IDSN Director, Meena Varma and IDSN Ambassador, Aidan McQuade were invited to a press screening of Film Director, Ava DuVernay’s new film Origin, a film inspired by Isabel Wilkerson’s groundbreaking book – Caste: The origins of our discontent. In the book, Wilkerson argues that the racial tensions in the United States are better explained through the lens of caste not race.

Here Aidan shares his thoughts on the film:

Before sitting down to watch Ava DuVernay’s new movie, Origin, I would have said that I thought that Isabel Wilkerson’s magisterial study of discrimination, Caste, was almost unfilmable.

However, DuVernay proves me wrong and in quite spectacular fashion.

At the heart of the book are human stories. So, it is these stories which are put at the heart of Origin, and given cinematic structure, by focussing on the writing of the book itself. As a result, Wilkerson’s character, played here by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, becomes a sort of modern-day Scheherazade, the narrator of the tales of the Arabian Nights. She tells the stories of resistance to three oppressive caste systems: Nazi Germany, the United States, and contemporary India.

Like their mythic predecessor, Wilkerson’s (and DuVernay’s) purpose in telling stories is to try to stop the onslaught of senseless violence that persists still in the name of caste. They seek to do this by building understanding of our common humanity and the artificiality of the caste divisions that have been constructed between us. It is these divisions, the movie shows, that are at the root not only of some of the petty cruelties and injustices of everyday life, but also of the mass murder and subjugation of so many in slavery, lynching, death camps, and the collective punishment of helpless civilian populations in war.

In its portrayal of caste-based discrimination in South Asia the movie is perhaps stronger than the book. In the book the experiences of Dalits were almost a subplot when compared to Wilkerson’s discussions of violence and prejudices in her own country. In the movie however, Dalit experiences are given comparable screen time to that of the others, and the scenes of “manual scavenging”, Dalits compelled to clean up the shite of others, are powerfully visceral. Not only that, but Dalit activists and academics are given the opportunity to give voice to their experiences. In doing so, they provide penetrating insight into the subject of the movie, and bear witness to the experiences of others who do not have the opportunity – from the oppressed castes of West Africa to the Palestinian victims of Netanyahu’s government.

This all may make Origin sound dry and academic, but it is not. The movie is powerfully moving, from the love story of “Aryan” German August Landmesser and Irma Eckler a Jewish woman, to Wilkerson’s own experiences of prejudice and violence in the United States. It also has perhaps the most heart-breaking opening 20 minutes of any movie since Pixar’s sublime, Up.

Origin may not be subtle, but in a world that elects fascists and tolerates the atrocities of caste, subtlety is overrated. Ava DuVernay understands that passionate anger is what changes the world, and Origin is an exceptionally fine exemplar of passionate film making.

Go see it.

Aidan McQuade

IDSN Ambassador