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'The real experience of terror is a story seldom heard by anyone'

November 25, 2009 11:13 IST
Filming Mumbai Massacre has been a chilling experience for Victoria Pitt, the Australian filmmaker. Arthur J Pais meets the crew in New York.

A few minutes before she was seized along with her husband Seyfi, Meltem Muezzinoglu was enjoying dinner. Clad in a sleeveless dress, she had an expensive shawl with her. Like most Turks in big cities like Istanbul or Ankara, she was not conservative in her appearance.

"It took her a few seconds to realise what was happening and who the terrorists were," says Victoria Pitt, the writer and director of Secrets of the Dead: Mumbai Massacre.

"As terrorists were lining up the hostages, she quickly covered her body and head with the shawl. It was all very quick, and that must have saved her life and that of her husband."

Her telephone was seized by the gunmen who used it to communicate with their handlers in Pakistan. Her husband Seyfi says when they returned to their native Turkey, he got a bill many times the usual amount.

"Our film emphasises people caught under extraordinary stress and how they handled themselves, and in many cases helped others," says Pitt.

She shot the film last year before the onset of the Mumbai monsoon. It was the first visit to India for the British-born, Australia-based filmmaker. Her films, dealing with human rights, political issues and social history, have been shown at many film festivals, including Cannes.

"We have interviewed interesting and courageous people for our film," she continues.

"The Turkish couple, who were held hostage for eight hours, are among the most interesting. The one little gesture by Meltem saved their lives, but their views on Islam and terror are also very interesting."

Mumbai Massacre, which is narrated by the acclaimed stage and movie actor Liv Schreiber, will premiere on America's Public Broadcasting Service on November 25.

"It will be widely shown across the world," Pitt says.

"The attacks on India made news across the world, and our film shows stories of courage, resourcefulness and grace under pressure. It will have universal appeal."

It also shows the heroism and concern of the staff at the Taj and Oberoi hotels, documenting a restaurant manager who returned to the hotel to look after the guests and the staff who lost their lives while helping the guests stay away from danger.

Pitt says the film focuses not only the stories of horror and courage, but also provides insights into the action of terrorists and reveal how the media and cellphones and the Internet transformed the crisis.

A mother in Texas, for instance, text-messaged son the map of the hotel.

"Scores of people caught up in the attacks reported later that their mobile phones had helped them to survive," Pitt continues. "Sadly and shockingly, the terrorists also used the same technology to hunt down victims."

As she shot the film, Pitt learnt many things about the siege she had not well understood before arriving in India.

"The real experience of terror is a story seldom heard by anyone, but family and closest friends," she says. "But in our film we are telling that story."

'This is the story told by people who had a lot of time to think about it -- the people caught up in not seconds or minutes of terror like 9/11 or the London Bombings, but stuck for days, in the siege of Mumbai,' she says. 'The film brings together candid and very personal accounts from the ordinary and extraordinary people who were caught up in the siege.'

Producer Phil Craig echoes Pitt.

"I have made several documentaries about terror attacks -- on Bali, Madrid, New York and Washington -- but, even as the news from Mumbai was breaking, it was clear that something different was happening there," he reflects. 'Rather than an explosion and its consequences, this was a story about a hunt."

He was fascinated 'by every emerging detail of how the people trapped inside the hotels tried to escape, or simply tried to avoid the gunmen, and even more fascinated once it became clear that the killers and their prey were using the same technology.'

Pitt says sound is the star of her film -- "the sound of footsteps, gunfire, grenades, the creak of a door swinging ominously open."

Sound is very important because the film was shot with an absolute determination not to re-enact or recreate, she explains.

"Nothing could compete with the authenticity of the accounts we had," she continues.

'Our aim was to respond to the mood, and the predicament our interviewees relate. So it is, above all, impressionistic. Early on, I found myself dreaming about the attacks, picking up on details so many people had told me. My dreams (nightmares really) were all about shadows and half-seen figures. This became the film's visual language.'

It was a deliberate decision to show many characters not in clear resolution; instead they are shown through a haze of smoke or gunfire.

"Shadows are seen in the narrow, intently-studied space under a door," she adds.

"Doors generally are a powerful motif. It's all about suspense. This means that while the drama tracks the specific narrative of our character's accounts, it does so in a way that is suggested, defocused, not entirely resolved. Stillness and silence are essential to this rhythm."

What was the biggest discovery while making the film?

"There was sadness, and many people who were held hostages were still trying to come back to their normal lives," she says.

"But whether the person who was held a hostage and was not harmed or it was a person who had lost a friend or were made to watch the murder of others, there was no call for revenge (against the leaders of the operation or the lone surviving gunman). At least this is true of the people we encountered."

"I was astounded by this attitude and the call for mercy," says Pitt. "Their attitude throws out a challenge with unique authority (the authority of direct experience) to impulses of vengeance in the face of terrorism."

Image: Victoria Pitt and cinematographer Jim Frater during the filming. Photograph: Digvijay Purohit

Arthur J Pais in New York