I was eagerly anticipating Peter Jackson’s film on the soldiers of the First World War, The Great War. There had been lots of build-up and hype, an interview had been released with the director himself. We were to see these men in colour, for the first time.
When the appointed day came, I switched on the television, saw the opening credits and how the grainy brown and white footage was spectacularly transformed in colour. The quality was remarkable. We could see the individual faces of the men quite clearly, many of them moustached, many with the ‘cheerful’ look, some in the trenches, some behind the front lines in villages working on supply lines. Their expressions ranged from joking, smiling to resignation and just getting on with the job.
The interviews of the men, their oral testimony told us so much more about the War. The futility of it, what the soldiers had in terms of uniform and rations, the lack of facilities of any sort, the rats, the lice and the letters.
The programme finished and already my twitter and Facebook feeds carried plaudits for a fantastically made documentary and Peter Jackson was spot on.
I didn’t join in. To me, something was missing. Did anyone else not spot it? Was I being awkward for bringing this up? I work in radio and television for a living and throughout my career there have been debates around diversity. More recently, that debate has been brought to the fore by the Bafta requiring greater representation of diversity on and off screen, in content , and in people.
None of the faces that looked back at from the TV set were black or Asian. Was World War 1, a war fought by white men? The answer to that is an emphatic no. It involved empires. Britain’s empire alone was huge and it made sure it signed up men from its colonies to help fight Germany.
According to Britain’s National Army Museum, about 15,000 West Indians enlisted for the army, 10,000 alone from Jamaica. Other islands included Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, the Bahamas, Belize, Grenada, Guyana, the Leeward Islands, St Lucia and St Vincent.
Over a million Indians served Britain in its war, hundreds of thousands came from Africa, as well as many more from New Zealand, Australia and Canada. Both African and Indian soldiers were present at the battle of the Somme. So why was this forgotten? Was there no footage available? If not, could there not have been some acknowledgement at the end of the film? That although soldiers of the Empire did take part we have no footage to illustrate this?
You may wonder why I’m making a big deal out of this. It’s because I’ve come across people who believe African, West Indian or Indian soldiers were largely absent during the main battles in Palestine, Turkey, the Middle East and France. This is simply not true. Yes, perhaps everyone should dip into a history book or visit a museum to get more facts. But why should they? Television and films shape much of our present day culture. Shouldn’t programme makers, film makers or content creators realise they play a role as our cultural curators as well? What they make is seen by millions and has a greater impact on where we see Britain today and informs our attitudes in every aspect of our lives.
I was similarly unhappy at the hugely successful film, Dunkirk (2017). Why were there no Asian faces in the crucial scene at Dunkirk? One of my colleagues genuinely believed that no soldiers from the Empire were present at the time. If one person thinks that, how many others must think this? Not just in Britain but in Europe? Across the States? Australia and New Zealand? Whose own roles are widely commemorated and are well known?
2.5 million soldiers from South Asia fought in the Second World War. The Indian soldiers were present at Dunkirk and the Germans had captured one Indian company. Moroccan and Algerian troops were also present with the French army.
Yes we understand it’s just a film, it’s fiction. But fiction matters. Fiction challenges, tests and shapes our thinking and our perspective on the world, on events and on history. You do not need to have many Asian faces depicted, they do not need to have starring roles. They do need to be present and a simple acknowledgement of their service and sacrifice by using a few extras would probably suffice.
Like it or not, film makers, programme makers and content creators, you are all cultural curators now.