Tuesday, August 19, 2008

REX VS. SINGH (**Warning. Contains quotes from the original trial transcript)

Rex vs. Singh is the very appropriate title of a short documentary film which will make its debut tomorrow at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival. The historical basis for the movie is found in the transcript of a sordid trial convened in Vancouver in 1915. The old file seems to make it clear that police bungled an attempt to entrap two Sikh homosexuals by setting up an opportunity for them to commit "buggery".
The film is collaboration piece developed by three Torontonians - John Greyson, Richard Fung and Ali Kazimi. Descriptions of the movie which were published by the CBC, Georgia Straight and Xtra West indicate we can expect a curious hybrid piece - part documentary, more than touch of good old fashioned agit-prop, and even a bit of whimsy with the inclusion of a musical segment. Richard Fung refers to the process as a "deconstruction" of history. Intriguing. I'll reserve judgement until I've seen the film.

The 20 minute length was mandated by the funding agency - which is the film festival itself. Rex vs. Singh was specially commissioned by the Queer History Project, which is a fixture of the Vancouver Queer Film Festival. This was a non-ACTRA production and Ali Kazimi seems to have been the co-ordinating figure. His court room scenes were shot in Toronto on May 10-11, 2008 and production is so rushed the project has not yet even been added to his website.

Rex vs. Singh is an experimental film which pools the talents of three Canadian film makers. It will premiere at the "Out On Screen" Gay film festival in Vancouver on August 20, 2008. This still is a promotional photo provided by co-director Ali Kazimi.

Vancouver residents are perhaps overexposed to the story of the KOMAGATA MARU, that 3rd rate melodrama which nobody ever seems to understand. The infamous standoff in Vancouver harbour just prior to the outbreak of W.W. I is the historical backdrop to Rex vs. Singh. While most eyes were then transfixed by the clumsy spectacle offshore, the real "war" was waged in town between the police and the Sikh revolutionary underground. In 1915, after the Maru had left Vancouver, Sikh gunmen began executing men who had collaborated with Canadian immigration intelligence. When the wrong tough guy (a paid police informer) was threatened, tempers led to a wild gunfight in a Sikh temple (Gurdwara). The hapless Vancouver cops were completely stymied by the racial divide and then tried to get creative. The example at hand - a clumsy attempt to entrap a couple of Sikh homosexuals who wouldn't cooperate in the witness box at the earlier trial of Bela Singh.

One of the gay men had tried to play it safe by inviting his man to a shack way out near Central Park in Burnaby. Participants in homosexual acts fully understood what it meant to get together beyond the jurisdiction of Vancouver police and their contorted fumbling testimony in court was less than frank. There is some novelty in the alleged offence - "City of Vancouver, on the 2nd day of February A. D. 1915 Nana Singh a male person, in public, did unlawfully attempt to commit an act of gross indecency with Joe Ricci, another male person” and it is not simply the frequent use of the word "fuck" in reference to two or more males.

The idea of a police detective dropping his pants to his ankles and letting another man attempt to penetrate him (fumbled and failed!) speaks volumes about how desperate the Vancouver police were to make a case stick against someone who had boasted of being participant in the Komagata Maru imbroglio. (I find no references at all in Joe Swan's history of the V.P.D. 1886-1986, of the operations ashore during the Komagata Maru incident.) The fact that one of the gay Sikh men earned a pistol whipping that day comes as no surprise at all given that men in that era were sometimes shot for just making a pass at a the wrong guy. The trial transcript tells us the police "stool pigeon" tried to be cool in the stand, openly mouthing words that few men of the Edwardian Era would want put on the record, but the plainclothes officer (Detective Joseph Ricci) was really made to sweat under interrogation:

COURT: Oh, no. Central Park is South Vancouver till it meets Burnaby.
Q. Go on.
A. (Det. Ricci) He said 'I got a shack' this man here he pointed him out. Dalip Singh, Nana Singh I mean, "he sleep with me, if he don’t want to fuck, I will fuck you, two dollars every Sunday, street car all time, get automobile" he pointed out automobile - 'only five cents'.
Q. Are you in the habit of getting men to go tricking these Hindoos into making suggestions of this kind?
A. (Det. Ricci) No, sir.
Q. Why did you do it this time?
A. (Det. Ricci) Because it was necessary.
Q. It wasn’t a case of seventy-five cents each it was a case of seventy-five cents for both?
A. (Det. Ricci) It was seventy-five cents for both.
Q. 37 1/2 cents for apiece?
A. (Det. Ricci) They didn’t have enough money on him, they will give us the money next Sunday and we will go up to their shack. Two dollars for each one and five cents for street car-fare.”

Detective Donald A. Sinclair also gave testimony. Ricci and Sinclair were highly successful anti-drug investigators who spent many years interdicting opium traffic in Chinatown. Nothing has been published to date which proves that they were homophobes. They must have been extremely angry with the Sikhs to have decided to go to so much trouble to set them up. I have read dismissive remarks made by the researcher for the film, about that 75 cents the Sikhs offered to the white men for sex. One should consider the relative costs. For example the annual property tax paid to the Corporation of Burnaby for Singh's "shack" near Central Park would have been about $2 bucks in 1915.

I like the fact that the Sikh homosexuals depicted in the film were not cowards. The constant dishonest campaign to depict the Sikhs of the Komagata Maru era as little more than helpless victims of the whites is stagey political nonsense. But it will continue because it gains yardage in the great game of B.C. political football. The gay men depicted in Rex vs. Singh were witness too, if not participant in, the activities of the militant Sikh underground in B.C. The local police failed utterly in several attempts interdict the international activities of the Revolutionists and they sought a little pay back. That is the principle reason for their bungled attempt at entrapment.

Ali Kazimi said it well in XTRA WEST last week- "Too often, when we engage in historical representations of situations like this, we re-victimize the people. I think it's important to recognize their dignity," Kazimi emphasizes, noting that their words of resistance are actually quite profound. "When asked, they outed the cops who entrapped them. These two Sikhs actually refused to be cowed by the trial. For us, that was something that was very important to convey," he says. Matthew Hays' cover story "The Ignored and the Forgotten", is worth a read.

Ali Kazimi is a Toronto film maker. In 2004 he produced CONTINUOUS JOURNEY, his interpretation of the infamous Komagata Maru Incident.

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