Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

«We’re born storytellers»

CANNES DOCS: International Film Initiative of Bangladesh President Samia Zaman speaks with Modern Times Review on documentary from Bangladesh and the 2021 Cannes Docs - Marché du Film South Asia Showcase.

As part of its 2021 programme, Cannes Docs – Marché du Film has curated eight showcases as part of its docs-in-progress selections. Of these eight organisations, the South Asia Showcase (Online 7 July: 14:30 – 15:45; Onsite 10 July 10:00 – 11:15 CET) sees the International Film Initiative of Bangladesh (IFIB) present four documentary films from South Asia at advanced stages of post production.

The IFIB offers various workshops, symposiums, exhibitions, and meetings to prepare the new generation of Bangladeshi creatives to present their work to the wider international community in a more visible way. at Cannes Docs – Marché du Film, IFIB looks beyond its own borders and also presents productions/co productions representing Afghanistan, India, and Nepal.

Ahead of the South Asia Showcase, Modern Times Review spoke with IFIB president Samia Zaman about the IFIB’s work, as well as the the history, legacy and stories of documentary in Bangladesh.

Birds Street, a film by Hezbullah Sultani

Can you talk a bit about what the International Film Initiative of Bangladesh does? How did you get involved with the organisation in the first place?
The International Film Initiative of Bangladesh came out of a series of talks and seminars in Bangladesh in 2016. They were basically in the idea of a global journey of Bangladeshi films. That was the umbrella theme because I realised that although films from Bangladesh have been in international festivals, the journey hasn’t been consistent. When I first started going to major festivals like Cannes, Berlin, Locarno, and Toronto, I realised that people could make a connection if you say cricket and Bangladesh. If you say the emerging economy and Bangladesh people also make a connection. These are positive things. But when you say film and Bangladesh, there is no obvious connection. This made me want to start an initiative to help our filmmakers access information properly and open doors for them.

I have directed and produced two feature-length films. They are Bengali films made for Bengali audiences. I recently finished a feature film, Song of the Soul (Ajob Karkhana), with another film director, Shabnam Ferdousi. She is a national award-winning documentary director, but this is her first fiction film. All of this started over the last five, six years. Through IFIB, I do monthly screenings of films from women filmmakers of Bangladesh, in collaboration with Goethe Institute of Bangladesh. I started going to festivals and sponsoring filmmakers to do the same. While all this was happening, I also brought like-minded people with us. Whenever there was a festival or anything within Bangladesh, I would arrange talks, trainings, or interactive events. We were one of the hosts of Berlinale Spotlight. Locarno also did a fantastic South Asia focus. In Cannes, we were doing this too. If you look at this year’s Cannes, there is one film in Un Certain Regard. There is one project in La Fabrique Cinema and another in the co-production market. And we’re doing a South Asia showcase in Cannes Docs.

I’m not the only person doing it, but I have really focused on this and have encouraged people actually to go out and tell our story. For the last 20 years, film has been a struggling medium in Bangladesh. If you do a Google search, you will see that we have filmmakers who sporadically come through but others don’t carry on. They go to a festival, make a splash, and then nobody else applies the following year. IFIB is trying to harbour this encouragement, and creating the South Asia Showcase is a part of that.

Devi, a film by Subina Shrestha

It’s nice that there is government support for film production and a relatively robust community of people engaging with it. At the same time, I’m sure that there are points along the process that should be developed at a more localised level. Can you talk about a few of those critical areas you think the local film industry can improve upon?
Bangladesh has, like I mentioned, several film-related and government organisations. We have the Bangladesh Film Development Corporation. We have the Film Archive. We now have Bangladesh Cinema and Television Institute. I have been involved with that from the very beginning because we had a very robust short film movement from the 80s. We spearheaded many of those demands from the film community, especially those working outside the commercial zone. The point is, we are getting these organisations, but are they delivering? Or, are we able to deliver to them what our plan or idea is?

A crucial body is missing in the Bangladesh film scene. We do not have a Film Commission. On an ad hoc basis, FDC tries to do some of it, as well as the Short Film Forum. IFIB also tries to do some of it, but we cannot do comprehensive work that the Commission can do. We need a Film Commission or at least a body with a similar mandate that is missing.

A crucial body is missing in the Bangladesh film scene.

I have this assumption that a lot of the industry is relatively concentrated in the capital and major urban areas. What do you see in the more rural communities in terms of storytelling? Also, in terms of infrastructure and support in connecting urban and rural storytellers.
I come from a country where, although a very traditional, rural society, it is surprising and uplifting to me, the way we have taken hold of the new technology available, be that mobile, computer, internet, or digital connection. Bangladesh is one of the first, fastest-growing, and early adopters of mobile cash transfer. So you can buy anything sitting anywhere using your mobile phone. Many of the emerging economies are like that. Why am I talking about money? This gives you a mindset. We are simple people. Traditional people. Conservative in many ways. But when the technology came, we grabbed it.

We’re born storytellers. If you look at the population, we are actually a large country. I think it’s beginning to understand the power of this as consumers and as creators. We have a lot of viewers, but physically we are small. You can go anywhere in Bangladesh. There is no unreachable place. I firmly believe that cities are very important. The concept of the city is crucial for the growth of art and different kinds of voices. As I said, the technology has proven that the connections are throughout the country. We are now interconnected, and our talents are hardly ever from Dhaka. At some point in their life, they have either moved to Dhaka or maybe centred somewhere in another large city.

Bangladesh is also well connected enough with the rest of the world and our original film distribution system that we had one or two major screens in all 64 districts. All the major cities or towns had their own single screen. Now that is clearly under threat. All our cinema hall owners or distributors, the whole distribution channel is under severe threat right now. To give you an example, we went from 1400 screens to 140 within 20 years. This is another big challenge we’re facing, but the talent, I agree with you completely. The talent will have to come from all over Bangladesh because our real stories are in that rural corner.

Munni, a film by Tahrima Khan

Regardless of where in the country the filmmakers are coming from, what kinds of stories and themes do you see? What are young Bangladeshi filmmakers interested in right now?
It depends on how that stories are consumed. If you are watching a story on television, they are usually limited fiction based stories. But in documentary, we have the same struggle as in many places. To think about documentary as a legitimate, proper film is a change. In Bangladesh, there is a documentary called Stop Genocide, which was made during the 1971 war. It is basically our first film as Bangladesh. Many people consider this film the beginning of the modern era of Bangladeshi cinema, and it is a documentary.

During the war of 1971, an advertising filmmaker Lear Levin travelled to Bangladesh and tried to figure out what to film. He filmed a group of young Bangladeshi freedom fighters who were also singers and messengers. He tried to make a film out of this but found it very challenging. It ended up sitting in his basement in New York until two Bangladeshi filmmakers, Tareque Masud and Catherine Masud, contacted him and made this fantastic documentary, Muktir Gaan (Song of Freedom). This film took a very unusual distribution channel as it was screened across the country organised by the filmmakers. People were lining up to see it.

Thirteen Destinations of a Traveller, a film by Partha Das

We have a very potent, strong, and nationalistic history, and the documentary scene has been quite robust for the last twenty years. Right now, we have a successful Doc Lab (Dhaka Doc Lab). The basic attitude of restriction that when you see a film, you imagine fiction is a long process to counteract. In the Doc Lab, we have noticed that the stories coming out are all very interesting. In young people, they are very interested in recent events and social analysis like the role of women, LGBTQ, or stories about the current time and place. Young people are making more films about these current-day issues. Historical films are not made as much, although we had an award-winning filmmaker Shabnam Ferdousi, who made a film about the children of the women who were raped during the 1971 war. That film gathered a lot of interest as she looked into a part of history that was never discussed.

In young people, they are very interested in recent events and social analysis like the role of women, LGBTQ, or stories about the current time and place.

How did your relationship With Cannes and the Marché du Film form? What will you be bringing to the programme this year? What is your goal with it?
Marché du Film was the first major film market I attended. Before that, I would always attend festivals, and my focus was on my film, others films, or as a viewer. Marché du Film was the first time I came to Cannes, and I realised that no one talks about the market. When you think of Cannes, you think of that big red carpet. It’s like theatre. But there is this whole other world going on during Cannes. This is the entire world’s film industry, and they are there. I was curious who these people are? What are they doing there? And what can we do?

I find that younger people or less experienced filmmakers don’t always get the market and how important it is to bring your film to the world’s audience. Cannes is one of the pioneers of this. In 2016, I decided that I was going to come to this market throughout my life. Whether I am in film or not. This is the place you go and meet other people. You don’t need a project or a big plan. You just need to be here.

In 2017, I launched the Dhaka to Cannes programme, which was the beginning of the current journey. What I felt when I came here, you will see all these people trying to make films, and you feel that buzz like everything is possible. I wanted to share this feeling with our filmmakers, in particular the young, upcoming ones. I encouraged others to visit. In 2017, most people came of their own volition. I talked about it with them. In 2021, a lot more people are coming to the Marché du Film from Bangladesh, including more journalists, filmmakers, and critics. Of course, as I mentioned, some filmmakers are now getting into official programmes.

With Cannes Docs, we realised that we need to work on regional cooperation. We have money in the subcontinent. We have people. We have distribution channels. All of this came into an idea that Cannes Docs very much liked. So we thought about doing the South Asian Showcase. Afghanistan to the Maldives is a vast region. Things are happening all over it. I have studied all the films coming to Cannes Docs, and I know I can offer something different! When we tell our stories, we need to tell big stories with a considerable scope. For these, multi-country cooperation is essential. These are the kinds of connections I want to make and continue to make. I am delighted that we can pull off the South Asian Showcase and that Cannes Docs also had the vision to do it.

Cannes Docs 2021 South Asia Showcase Flyer

Finally, even though you have mentioned some already, but if you were to recommend a Bangladeshi documentary to an audience ignorant of the country’s filmography, what would it be?
Most of our compelling documentaries are, unfortunately, not available online. This is also something that IFIB will work on. I have recently commissioned someone to make a list and commentary of ’50 Years of Bangladesh, 50 Documentaries You Must Watch’ with links to the films.

I think Muktir Gaan is a terrific film to watch because you can see the liberation of Bangladesh alongside the philosophical context.

In recent years, many good ones came out but sporadically available. The one available and with an international conversation around it is Kamar Ahmad Simon’s Shunte Ki Pao! (Are You Listening!).

Of course, another film is the one I mentioned, Born Together (Jonmoshathi) by Shabnam Ferdousi.

Steve Rickinson
Steve Rickinson
Steve lives in Bucharest, Romania. He is Communications Manager and Industry Editor of MTR.

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