Braving the Brahmaputra

CLIMATE / As global warming increases heavy flooding on Bangladesh's mighty Brahmaputra River, impoverished inhabitants of its mud islands are forced to flee.

Mighty Afrin: In the Time of Floods screens as part of the 2023 Ji.hlava IDFF Testimonies programme.

When Angelos Rallis met a young orphan, Afrin, in Bangladesh before the pandemic, he immediately realised she was different from many other poor people scraping a living on the vulnerable mud islands of the Brahmaputra River in Bangladesh. Afrin, whose father had left for the capital, Dhaka, after the death of her mother and the loss of their house to floods, was living with strangers, effectively an orphan. But she exhibited such a joy and passion for life that Rallis decided to make a film about her.

Mighty Afrin: in the time of floods Angelos Rallis
Mighty Afrin: in the time of floods, a film by Angelos Rallis

Mud islands

The film he made– and which is now showing at international festivals, including the 27th Jihavla International Documentary Film Festival in the Czech Republic, where it won top prize in the Testimonies section Saturday (Oct 28) – is more than an intimate portrait of a young girl growing into a confident teenager during the passage of the film. Mighty Afrin: In the Time of Floods is a story that represents the millions of mostly poor people in mostly third-world countries who face the devastation of their communities, lives, and dreams as global warming creates ever more hazardous weather conditions.

Where Afrin lives – an anonymous mud island barely a metre above normal water levels of the river – may always have been vulnerable to flooding, but as the climate crisis increases rainfall over the Himalayas, the rivers that feed the Brahmaputra (which flow through India, China, and Tibet as well as Bangladesh) more than 30 million people will lose their homes in the coming years as floods become more frequent.

After one particularly heavy flood, Afrin decides she has had enough: the film opens with her wading and swimming through shoulder-high waters to retrieve the limbs of banana trees to serve as temporary flood defences. Her feeble defences do little to keep her hut and small corrugated-iron-fenced compound from filling with water, and she is forced to perch on a platform just beneath the rafters of her hut, soaked to the skin, waiting for the waters to recede.

When neighbours suggest she is old enough to marry (she is around 14 at this time), she decides the time is ripe for her to leave for Dhaka in search of her father. You know it is going to be a fruitless search as soon as she sets out under constant rain in a small wooden canoe, a flimsy arch over her head her only cover.

Alone, away from the mud island where she had friends and was part of a community, Afrin appears small and vulnerable as she hitches rides on top of passenger trains and finds shelter to sleep in bus stations. Out of her context, she is just another nameless and homeless child on the streets. Her intense budding beauty makes one fear for her fate in Dhaka, home to more than 10 million people, its bustling streets a kaleidoscope of colours and cacophony of truck horns, grinding motors, and human voices. The director’s camerawork is discreet and sensitive, enabling the viewer to be immersed in the world of this resilient young woman, mature beyond her years.

After one particularly heavy flood, Afrin decides she has had enough

Impromptu family

Taking up with a group of rubbish scavengers who scratch a living by collecting discarded plastic bottles that can be sold for 15 taka – about 13 euro cents – a kilo (the same price as a boiled egg and rice for lunch), Afrin finds a niche in an impromptu family. The idea that she is searching for her father is never pursued. Instead, Rallis simply observes her life in the big city. There are daily challenges and potential dangers: searching for valuable rubbish on burning tips that fringe the waters of the rivers in the city or risking a beating when trying to retrieve broken – and apparently abandoned – items from residential alleyways.

Barefoot and grubbing, Afrin is always composed and happy – placing a flower garland around the shoulders of the younger children in her small, new community, smiling beatifically all the time.

Mighty Afrin: In the Time of Flood Angelos Rallis
Mighty Afrin: In the Time of Flood, a film by Angelos Rallis

Bold colours

Rallis closes this gentle film with more images from the mud island, suggesting that Afrin has returned after losing contact with her new friends in Dhaka. Here, we see her with an older man who tells her more about her father, although we never learn why he abandoned his daughter.

In the closing scenes of the film, Afrin is made up in the bold colours of a performer in a traditional Jatra folk theatre, singing and acting with a group. In the credits, we learn that Afrin is now 16 and has been taken in by a charity that cares for street children and that apart from pursuing her dream to become a full-time Jatra performer, she is also active in helping other street children.

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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