On Bangladeshi War Heroines: An Interview with Documentary Filmmaker Farzana Boby (The Poison Thorn)

Farzana Boby, 33 years-old, is a Bangadeshi filmmaker, generally known by her last name. Since filmmaking was not taught at the universities, Boby pursued her passion by watching films at cine clubs and attending film workshops while attending Philosophy classes at Dhaka University. After completing her Masters’, she began to learn the trade through working as a programme cameraperson and video journalist in a private television channel, and after that, as a freelance videographer. She has worked as an assistant director in a full length feature film, and co-directed two documentaries, “Shajshilpi,” “Phulbarir shat deen.”

Boby was born in a village in the suburbs of Khulna city, their house was the proud owner of the only television set in the village, “I grew up with the crowds filling our courtyard, we would stay awake till midnight to watch the programme on filmi song-and-dance. That’s when I became obsessed with the silver screen.”

 Farzana Boby speaks to writer rahnuma ahmed in Dhaka, a well-wisher of amader ramu.com.

Is BishKanta your first film? Why did you decide to make a film on Birangonas (war heroines)?

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

I like to make films about things which make me feel 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 everything official – whether government documents, news, cinemas, photographs, essays – whatever be the medium, all representations post-1971, had portrayed Birangonas in the same manner: dead or half-dead, distraught, a beggar woman.

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

For the last 43 years, mainstream historians have repeatedly placed women freedom fighters and Birangonas in social narratives of complementarity. Women are men’s companions: she is either his mother or sister or wife! Since women are regarded as men’s adjuncts, it is not surprising that their contribution is ignored. That it is covered up and suppressed. Patriarchal nationalism has gobbled up women’s words, it has replaced women’s voices with its own language. This is the vicious cycle of women’s representation within 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 this has been deemed inferior. We keep being represented as a biological being. 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, they have all been viewed through this lens, they have not been addressed on women’s own terms. It is this working-out which led me to make BishKanta. I began working on the film in end-2011.

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?

A lot of time went into searching for the women, the three women around whose stories BishKanta revolves. Finding them was like `uncovering’ suppressed history, hidden history. The difficulty was largely because I didn’t want to see them through the 43-year old lens, I 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 the space which would enable that first of all. 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 in the documentary material, I allowed the form to emerge from the matter that I shot. It took a long, long time, almost four years.

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 ostracised, regarded as unchaste, soiled. What about the three Birangonas in BishKanta, were they similarly shunned by their family members, and the community at large?   

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 received a rude shock when I began researching for the film. The first character in the film is Ronjita Mondol, she 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, written by Babar Ali. There was a line in the book which referred to Ronjita as the ‘loony’ (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, the only truth is that when Ronjita was a child, her parents would lovingly call her Pagli.  There is a politics behind her pet name crossing over into the public realm, here the implication is that she is somehow inferior.

She is `loony’ 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 threatening to the status quo, many also seem not to like her for having crossed religious boundaries and having settled down with a Muslim man. By calling her pagli, her dreams of justice are brushed away by a single word. It’s like saying that her insistence for justice and reconciliation is abnormal. Villagers also refer to her as a ‘prostitute.’ These words speak of how deeply entrenched local power structures are.

To be viewed as an inferior means that such a person is 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-independent Bangladesh, is present in the film, it comes out in their narratives.

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, is still continuing.

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 endeavour 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 deeply.

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

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 rape was committed by both Nazis and liberators, then there was Guatemala, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Congo, Sudan, Serbia, Rwanda, and of course, Abu Ghuraib, we know through the media that rape had occurred but the photographs have been suppressed by the US administration.

Since war rape 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 be decades later, so that we can learn about how the victims of rape are now, how life has treated them, whether they still suffer.

The world is now global and any work which condemns war rape,  which seeks to make people think about the personal and familial and community-level devastation that it causes, is of the utmost relevance in all countries the world over.

What sort of impact would you like BishKanta to have?

I hope BishKanta will reach out to people outside Bangladesh, that they will empathise 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 unpick patriarchal nationalism, one which labels a rape victim’s resistance as ‘abnormal.’