I think this is the fourth Bangladeshi film to appear on my film festival lists over the past couple of years and like the previous three this is both entertaining and informative. Writer-director Rezwan Shahriar Sumit has come through the film festival route (Berlinale 2008) and then the Tisch School of the Arts, NYU. This is his début feature.
Rudro (Titas Zia) is an artist in his early thirties from Dhaka who first meet at the quayside trying to get his large wooden crate shipped to the delta region of the south where he has arranged to stay in a remote fishing village to develop a project. The idea of using the village as a base came from his late father, a coastguard engineer who travelled through the delta. The village turns out to be very small, a dozen or so families, all linked to fishing for ilish, the prized national fish of Bangladesh. Fishing is dangerous in open boats and especially so during the South-West monsoon which is the time when the shoals of fish are more abundant close to the shore.
Rudro’s landlord, Bashar (Ashok Bepari) has a young son and an older daughter Tunni who are quick to discover what is in Rudro’s crate and soon the boys in the village are taking part in art projects, especially trying their hand at modelling figures. This will prove problematic. The small community is in thrall to ‘the Chairman’, a seasoned fisherman who has travelled and installed himself as both local head man and imam. He helps to spread the idea that Rudro’s figures are ‘idols’ and that because of this, the community may be punished and the fish may not be found. The ‘contest’ between Rudro and the Chairman (Fazlur Rahman Babu) becomes the main driver of the narrative.
In the Q&A that followed the film, the director told us that the power of the Chairman and his use of Islam to condemn Rudro’s sculptures could be found in small communities like some of those in the delta – but not in Bangladesh generally. The Chairman tries to convince the fisher-folk that Rudro is the reason why the fish can’t be found and catches are small. It’s the age-old story of modernity vs. tradition. Rudro himself does nothing to prompt these attacks but he doesn’t realise the importance of Tunni’s advice that he shouldn’t try to talk to the young girls or the women in the community generally. She, on the other hand is very curious about him and I realised later that her relationship with Rudro, her father’s house guest, reminded me of two of the three stories by Rabindranath Tagore that Satyajit Ray adapted for his film Teen Kanya (Three Girls, 1961). Ray’s film is set in the same delta region in which two men from the city, who arrive for different specific purposes, become the object of attention from two different young girls.
Tunni (Tasnova Tamanna) is a bright young woman who is clearly intrigued by life in the city. In fact Sumit is careful in his presentation of all of the villagers and even the Chairman, though he is devious in how he tries to turn the community against Rudro, still retains enough human qualities to avoid becoming a typical ‘villain’. The director explained that he made several visits to the delta during the long preparations for the film. He also became aware of the implications of climate change in the region which is on the frontline for the first major impact of any rise in sea levels and for the increasing power of extreme weather.
Technical credits on the film are excellent, especially the cinematography of Chananun Chotrungroj who the director met via NYU. Her Thai background may have helped her capture the luminous shots of landscape and the villagers which can be seen in the trailer below. The performances are generally very good. Only the Chairman and his henchman are professional actors, I think. All the other roles are either non-professionals or relatively inexperienced film actors like those playing Rudro and Tunni. I haven’t found out the precise reason for the title of the film, though I am aware that ilish is a fish that lives in both the sea and river estuaries and that like the salmon it returns to the river to spawn. The balance between freshwater and salt water is central to the continued livelihood of the fishing villages.
I thoroughly enjoyed watching this film and it made me think longingly of visiting the delta – and eating ilsha (hilsa) cooked in a mustard sauce.
This was the second of my forays into the ‘Classic Features’ now available online from the London Indian Film Festival and it proved a very rewarding experience. The film’s title Runway refers directly to the home of the film’s central family who live beneath the flight path of aircraft landing at Dhaka’s international airport. The airport is so close that some of the lights indicating the landing path are situated close to the family’s shack. There are also vaguely metaphorical/symbolic readings associated with the title. At one point a small boy aims his catapult at an aircraft that roars over him as it lands. The father of the family is away trying to earn money in Kuwait and for his son Ruhul, who is effectively the ‘man of the family’, life is refusing to ‘take off’. He can’t find a job and he and his sick grandfather are the men at home supported by the earnings of Ruhul’s sister Fatema who works in a clothing sweatshop and his mother Rahima who keeps a cow, bought with a loan from an NGO. The shack’s location is also close to the local river system and Ruhul watches the fishermen with the static Chinese nets.
Runway was made by the husband and wife team of Tareque (director) and Catherine (producer) Masud, whose previous international success was The Clay Bird (2002). Tareque was killed in a car accident in 2011. Catherine is now the curator of the couple’s back catalogue of features, documentaries and shorts. The Masuds’ work seems largely self-financed or ‘independently’ produced and low budget and in a way this film is a reminder of aspects of the similar Indian independent films of the 1970s/80s, except that it doesn’t use the kinds of avant-garde techniques of New Cinema or feature the professional acting and literary/theatrical riches of much of Parallel Cinema in India. The main cast of this feature appear to have been non-professionals at the time apart from the actor who plays the grandfather. Some smaller roles are taken by professionals. Fatema’s friend Sheuli who lives close by is played by Rikita Nandini Shimu who went on to become the lead in Made in Bangladesh (2019), which was very impressive at the London Film Festival last year. The whole cast are very good and the technical standards of the film are high despite what seem to be budget difficulties.
Along with the performances, I was most impressed by the script which manages to to interweave the stories of all of the characters to demonstrate the complexities of life in a country like Bangladesh. Everyone faces financial and moral dilemmas and their actions have an impact on each other. The film never ‘preaches’ but it shows us these lives in such a way that we recognise the problems but also see that there is respite in the love for one another and the beauties of the natural world. It’s a life-affirming film even when it presents us with jihadism and its consequences. Although the events are linked to actual events in Bangladesh earlier in the 2000s, all the characters are fictitious.
Ruhul’s uncle runs a small internet/telephone parlour which Ruhul visits to search for job opportunities. Over a few days he becomes friendly with Arif, a university dropout who appears confident and well-groomed. Ruhul is being recruited into a jihadist group. He is aware of what is happening and of course the group leader promises him that he can get a job at the airport. Will Ruhul become a martyr? His dilemmas are several. He feels that he is living off his mother’s and sister’s earnings. He must get a job, but becoming a jihadist will alienate them and ‘fail’ them. He knows they love him. Sheuli is the girl he loves but he feels he can’t marry her and be supported by her work. Will his father return from Kuwait where industrial disputes threaten the job market for migrant workers? Rahima misses her husband so much that she begins to fantasise that he has returned. It all sounds desperate but Ruhul has the capacity to stay calm. Can he pull through?
Runway is available to watch free online (via registration) until 19th August and is well worth a look.
One of several revelations during my LFF visit, this is an excellent film that deserves wide distribution. Writer-director Rubaiyat Hossain was present with her lead actor and others for an intriguing Q&A and I was very pleased to discover a filmmaker who I had not known about before – certainly a weakness on my part. Ms Hossain has followed a trajectory familiar from those of some women in Indian independent cinema – education and training in the US alongside film production and ‘social activism’ back in Bangladesh. Her first film as a director, Meherjaan in 2011, caused a stir in Bangladesh with its story of the impact of the 1971 War of Independence on a woman’s life and was taken out of cinemas. Her second film Under Construction (2015) is concerned with a woman in an unhappy marriage and who is an actor appearing in a Tagore play. Researching her background, I’m now glad I didn’t ask a naïve question about the possible influence of Indian parallel cinema on Hossain’s work – Wikipedia tells me that she has been inspired by the work of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak.
Made in Bangladesh, as the title hints, is concerned with the sweatshops of Dhaka where young women work to produce cheap clothes for customers in Europe and North America. But as the director stated, it isn’t about these women as victims, but instead about how they fight for their rights. Its origins are in the account of the experiences of a ‘real’ worker that have been translated into a fiction narrative featuring the actor Rikita Nandini Shimu as a young seamstress ‘Shimu’. The original worker also helped organise training for the women playing the factory workers. The director acknowledged that she needed this kind of input to ensure the authenticity of her presentation of the women’s stories. The narrative begins with a fire alarm in a factory which shuts down operations for a few days and raises questions about working conditions, safety and workers’ rights after one of the workers has died. During the closure Shimu tries to meet the managers and get paid her overtime which she needs to pay rent arrears. This is when she meets an NGO activist who offers to pay her for an interview about what goes on in the factory. She informs Shimu about how to form a union and offers to help her generally. The narrative then follows Shimu’s attempts to develop a political consciousness about rights among her workmates and to try to recruit enough would-be members to register a union for official recognition. The narrative presents a series of events that were once familiar in British, French and other film cultures in the 1970s before filmmaking lost much of its political energy in the West. Rubaiyat Hossain manages to resolve her narrative in an interesting way that I won’t spoil.
But there is more to the narrative on top of the important central story-line. In the Q&A Hossain revealed that wages for the young workers (most are aged 18-30) have improved over the last few years. The garment manufacturing sector is a crucial part of the Bangladeshi economy and these young women have some leverage. Like all young people who start to receive a living wage they find themselves in a situation which allows them to ‘have a good time’, but also puts them under pressure to help with other family members. In some ways the women are similar to the young British working-class girls of the 1960s who experienced economic improvement but still found themselves struggling in a patriarchal society which attempted to define them. The director stressed the idea of female empowerment and reminded us that Bangladesh has a history of female prime ministers and women in positions of power. I’m not sure that this has necessarily helped the mass of Bangladeshi women so far, but the general point is important. The freedom experienced by the young women in the factories is expressed through their clothing. The director commented that they wear salwar kameez rather than the saris favoured by most women in the city. This is more comfortable and functional in the factory but also allows more freedom as they move together through the streets where the colours of their costumes contrast with the drabness of the city.
The style of the film is a familiar form of social realism enlivened by music and the exuberance of the women themselves. Sabine Lancelin photographed the film. She was born in colonial Belgian Congo. Composer Tin Soheili was born in Iran and is based in Denmark. He has a long list of credits, many for documentaries. There were several women in other creative roles on the shoot and overall it is a good example of European producers supporting but not overwhelming a Bangladeshi production.
Shimu (the same actor who was in Hossain’s earlier films) is a young woman from a rural area who left home at the age of 14 and fled to Dhaka to escape an arranged marriage to a man she feared. She had received enough elementary education to become literate and this, combined with her native intelligence, makes her a potential activist. But she has married in Dhaka and though she loves her husband he is out of work. When he does find employment she may be under pressure to spend more time at home. When she is working, she is paying the rent. The narrative shows Shimu in a range of relationships with other women, several of whom exert different kinds of pressure on her activities in forming a union. Social class, traditional ideas about women’s roles etc. all make an impact.
The questions in the Q&A and the comments in various reviews always puzzle me. There are many assumptions made about people in countries like Bangladesh. Ms Hossain handled all the questions well. She explained that the film hasn’t yet cleared the Censors’ office in Bangladesh. She explained that she was prepared to make cuts to ensure the film was screened and that she wanted the widest release possible so the workers in the factories would get to see themselves on screen. I understand that discussions with possible distributors in the UK were possible during the festival. I hope something is organised as I’m sure there is a market for the film in the UK, both among the local Bangla populations and for many other UK audiences who are aware of and energised by campaigns to pay these women more and regulate the factories who make the clothes sold in UK stores. International sales are through Pyramide and the film will be released in France in November.
Here’s the (English subtitled) trailer:
The third film from the ‘South Asian Film Festival Up North’ offered another change of direction. Saturday Afternoon is written, directed and produced by the Bangladeshi auteur Mostofa Sarwar Farooki in a co-production with Indian and German companies. Farooki has had success with several films in major festivals such as Busan and for this film he had a $500,000 budget and international stars and crew. The 86 minute feature starts with some street scenes on a quiet Saturday in Dhaka during Ramadan. It cuts to a man washing his hands in the washroom of a restaurant bar and from that point a single take is used to explore the tense drama unfolding in the building in which a small group of terrorists are holding hostage the staff and diners. The screenplay is based on/inspired by a real news story from 2016 in which 5 terrorists held hostages in a bakery shop/café resulting in multiple deaths of hostages and terrorists.
The single take shoot by DoP Aziz Zhambakiev (known for several high profile festival films from Central Asia) is not there as a gimmick and instead it is used mainly to keep up the tension as the camera swings around the action. This is a brutal film with the terrorists, who belong to an unnamed Islamist group, separating foreigners and locals and killing at will. The deaths are not shown in detail but we hear the shots and see the bodies being dragged away. Nobody is safe. The gunmen seek out atheists and non-observant Muslims as targets even if they are Bangladeshis.
Hostage dramas are problematic as film narratives if there is little chance of escape for hostages or even for perpetrators. What expectations do audiences have? When the narrative begins the police are already on their way and Farooki decides to end his film before the final shootout. The audience doesn’t know if anyone will survive. This means it makes most sense to discuss the narrative as a ‘hostage procedural’ – what do the gunmen do, how do they do it and why do they do it? Their aim appears to be to get publicity for their cause. They have a leader who is mostly in the background and may be a foreigner. There are three active men dealing with the hostages. One is generally calm, one much louder but seemingly in control, but the third, who speaks only English (?), is close to losing control and shouts loudly. All are killers but some appear more impetuous than others. The Indian Bengali actor Parambrata Chattopadhyay plays Polash, the most controlled of the three. They contact the police by forcing a hostage to call her mother who has a police friend. When they pass on their demands to the police they monitor what happens on the TV news. The script is sharp about the use of mobile phones, though I thought I saw a mistake. As well as the three active terrorists there are others in the building guarding entrances/exits.
The second way to think about the narrative is as a stage drama. The single take turns the restaurant into a theatre stage. We wonder if the terrorist leaders will maintain control and eventually we realise that there is a specific sub-plot about saving a hostage who the terrorists seek to identify and kill. This creates a suspense narrative. Will this character be exposed? In this kind of narrative the audience is also asked to consider attitudes and human emotions. What kind of morality is at play? How can the hostages collectively defeat the terrorists? What makes a person willing to sacrifice themselves to save somebody else? I’m sure there must also be questions about Islam and about how Muslims are supposed to behave in situations like this. Killing people because of religious belief (or the lack of belief) is completely bewildering to me. I note that several reviewers have praised the film for its approach:
Through this approach, by highlighting the tragic ridiculousness of the whole terrorist rhetoric, Farooki manages to highlight the benefits of tolerance and education, but at the same time stresses the fact that in the area, guns and not words or thoughts are the ones in command. (Asian Movie Pulse)
I wonder if the film really does highlight tolerance and education? I don’t think we can definitely say the terrorists are ‘uneducated’. When terrorists are prepared to die for a cause it’s very difficult to argue with them. The best strategy would seem to be to tell them very little, to try to distract them without provoking them. Having said that, foreigners are going to be killed anyway and perhaps only the locals who know enough about Islam to second guess the answers to the terrorists’ interrogation stand much chance. According to Deborah Young in her The Hollywood Reporter review:
Unfortunately, [the film] has been banned in Bangladesh on the grounds it could “damage the country’s reputation” and incite religious hatred. The only thing this Bangladesh-Germany co-prod could do to the country’s reputation is improve it, and its plea for religious tolerance is nothing short of touching.
It seems we will struggle to see how the film goes down in Dhaka itself but international reviewers think it works. I’m not sure I could say that I ‘enjoyed’ Saturday Afternoon, but I was certainly impressed by the filmmaking skills and intelligence on display by the cast and crew. As well as Farooki and Zhambakiev I’d also like to pick out two local actors, Zahid Hasan and Nusrat Imrose Tisha as well as the Palestinian actor Eyad Hourani (Omar, Palestine 2013). I’d like to pick out more but this is a film short on info about cast members.