I feel reluctant to look back
In 2007, a handful of Dhaka University Film Society (DUFS) activists ventured to launch the first international platform for university-going filmmakers in Bangladesh - a decade long pursuit that resulted in the consolidation of an internationally recognized film festival titled International Inter-University Short Film Festival (IIUSFF) over the course of eleven successful editions.
Due to the ongoing pandemic, the restrictions posed on public gathering and the health risks involved, the organizers decided to take the latest edition online, following the trend of this year’s other global festivals. IIUSFF’s online opening kicked off on Saturday.
Yesterday, a Facebook live discussion session titled IIUSFF Talks on the theme of ‘Filmmaker in conversation with Film Journalist/Critic’ was arranged, featuring notable Bangladeshi film critic, scholar and journalist Sadia Khalid Reeti along with renowned film-maker Mostofa Sarwar Farooki.
Farooki, a notable face in international festivals and a maverick film-maker, feels vexed these days as is evident from the conversation. His last film Shonibar Bikel, a one-take technical feat, has been banned on the grounds that it might deepen the religious divide in the country. A director, who has time after time broken conventions and made it a point to jolt his audience out of stupor, has to now rely on government’s whim if he wants his film to be ever released in Bangladesh. The man is clearly not happy.
Without fail, a cloud of controversy seems to have followed him throughout his career; is it the inevitable burden of an artist who dares go against the tide in our industry? Farooki shrugs his shoulders and says, “I am their scapegoat.”
He has a bone to pick with the country’s film societies as well for having supposedly turned their back on home-bred film-makers in recent years owing to an ‘ingrained inferiority complex.’ He believes that the Bangladeshi media have also failed film-makers like him.
Farooki shares all these grievances with a journalist on a platform created by a university-based film society – this might be a sign of better days coming.
You have had a long journey in the film industry. Almost two decades, right?
Are you calling me old? (Laughs)
I am alluding to your long, illustrious career. Tell us, how should one follow your footsteps?
No one should follow my footsteps, trust me. And I am not trying to be humble.
Your films have enjoyed remarkable success in large scale international festivals. Has the festival journey occupied a big part of your career?
I guess, you can say that. I have spent at least three-four months with each of my film, visiting various major festivals. The process usually drains all my energy and leaves me a little disenchanted with the film I am at the time promoting.
I am the kind of person who is reluctant to look back. I avoid watching my old films. I am too preoccupied with future projects to ever feel nostalgic for all that I have done in my past and have now no control over.
Tell us what you have learned all this time.
Well, I am a filmmaker and that makes me just as lost as anybody else. I try to rediscover my path with each new project. There is no revelation, no secret knowledge or lessons that can summarize all that I have seen or experienced. I tell stories that torment me. Telling these stories in the most honest way is how I come to terms with what plagues me.
I think festivals serve to provide brand value to films, which in turn helps finance future projects of the film-makers. If you think about it, all artists are like children who dance and play for adults’ amusement, for their applause. So, recognition from peers and critics is helpful.
I would say, the most important thing for a film-maker is to find his or her voice. A signature that is unique and cannot be taught. A sense of individuality that can never be forced. It has to be spontaneous.
We all have different personalities. So if we stay true to our creative vision, some of our idiosyncrasies are bound to reflect in our work. Filmmakers, who know themselves, also depict in their films the time and the place they are living in. Hence, a film about the dullest subject, when made by an artist with a distinct voice, will always have more to offer than what initially meets the eye.
Your films enjoy both critical acclaim and audience support. They appeal to foreign audiences who are not necessarily familiar with our culture. What is your formula?
The exact lack of it might be the answer. Once in Busan, a journalist told me that he could not fit my film Television in one particular genre. And why should he? I look at my life; sometimes it is pure comedy, sometimes inspiring; other times there are undeniably tragic elements to it. Are we ever the same person? If not, then why should our film be this one particular thing?
Don’t succumb to a formula. Don’t surrender your own voice for the sake of what is considered the norm. Never grow obsessed with what you have written; shoot like a generous lover, but edit like a butcher. Most importantly, ask yourself what emotion you want to invoke in a particular sequence? And your answer will show you the path and guide you through your confusion.
Hollywood will restart production from June 12. What about us?
Does anyone in the country really care about our industry? They feel they would be better off without cinema, because it has an innate ability to provoke, to unveil the truth. All across the world, governments have moved to support the entertainment industries. Here, unfortunately, we see a different picture, laced with indifference.
Do you think, festivals will ever go back to what they were, in light of the recent developments?
I don’t think anything can ever replace the physical festival and theatre experience. There’s more to it than mere film screenings. We will always ache for the physical interaction, the occasional human touch, the energy in the room.
How do you think our industry has been shaped by the film society movement?
I am a product of this movement. We did not have internet back then. Where do you think I watched films from other countries? It was the screenings, the discussion sessions organized by film societies that helped hone my craft. A lot of people, who were not a part of the movement, later went to make films. And that is why you will see an unfortunate shift in the quality and quantity of our content. No one can deny this.
But here is the thing. I think the movement in the recent years has disappointed us. These people became ashamed of their homegrown cinema and embarrassed to promote their own film-makers. Tareque Masud, who was also a product of the movement, used to often express his annoyance with film society activities. I think most of it stemmed from an inferiority complex ingrained in the people behind the movement. However, there is much scope for improvement, and the film societies remain the best equipped platforms to advance the film discourse in this country.
Will Shonibar Bikel be released in Bangladesh soon?
Why not? I mean, I haven’t committed any crime, have I? Forget my film. There are all kinds of content out there today that could have been censored, but were instead given a pass to. I cannot help but wonder if I have been targeted. I am their scapegoat. No one will understand the pain of going to the doors of ministers day after day. It makes me tired. Given an opportunity, I will definitely consider making movies somewhere else. I am that tired and annoyed.
I hope that day never comes. Tell us a bit about No Land’s Man.
We have just ended shooting. I am very pleased with the work. Let’s see where it goes.
Any last words?
Given how pessimistic I must have come across throughout this session, let’s try to end on a hopeful note. I was giving a closing speech in Busan. It was 2012. I said, a new generation of filmmakers would shake our industry and take control. I was wrong. That did not happen. But I have faith that in the coming years, I will be proven right; my hopes will materialize.
What we need is policy support from the government, a media that seriously reflects on what it considers newsworthy and an industry that is not hostile to aspiring film-makers. I am not going to lie – we still have a long way to go.