Voices Unbound

rahnuma ahmed


Farzana Boby won the best director award for her film BishKanta (The Poison Thorn) at the recently concluded Bangladesh Short Film and Documentary Film Festival, held in Dhaka. A self-taught filmmaker, Boby grew up on the outskirts of Khulna city where their home had the only television in the area. “Neighbors would fill our courtyard and we would be up until midnight watching filmi song-and-dance. That’s when I became obsessed with the silver screen,” she said.  Since filmmaking was not taught in universities at the time in Bangladesh, Boby pursued her passion by watching cinema at film clubs and attending film workshops while taking Philosophy classes at Dhaka University. After completing her Master’s she worked as a cameraperson and video journalist at a private television channel, and after that, as a freelance videographer. She has worked as an assistant director on a full-length feature film, and co-directed two documentaries, Shajshilpi and Phulbarir Shat Deen.

The following is a modified version of an interview with Farzana Boby taken in 2015, on the occasion of BishKanta’s screening at the Southbank Alchemy Film Festival, London.

rahnuma ahmed: Is BishKanta your first film? Why did you decide to make a film on birangonas (war heroines)?

Farzana Boby: It is my first solo film. I had co-directed two films before making BishKanta.

I like to make films about things that make me uncomfortable. I made this film from a deep sense of discomfort. In early 2011, I had joined filmmaker Rubaiyat Hossain’s research on birangonas and while working on the project I discovered that in everything official – government documents, news, cinemas, photographs, essays – whatever the medium, all post-1971 representations portrayed birangonas in the same manner: dead or half-dead, distraught, as mostly beggars.

The mainstream media portrays birangonas and women freedom fighters through socially prevalent frameworks of courage and honor. Such representations – in which rape means the loss of honor, a raped woman is socially dead – make me uneasy. I feel as though each piece of such documentation asks me: Can’t birangonas speak for themselves? Can’t they tell their own stories in their own words?

For the last 45 years, mainstream historians have repeatedly placed women freedom fighters and birangonas in social narratives of complementarity. Women are men’s companions: they are his mother or sister or wife. Since women are always seen as adjuncts to men, it is not surprising that their contribution is ignored. That it is covered up and suppressed. Patriarchal nationalism has gobbled up women’s words and replaced women’s voices with its own language. This is the vicious ground of women’s representation on which we are trapped.

Women’s bodies have been occupied through the institution of marriage. Their creative and nurturing powers, their competence, their love – all that is inferior under this rubric of patriarchal nationalism. We are always represented as biological beings. The distortion of women’s history has meant that contemporary women are placed in a position, which is patently false. Women’s participation in the freedom struggle of 1971, their contribution, their abuse, sorrows, and suffering, are interpreted through this patriarchal lens and not addressed on women’s own terms. It is this working-out that led me to make BishKanta. I began working on the film in late 2011.

ra: Could you talk to us about how long it took to make BishKanta, from the inception of the idea to its release, and why it took so long?

FB: A lot of time went into searching for the women, the three women around whose stories BishKanta revolves. Finding them was like “uncovering” suppressed, hidden histories. The difficulty was largely because I didn’t want to see them through a 43-year-old lens and didn’t want to reproduce the patriarchal prism through which birangonas are looked at. What I wanted to see, or better still, what I wanted to show was that which Ronjita Mondol, Roma Chowdhury, and Halima wanted to show. This meant that I would have to create an enabling space first. This was the most difficult, and the most time-consuming part.

I wanted to inhabit these women’s perspectives. This meant that from the very beginning since shooting started, I needed to develop a method. I chose to shoot with a small Handycam, to have women in the team, to shoot in similar lighting, in the same season, and also, to make use of symbols, not have a commentary, to use visuals and audio in an uninterrupted manner. Instead of working with a pre-determined form within which I fitted the documentary material, I allowed the form to emerge from the matter that I shot. It took a long, long time, almost four years.

ra: In Nilima Ibrahim’s book Ami Birangona Bolchi (I War Heroine speak), a birangona says life in independent Bangladesh was worse than life in the rape camp. They were socially ostracized, regarded as unchaste, soiled. What about the three birangonas in BishKanta, were they similarly shunned by their family members and the community at large?

FB: First, let me say that Nilima Ibrahim’s book, and Ain Salish Kendra’s oral history project which led to the publication of Narir Ekattur (Women’s 1971) are exceptional; the women who speak of their suffering do so from outside traditional patriarchal narratives.

I was shocked when I began researching for the film. The first character in the film is Ronjita Mondol, who also happens to be the first war heroine we got to know after we began our research. I came across her name in a Khulna book on the war of independence, The Victorious Campaign of 1971, by Babar Ali. A line in the book referred to Ronjita as “crazy” (pagli). I began searching for her. When I found her, I was shocked to see that what was written in the book didn’t match reality – when Ronjita was a child, her parents would lovingly call her Pagli, so that was a term of endearment. The politics of morphing her pet name into an inferior label when it crosses into the public realm is perverse.

She is crazy because she speaks out. She speaks of her pain. If she comes across the razakars (local collaborators of the Pakistani army) who raped her and looted their house, she steps forward and questions them. She demands they show remorse. Her defiance and courage are threats to the status quo. Many others are ambivalent about her for crossing religious boundaries and settling down with a Muslim man. The word “pagli” becomes an invective to brush her away, her dreams of justice. It’s like saying that her insistence for justice and reconciliation is abnormal. Villagers also refer to her as a “beshya” (prostitute). These words speak of how deeply entrenched local power structures are.

To be viewed as an inferior means to be hated. To think that a woman, a raped woman, can be socially hated! One comes across feelings of social hatred when Halima speaks of how people want to spit at her when speaking of her, of how she is not acknowledged as a freedom fighter. One encounters it again when Roma Chowdhury speaks of how her son humiliates her, of how she was tricked and cheated by the men she loved. This layer about life in post-independence Bangladesh is present in the film.

Ronijta’s life became aimless because people spoke ill of her. Halima said she was threatened with beatings after 1971, that her mother never accepted her. Her fight, she says, still continues.

So, in a sense, BishKanta is a historical document, it counters the monolithic nationalist history that we are forced to accept. I think of my endeavor as having broached something big; I quilted history with my amateur fingers, that’s how I like to think of the film. Ronjita Mondol, Halima, and Roma Chowdhury stand before us with their own versions of history and this opens up vast possibilities before us. It means we are standing at a juncture where it is now possible to inquire the well-entrenched narratives of rape survivors deeply.

ra: How is a documentary on 1971 war rape in Bangladesh relevant to other cultures, other nations, other societies?

FB: Rape is now internationally recognized as a weapon of war and genocide, after what happened at Nanking, what happened before and after the Second World War where both Nazis and liberators committed rape. Then there was Guatemala, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Congo, Sudan, Serbia, Rwanda. And of course Abu Ghraib – we know about incidents of rape through media reports but the photographs were suppressed by the US administration.

Since war rapes can be pre-planned, since it can be part of military policy, it is important for artists and activists to examine the mindset of the state and of institutions like the army. It is also important to collect women’s testimonies, even if it’s decades later, so that we can learn about the present condition of victims and survivors, how life has treated them, and whether they still suffer.

The world is now global and any work condemning war rape, which makes people think about the personal and familial and community-level devastation that it causes, is of utmost relevance everywhere around the world.

ra: What sort of impact would you like BishKanta to have?

FB: I hope BishKanta will reach out to people outside Bangladesh, that they will empathize with Ronjita, Roma, and Halima’s suffering, that it will help them feel for the sufferings of untold others, for those women who have disappeared from history.

I also hope it will inspire people to scrutinize nationalism, to reject a patriarchal nationalism that labels a rape victim’s resistance as “abnormal.”

[Image Credit: Danielle MacInnes.]