Film maker T.C. McLuhan finishes documentary 20 years later

Between a government screening in Afghanistan where a crowd of people two miles long gathered outside the theatre, a sold out show at the Lincoln Centre in New York and an upcoming special-event screening at the United Nations for 183 diplomats at the request of the Indian and Afghanistan ambassadors, last Thursday filmmaker T.C. (Teri) McLuhan found some time to visit Laurier for a screening of her documentary The Frontier Gandhi: Badshah Khan, a Torch for Peace.

The film, which took the Canadian director and daughter of theorist Marshall McLuhan 20 years to create, is now on the screening circuit, having won the prestigious best feature documentary award at the Middle East International Film Festival in Abu Dhabi this past October.

“I always imagined the completion of it,” said McLuhan to The Cord in an interview after the screening. “Each day in my head I imagined I was completing it; that’s what kept me going,” she added about her motivation to stick with the project for two decades.

The Frontier Gandhi: Badshah Khan, a Torch for Peace is the first documentary to chronicle the life of Badshah Khan – a Muslim peacemaker born in what is now Pakistan and a prominent leader in the non-violent movement to oppose British rule from the 1920s through 1980s.

The film’s primary editor, Alex Shuper, who joined McLuhan at the Laurier screening, refers to her as “the ultimate outsider.

“[She is] the unlikely filmmaker/biographer … a woman, Caucasian, from the West,” said Shuper.

McLuhan noted, however, that surprisingly enough this actually worked to her advantage when she was making the film.

“What served me best, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan … was that I was not a threat to anybody. And I remember very clearly people saying ‘she can’t be doing anything important so just let her do what she wants to do’,” she explained.

“People talked to [me] because they didn’t know what else to do. They thought it was so peculiar that a woman would come along to that part of the world.”

Although her outsider status may have been advantageous, making the film was not without its challenges.

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Aside from financial difficulties – as McLuhan explained it was somewhat difficult to get funding for a project on a Muslim individual that few people in the Western world know of – filming in the Middle East came with its own unique set of obstacles.

“When you are doing a documentary … there is a lot of time hanging around, waiting for something to happen, for someone to be available, and in those environments hanging around is a bit dangerous,” explained McLuhan.

“A missile would be flying around and we’d all have to duck or go here, and [there would be] a landmine you’d have to watch out for,” she added.

While managing to overcome the physical risk, McLuhan and her small crew were arrested twice for what she refers to as being in the “wrong place, wrong time.”

“[It was] unpleasant; it [was] always the middle of the night, but we kept going.”

McLuhan explained that during her travels she was able to build up a “network of allies who are really completely behind me,” who were able to help her and her crew in difficult situations.

The environment they were shooting in was also a challenge to overcome.

McLuhan describes that, there were “sandstorms so thick … we ate sand for days.”

The documentary was filmed in Afghanistan, the Khyber Pass, Pakistan including NWFP, India, the United States and Canada.

Aside from interviews with individuals such as Badshah Khan’s daughter, testimony from 72 of Badshah Khan’s non-violent warriors – all of whom were over 100 years old – and Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai – there is also archival footage that she gathered from the places she was filming in, over 100 hours which were never even used in the end product.

“The whole film is ad hoc,” said McLuhan, noting how reliant she was on others when obtaining her interviews and getting funding to continue with the picture.

“Nothing was certain and [we had to] make it up in a sense as [we went] along.”

Although the documentary itself is now complete, McLuhan explained that she is still anywhere but done finishing up the project, as she is planning to release a multi-hour DVD before September, and is also in the process of writing a book called The Daring of it All, which will chronicle her two decades making the film.

For now, the focus is distribution and ensuring that it is as many people see the film as possible.

“It’s going to open theatrically, without a doubt, in cinemas worldwide. That’s the big push right now,” said McLuhan.

McLuhan is confident that when audiences see the film, the message the documentary conveys aboutBadshah Khan’s life will make it a success.

“My biggest hope is that young people find in this story the kind of promise they feel is lacking into their lives. In other words – ‘I can do anything, look what he did.’ That’s my biggest hope.”