- Mapping Slave Island’s journey with gentrification through the story of the De Soysa Building
Gentrification, modernisation, and urban development tend to be quite heavily intertwined, and with regard to neighbourhoods and areas of rich histories, these topics often go hand in hand with the pain of displacement.
Colombo’s neighbourhood of Slave Island is one very powerful example of how growth and displacement can go hand in hand, and tomorrow (18) will see the launch of a documentary that explores this.
Premiering tomorrow at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Colombo, If These Walls Could Speak is an investigative drama that examines the effects of displacement and the emotional conflict following the urbanisation of the culturally diverse suburb of Colombo, Slave Island. 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 urbanisation.
If These Walls Could Speak was written and directed by Creative Director and filmmaker Zeeshan Akram Jabeer, who was joined by Director of Photography Kavinda Lakshan alongside the production team “The Memory Culture Team” of Strengthening Reconciliation Processes in Sri Lanka Programme of Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) Sri Lanka.
The documentary features perspectives from within and without Slave Island, featuring artist and We are From Here Founder Firi Rahman; artist and photographer Lojithan Ram; journalist Kris Thomas, Land Rights and Spatial Justice researcher and activist Iromi Perera; architect, activist, and photographer Meshari Fahim; third generation resident of the De Soysa Building Noor Zulsky Passela; and fourth generation resident of the De Soysa Building Mahima Passela .
Centred 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 re-development, If These Walls Could Speak delves headfirst into the effects of urbanisation, displacement, and dispossession and explores the slow burn repercussions it has on cultural values, identity, and histography while drawing parallels between history and memory.
The De Soysa Building was a landmark of Slave Island, located on one of its busiest roads. It painted a picture of what Slave Island and Colombo used to be and the heritage of the city. After much back and forth, the building was demolished in August 2021, despite opposition from the Department of Archaeology, protests from its tenants, and public outcry, painting a very powerful picture of the struggle of modernisation versus heritage.
Brunch chatted with Zeeshan Akram Jabeer, for more on what happened behind the scenes of If These Walls Could Speak and what story it tells. Years in the making, he has been working on If These Walls Could Speak since 2018 when he met artist Firi Rahman and saw the work of Rahman’s interactive visual art project We Are From Here – a rolling visual documentation of the changing face of Slave Island. “I wanted to contribute and make a film,” Jabeer recalled, explaining how If These Walls Could Speak came to be. “I couldn’t shoot at first because people weren’t really interested, but regardless, I went ahead. Even residents didn’t really want to talk about it. It was kind of a nightmare getting it shot. One resident was very open – he had already filed legal cases and whatnot. So we started with him and got in touch with spatial justice lawyers and journalists who’d been covering and writing about the space.”
While the major theme of If These Walls Could Speak is the De Soysa Building, Jabeer shared that the story he’s trying to tell goes much deeper than just one building. “For me, personally, it’s a documentary about the long line of generational trauma and the loss and identity and culture in this community from 2010 and even before. When shooting If These Walls Could Speak, I spoke to Firi’s (Rahman) grandmother, who told me gentrification in the area was nothing new and had been happening since the 1970s, just at a much slower rate. If These Walls Could Speak is about the people of Slave Island (including the De Soysa Building) and their emotions and what they’re going through.”
Jabeer’s documentary took place at a pivotal, and ultimately, penultimate moment in the De Soysa Building’s history, beginning at the height of conflict about its demolition, seeing various changes made to the building and attempts to demolish it taking place, the collapse of one part of the building (due to its age and disrepair), and also its eventual demolition which took place when Colombo was in a state of lockdown after one of its (now several) waves of Covid-19.
“If These Walls Could Speak shows the displacement of the people of Slave Island, how they’re taken aback by what is happening, how they have no time to react. Displacement is a global problem, and this documentary shows it through the De Soysa Building – the latest example of this struggle.”
The pandemic also posed challenges to Jabeer when filming If These Walls Could Speak, halting his shorts, but another challenge was the conflict that surrounded the De Soysa Building and its demolition, with the building being carefully watched by authorities and residents alike. This didn’t deter Jabeer though, who simply said, “it was guerilla filmmaking at its best and we got creative.”
In terms of filmmaking style, Jabeer explained that his approach to the documentary was a little different, because, well, he’s not someone who watches a lot of documentaries. “I watch a lot of fiction, so I was inspired by fiction when filming. Filming a documentary in Slave Island was a joy. Everybody was warm and friendly and wanted to get involved, even though it was pretty tough to shoot around the building because people didn’t want us to shoot there. One of the key residents of the building who did get involved, was a man who had spent his whole life at the De Soysa Building and had spent half his life fighting for it. He passed away a few months ago, and that impacted the documentary big time. It was an emotional rollercoaster, and there were times when I didn’t want to do it anymore, but towards the end of the process, I realised there are not a lot of documentaries on this, and I wanted to finish it so that people could see it, and hopefully start a movement. I’m blessed to be able to document what’s left for future generations to see.”
If These Walls Could Speak will premiere on 18 February (Friday) at 3.30 p.m. at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Colombo, Reid Avenue, Philip Gunewardena Mawatha, Colombo, followed by a discussion by the directors. This event is open to the public.
The film had prior screenings on 27 and 28 January in Central College, Kilinochchi and 29 and 30 January in Central College, Jaffna; both received a strong and positive response.