Published in the Forum (August 2007)
The writer reflects upon what he learned making the film and in attending screenings of it in several cities across the world
One boat, 42 lives; 17 dead, 25 waiting to die — they have been floating on the sea for about 10 days without food or water. One looks at another as potential “food” and wonders which part of a dead-body may be easier to swallow, while another uses his last breath to look for something sharp enough to cut up a dead-body.
This was the experience that a group of young Bangladeshis had to go through as they undertook an illegal journey in early 2005 to reach Spain. They trailed through the Sahara Desert — sometimes by a jeep, sometimes on foot — with hardly enough to eat or drink, and always afraid of being shot at by border patrols. After barely surviving the desert, and spending weeks in jails in horrendous conditions, the group had to take a small rubber boat to cross the mighty Mediterranean Sea. The boat’s engine stopped after a few hours and they were stranded on the boat for about 10 days until the Algerian authorities rescued them. Some survived to tell the heart-wrenching story of the entire journey — the inhuman suffering in having to drink one’s own urine, the pain of watching a brother or a friend slowly starve to death, and the horror of making the cruel choice between death and eating up body parts of a dead friend.
Popular writer Anisul Haque narrated their story in his novel Dusshopner Jatri, which provided the initial inspiration for making a film based on their experience. After pulling together most of my personal savings and receiving generous financial support from friends like Nadia Afrin and Tahmina Khanam, Sujan Mahmud and I embarked on our own journey to make a film that eventually became Deshantori. Little did we know at that point that we were not only going to get into the lives of those who went on that tragic journey, but also into the mind of an entire generation of young Bangladeshis.
It was in March 2006 that we started interviewing the survivors of that harrowing journey. What unfolded was a picture that we did not quite expect — almost none of the 26 people who went on that journey came from families suffering abject poverty. Most had TV in their houses and many had other family members sending money from abroad; two even came from a middle class family with own apartment in the heart of Dhaka. Clearly poverty was not a major factor behind these people taking such life-and-death risks in trying to emigrate to a developed country. But then, what was?
Our quest to find the answer to this is what forms the underlying basis of Deshantori. In the process of making the film, we roamed across the nation interviewing the youth from various walks of life asking their views on Bangladesh’s future, their possible role in it, and their reasons for wanting to migrate so desperately. What we found was a deep-rooted frustration caused by the endemic injustice that in their minds was almost a permanent phenomenon. Widespread corruption, extortion by politicians and their allies, unpunished crimes, armed politics in university campuses — these are only parts of why they felt that they do not see any future in Bangladesh. One interviewee summarised the widespread psyche of many young people in Bangladesh: “With my qualifications, I cannot do anything worthwhile in Bangladesh; if I can go abroad, I know I can.”
Even those who came from relatively well-off families and had the ability to gather some decent amount of money did not seem to have the confidence to use it for any investment in the country. Rabiul, one of the survivors of the journey, had borrowed a substantial sum of money from his relatives. He said during the interview: “If I were to ask my relatives money for starting a business in Bangladesh, none of them would give me money, not even my parents. If I tell them that I will use the money to go abroad, only then will they give me money.” We found that the thought that “Bangladesh is not a country worth living in if there is a way out” is quite deeply embedded in the psyche of much of the young generation.
However, that was not all that we found.
In our quest to probe into the minds of the youth in Bangladesh, we found the other side of the story as well. There are numerous young people who had come back to Bangladesh with a strong sense of optimism after having worked or studied in developed countries; and there were also others who did not want to leave the country for anything other than academic purposes. These people had a faith that things will turn around in Bangladesh and they wanted to participate directly in or lead that process with everything that they have. A young interviewee from a small college in Cox’s Bazar said: “This is my motherland; it has made me who I am today. If I do not give back to my motherland, I think my whole life will become meaningless.”
The final form of Deshantori became more than just a visual reconstruction of the horrific experience of those 26 Bangladeshis — it told the story of the youth of Bangladesh, with all its glory and its sadness, and always with unrestricted openness. While making the film was an eye-opener for me in many respects, yet another kind of experience was waiting for me at the screenings of the film.
Deshantori was publicly premiered in Bangladesh at the Liberation War Museum International Film Festival where it won the Audience Award. The young crowd embraced it since it spoke their voice, brought out their internal conflicts, their dilemmas, their frustrations, their joy and their pride. Drishtipat, a global youth activist organisation, organised the first international screening of Deshantori in London in February of 2007. It was shown in front of a full-house audience comprising of mostly young Bangladeshis living in the United Kingdom, many of them second-generation British-Bangladeshis. It clearly struck a chord with the expatriate community — it was a film that rekindled their longing for the country, provoked deep anger towards the corrupt power-brokers that were destroying the nation and also brought to surface a craving to do something to change the way things are.
In the last few months, Deshantori has been screened in a number of cities with high concentration of Bangladeshis in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada. I was lucky to be present at most of these screenings. What was personally most satisfying to me was that at the end of the screenings, the audience would spend much of the time during the Q&A period talking about how they can get involved in trying to contribute positively to the country rather than the negative aspects that drive young people to such desperation. The pain from seeing such a horrific true story brought to life and the frustration that comes from hearing the youth utter words of hopelessness are, in most cases, overshadowed by a resolve to try to change the country for the better.
One viewer wrote the following in the Deshantori blog: “I watched the movie last night. It is 4 o’clock in the morning and I still have not been able to go to sleep. This movie has not only rekindled my love for our Bangladesh, but has also affirmed my plans for doing something constructive for Bangladesh. I am a ‘probashi‘ who has been living in America for the last 16 years but who has Bangladesh in her heart every single day. I urge all the new generation like me to watch this movie and promise ourselves that we have to do something for Bangladesh today. Not in the future — but Today. Our country needs us NOW.”
In the first US-based Bangladeshi film festival held in Dallas in April 2007, Deshantori was selected as the opening film of the festival. After the screening, in the theatre lobby, a young man in his late 20s suddenly burst into tears rather loudly. When I approached him, the only words he could manage to say was: “I haven’t gone back to my country for more than I can remember. I miss Dhaka.” I didn’t know what to say, so I just stood there waiting for him to calm down. When he finally did and regained his composure, he took my hand into his and said: “Bhai, just tell me what I can do for Bangladesh and I will use all my strength to do it.” Then it was my turn to break down into tears. As I embraced him, I knew at that very instance that the tireless hours and sleepless nights of the entire crew and all our hard-earned money that went into making Deshantori had found a meaning.
Deshantori will be screened at various universities and hubs of youth communities in Bangladesh and around the world in the next few months. The post-screening discussion will center around the formation and activities of an emerging global youth-based organisation called Phiriye Ano Bangladesh that is in the process of engaging the youth to realise the dream of creating an prosperous, equitable and democratic Bangladesh.
When making Deshantori, little did we realise that it would one day be used as a tool to rally youth support around the cause of taking Bangladesh to heights it has never reached before. As I write the conclusion, all I can think of is to say to the spirits of all those young people who have suffered painful deaths while trying to escape the injustice of the very country that many of our earlier generation gave blood to create — your untimely deaths will not go in vain. We will create a Bangladesh from where people will never have to flee recklessly out of desperation. Where Deshantori will leave off, Phiriye Ano Bangladesh will begin. Amra Bangladesh phiriye anbo-i.