Clashing Cultures Find Hidden Parallels at a Mississippi Screening of The World Before Her

Director Nisha Pahuja speaks with a Tougaloo College student following a screening of The World Before Her.

Nisha Pahuja, director, The World Before Her

I’m about half way through my first trip with Film Forward in Jackson, Mississippi. I have always wanted to come here. The South has held a particular fascination in my mind because of its history. When you’re a kid and you start to learn about the world and some of the horrors we’ve inflicted on one another, those things mark you. Perhaps it’s a necessary part of becoming an adult, seeing the world as it truly is–unjust, sometimes unexplainable, and as I realized again yesterday, continuously re-writing the past.

Sitting outside the screening room at Tougaloo College, Charlie Reff, a Sundance Film Festival programmer began leafing through a pamphlet. What he later read out to me completely changed that screening.

The land we were on was a former slave plantation. In 1869 a group of New York-based Christian missionaries bought the land to build a college for freed slaves and their children. Today that land houses Tougaloo, one of the top 15 African-American colleges in the United States. Suddenly we weren’t just showing the film in Jackson, Mississippi; we were showing it at a place where possibility had trumped injustice.

For the first few years researching The World Before Her, I was driven by anger and a desire to document the struggles young women in India continue to face. But as I got deeper into the film, it started to teach me that justice and equality have to be fought for and this fact is part of our collective history no matter where we are in the world or what it is we’re fighting for.

And suddenly at Tougaloo, those thoughts took on a concrete form. The women in the film suddenly became part of a larger story—the human struggle for freedom. And in Mississippi we felt the echoes and the ghosts of that still. 

Later, when the film ended, a young African American woman in the audience, began to speak. She didn’t have a question, she just wanted to talk about the film and how it had moved her. Once she started she was unable to stop. It wasn’t just the women who moved her, it was the idea that all over the world people are trying to be free of the various prisons that keep them enslaved. 

She saw not just herself in the film but also saw parallels between the Hindu Nationalists and the Christian right in the U.S. She saw how Westernization was imposing its market driven ideologies around the world and the impact that was having on people in a country thousands of miles away.

It was an incredibly moving moment for me and all of us in that room. As Meredith Lavitt, the director of Film Forward, keeps saying, “change happens in shifts.” And I would have to agree. The more I think about it, the more I realize that change, real change, happens when we shift consciousness, when we get people to start to see differently. That day in Tougaloo College, we got a young woman to see something she hadn’t before and we knew she walked away from that screening, slightly changed.  

As she was about to leave she also told us her name. It was India.

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Alexis Chikaeze as Kai in 'Miss Juneteenth,' coming to digital platforms June 19

Channing Godfrey Peoples on a Bittersweet ‘Miss Juneteenth’ Release and the Urgency of Portraying Black Humanity on Screen

After premiering at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Channing Godfrey Peoples’s debut feature is hitting digital platforms this Juneteenth—the day for which the film is named and which is very close to the director’s heart. “I feel like I’ve been living Miss Juneteenth my whole life,” she says.
The June 19 holiday—which commemorates the day slavery was finally abolished in Texas (more than two years after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation was issued)—is celebrated in her hometown of Fort Worth with a deep sense of reverence and community, with barbecues, a parade, and a scholarship pageant for young Black women.

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