Official sources estimate there are currently no fewer than 42 «stateless nations» in the world with a population of more than three million, that list headed by Tamils (76m), Kurds (46m), and Sikhs (27m). Wandering, A Rohingya Story sees filmmakers from one of the 42 train their cameras on another. Québec-based directorial duo Olivier Higgins and Mélanie Carrier -working closely with a photographer from the same Canadian province, Renaud Philippe – traveled to eastern Bangladesh to document the situation of the Rohingya people.
Hundreds of thousands of this much-persecuted Muslim ethnic group, of whom there are 3.5m, were displaced from their native, majority-Buddhist Myanmar (a.k.a. Burma) following a military crackdown which began in 2016-7. The assault was focused mainly on the district of Rakhine and resulted in at least 24,000 deaths amid plausible accusations of mass rape and torture. In 2018, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Raad Al Hussein, issued a report calling for the Myanmar generals to be tried for genocide.
Among those implicated in this ongoing catastrophe has been Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Previously an internationally-venerated figurehead of imperiled democracy, her reputation has been seriously – perhaps, irreparably – damaged by her handling of the issue in her capacity as Myanmar’s de facto Prime Minister.
Recent global coverage of the Rohingya has focussed mainly on the Aung San Suu Kyi angle, but that name is never mentioned in the film. Instead, this is primarily an impressionistic and sometimes poetic evocation of the day-to-day realities prevailing in Kutupalong, described here as the world’s largest refugee camp. With an estimated population of 600,000, it is bigger than Lisbon, Lyon or Dublin: a makeshift “city” whose «temporary» nature may – like those elsewhere – become punishingly permanent for its residents.
Carrier, Higgins, and Philippe (the former pair share editing, the latter duo cinematography) are inescapably outsiders looking in. But their film nevertheless stands as a sympathetic, informative, and balanced record of a remarkable place and people, whose flight and plight deserve to remain at the forefront of the world’s fickle attention span. They seek to personalise the story by telling it largely through the words of Kalam, an interpreter for NGOs and journalists.
Kalam’s narration is spoken by Mohamed Shofi, a Rohingya community leader based in Québec City, and it’s a little puzzling that we don’t hear Kalam’s own voice (nor is he identifiably shown on screen). Shofi does a solid job, however, conveying Kalam’s articulate perspective as an individual and as a representative of a huge mass of people. And of course, as he notes towards the end, Wandering isn’t really only about the Rohingya: «How many times is it going to happen again? To whom is it going to happen next?»
Documentaries about refugees and refugee-camps are currently in regrettably plentiful supply, so widespread is the practice of brutal displacement either within countries or across official frontiers – every non-fiction-oriented festival worth the name, not just those specialising in human rights themes, has an array of such material of long, short and medium duration. Wandering stands out from a crowded pack, however, by striking tricky balances between individual and collective focus, and between presenting an aesthetic vision of its subject-matter rather than an aestheticised one. Crucial to the latter is Philippe’s camerawork, which consistently finds well-composed tableau that feels discovered rather than manufactured (the occasional interpolations of dramatic drone footage and archival materials are also judiciously achieved).
their film nevertheless stands as a sympathetic, informative, and balanced record of a remarkable place and people, whose flight and plight deserve to remain at the forefront of the world’s fickle attention span.
The unsung MVP here is digital-colourist Jérôme Cloutier: another Québecois, who has worked on most of the features directed by his prodigious compatriot Xavier Dolan — plus their sepia-toned music video for Adele’s mega-selling single Hello. Philippe and Cloutier compose a muted symphony of delicate hues, the pale brown of the ever-present mud—heavy rainfalls and attendant natural hazards are the main source of tension and drama—contrasting gently with the oranges, blues, and reddish tints of the Rohingyas’ fabrics.
The tone is generally reflective and ruefully philosophical, especially during daytime scenes where communal activities —construction projects, (segregated) schooling, and ball-sports are chronicled fly-on-the-wall style. But the psychological wounds and traumas lingering from 2016-7 are evidently present, emerging most disruptively during nocturnal hours. «When fear wakes me up,» one camp-dweller confides, «I use the light from my phone to give me courage.» Temporarily abandoning their distanced, measured tempo, Higgins and Carrier evoke the scary volatility of PTSD using rapid cuts, disorientingly close close-ups, a cacophonous soundscape. This sequence is brief, but in its distilled nightmarishness says all that needs to be said.