Documentary Films on Bangladesh by some non-Bangladeshi Film Makers
Documentary films on Bangladesh by Bangladeshi film-makers are very scanty – it is almost a non-existence genre in Bangladesh. Most Bangladeshis like films that are dramatic, action-packed, emotional, hypnotic, and non-reflective. Therefore, fact-based, non-fictional documentary film making has no place there. Not in theaters, not on TVs. However, recently, there is a subtle movement among some young Bangladeshis to focus on this genre of film making.
Indeed, there are tons of issues to make documentary films on Bangladesh – Tons. Though it was not easy, over the years many non-Bangladeshis tried to document various issues affecting Bangladesh in film. Issues like environmental pollution, climate change, women’s right, working condition, prostitution, garments industry, labor rights, education, corruption, etc.
Below are a partial list of documentary films on Bangladesh made by non-Bangladeshis (and some are of Bangladeshi origin). Some are feature-length, some are shorts, some are old, some new. This list is certainly not complete, therefore, more writing this issue may follow! The list here is in random order.
These documentary films on Bangladesh are not reviews, just descriptions.
2009 • 93 Mins • South Korea • In Bengali with English Subtitles
This is a documentary about ship-breaking industry in Bangladesh. The world center for ship-breaking is located in the port city of Chittagong in Bangladesh — perhaps the poorest nation on earth — is home to the ship-breaking industry. Here huge megaton behemoths that once sailed the seas are sent to be broken apart by men and boys (some as young as 12, often wearing flip flops) who earn $2 a day, from which they send money home to their families. They wrestle with thousands of tons of iron and asbestos, wielding blow-torches, hammers and crowbars. Here is where half of the world’s retired vessels are dismantled by 20,000 people who risk their lives to eke out the barest living. Iron Crows is a remarkably beautiful film, in this case, not just for its superb cinematography, but also for its indelible insight into how some of the most exploited people in the world retain their courage, decency and fortitude.
“…Perhaps the most important achievement of this powerful film is the courage, dignity and humility of our heroes trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of crushing poverty. This film is a tour de force!” – IDFA 2009 Jury’s comment
Best mid-length doc, IDFA, 2009
2011 • 82 Min • England, Germany
Banishanta Island, a tiny sliver of land 100 meters long and 10 meters wide in the Bay of Bengal, south Bangladesh, is notable for two reasons: it is on the frontline of climate change, and its population is made up primarily of a community of sex workers. With the rising river, soil erosion, and frequent cyclones gradually destroying what is left of the island, Razia, Khadija, and Shefali, three of the last 65 women left living there, are in a battle for their homes, the future of their families, and even their quest for true love.
Bad Weather by Giovanni Giommi won The Doc/IT Professional Award 2012, screened at festivals worldwide. It was also got Margaret Mead Filmmaker Award Special Mentions.
Hazaribagh: Toxic Leather
2013 • 52 Min • France
On the outskirts of Dhaka lies a giant slum of tanneries and over 500,000 people who work in them. Every year this living hell floods the European market with cheap leather. The workers here slave away at archaic machinery in absolute squalor, turning 14 million skins into leather. Toxic products used on the leather burn their skin, cause cancer and kill most before fifty. This film delivers a devastating insight into one of the most terrible places on Earth.
Working in a Hazaribagh tannery however is not just an assault on the senses. Every day, the workers in the busy factories are exposed to corrosive and explosive chemicals that were banned from much of the world 20 years ago. Their bodies carry the stains of this continuous onslaught. Hands and feet are malformed, and up to 90% of workers develop an illness related to their work. In her dispensary, a doctor explains her experiences: “Women working in tanneries are often frail. They suffer from vaginal infections, joint pain, fever and coughing. The men are also debilitated, suffering from heart problems and gastritis.”
However, there is no respite from the owners of the factories. The uneducated workers receive no guidance on how to use the deadly chemicals, and receive no sick pay when they are taken ill. Away from work, the chemicals seep into the water of the rivers, polluting the lifeline that the whole city of Dhaka survives on. Even though the river is biologically dead, tannery owners refuse to give concern to the hazardous results of their actions: “Of course water containing chemicals is bad for the health. But if we worried about toxicity we’d stop working. Who is ready to do that?… it’s just the way it is”.
In Hazaribagh the people are fighting back, both on the streets and in the strong sense of community that they create. This film not only charts the experiences of the workers in the factories, but shows how they defend themselves from the horror of their lives. Ultimately however, it asks if we, the West, really cannot afford to pay a little more, if only to help the millions around the world who live in hellish conditions to feed our greed for ever cheaper products.
Rory Peck Awards: Sony Impact Award 2013
Every Good Marriage Begins With Tears
2006 • 62 Min • United Kingdom
Hushnara is a bride-to-be who has cold feet on the eve of her big day. Her sister, Shahanara, has already tied the knot, but she is far more Westernised than her Islamic village-boy husband from Bangladesh, and the marriage already looks shaky after only two weeks. Their father wants to see the girls settled, and their eldest sister urges them to fulfill their duty to the family. All the elements are in place for a crackling movie about reluctant brides and intractable elders. Only, Simon Chambers’s “Every Good Marriage Begins with Tears” is a documentary about real people and their unscripted attempts to balance their individual desires with social expectations. Shahanara and Hushnara are the children of Bangladeshi immigrants from London. Chambers was as a social worker for 14 years, and the family trusted him enough to let him record their most private squabbles and confessions. Chambers followed the sisters and other family members in London and Bangladesh, and has come up with a highly personal and intimate film about different attitudes to love across cultures and generations, which is at turns hilarious and deeply sad.
My Cultural Divide
2006 • 75 Min • Canada
Filmmaker Faisal Lutchmedial goes beyond the activist stereotype as he takes a personal journey into his mother’s native country for the first time. A three-month visit to Bangladesh becomes a discovery of family and home that runs parallel with his attempt to tackle the complex issue of global trade. Starting from the opening scene My Cultural Divide questions the logic of the hardcore political activist, and wonders aloud whether ethical consuming actually does anything good for the workers behind the machines. Because of family connections Lutchmedial makes his way into some of the worst factories in Bangladesh, and talks frankly with the workers inside about their job and living conditions. Sometimes contradicting western activists, the labor leaders he speaks to soon make Lutchmedial question his own long-standing beliefs on child labor and personal responsibility. Accompanied by his ailing mother, Lutchmedial takes us on a very personal journey to bridge the gap between his heritage in Bangladesh and his life in Canada. He connects his politics with his humanity, and weaves together a story that is both thought-provoking and touching.
2007 • 85 Mins • Germany | a.k.a. Iron Eater
In his critically acclaimed documentary film Iron Eaters, filmmaker Shaheen Dill-Riaz follows poverty-stricken farmers who try to escape the annual famine that strikes their home in northern Bangladesh. They trade in their plows for a blowtorch and begin to work as ship-wreckers, risking their health and their lives for a pittance.
The seasonal famine in the remote parts of northern Bangladesh forces farmers Kholil and Gadu to leave their fields. Along with several of their relatives, they travel south to work as seasonal laborers in the infamous ship yards that line the beaches of Chittagong. Their new job is to dismantle the garbage disgorged by the Western World: huge oil tankers, vast container ships and any vessel that has sailed the seas for too long.
Without heavy machinery and no protective equipment, they gut the ships right on the beach where they are driven ashore. Razor-sharp pieces of metal, toxic chemicals and hazardous tools turn the job into a living hell. > Buy this doc.
Easy Like Water
2012 • 58 Min • USA, Denmark
As flood waters threaten, a visionary architect is building solar floating schools – and creating a blueprint for his country’s survival. But can ‘Bangladesh’s Noah’ keep his imperiled nation from drowning? By turns witty and heart-wrenching, ‘Easy Like Water‘ takes you on an off-the-grid journey that offers a refreshing new perspective on the resilience of the Global South.
Easy Like Water seeks to ignite and accelerate interest in “design for good” strategies for helping communities live with climate change in the world’s most-affected regions, such as Bangladesh, where the story unfolds. Learn more about each of the interconnected issues the film weaves together.
2009 • 55 Mins • USA
Scrap Vessel documents the last trip of the Hari Funafuti (formerly the Bulk Promotor and Hupohai – which means ‘Amber Ocean’), a cargo ship on its way to be scrapped. With a languid atmosphere using the massive ship like a landscape, the film explores what is found inside from the Hupohai’s communist past, onwards through an unseen attack by pirates and onto a distant beach and glowing ironworks factory, until the ship becomes a phantom.
Background: In 1973 the freighter ship, Bulk Promotor, is built by Norway to transport coal and iron ore throughout Northern Europe. In 1985 the ship is sold to mainland China. Renamed Hupohai, it is used to distribute coal along the Yangtze River. Thirty-two years into the ship’s life, now called the Hari Funafuti, we board the vessel in Singapore on its final journey to Bangladesh.
Filmmaker Jason Byrne boarded the ship with fellow cameraman Theron Patterson in Singapore. They documented the journey on 16mm film and video, exploring the huge vessel top to bottom, finding scraps of its past crew including photos and 16mm motion picture communist propaganda. Filming the ship’s destruction on the beach in Bangladesh, they continued with its pieces to the Ali Rolling Mill in Chittagong, where the scraps were melted down.
The ship is completely gone now, but various artifacts were saved by Byrne, including the blueprints, safety posters, some of the 16mm film footage, photos of the original crew, a diary kept by a crew member, and a cassette tape of the captain’s favorite music.
2009 • 60 Min • USA
This timely documentary uncovers critical water issues facing humanity. It takes the viewer from the floods and droughts in Bangladesh, to dam building in India, water management in the Netherlands and the latest wake-up call in America: the Katrina disaster and the drought in the Southwest. Future wars will be fought over access to fresh water, unless we come together to face this global crisis. Without water there is no life.
The tagline of the documentary is ‘When Drought, Flood and Greed Collide’