Asian filmmakers today. Kazimi consistently creates crucial, riveting films addressing issues in the South Asian diaspora that no one else touches. His work includes Shooting Indians, a look at relationships between South Asians and First Nations people and the work of First Nations photographer Jeffrey Thomas. His film Narmada: A Valley Rises is about the people's uprising against the Narmada Valley Dam in India, and Some Kind of Arrangement examines arranged marriage in the diaspora.

In December, I talked with him in a noisy Starbucks about immigrant rights past and present, ghosts and forgotten desi histories.

You start the film by telling this incredible story of these 376 South Asians, and you end with a shot of Project Threadbare's 2003 "No One Is Illegal" demonstration outside Immigration Canada. It's depressing, but it made me think, has anything changed when it comes to North American states deporting brown people? …