Cinema of the Unspoken:
Documentary Shorts of Yasmine Kabir

February 5, 2021, 4:33pm

by Tazeen Ahmed

Yasmine Kabir is a Bangladeshi independent filmmaker who has been exploring the documentary field since 1990s. Before this blog delves into her films, it is important to explain her place in contemporary Bangladeshi cinema. The documentary form is quite widely practiced in Bangladesh. Being a developing nation, Bangladesh is the hub of prolific development work with innumerable Non Governmental Organizations (NGO), schemes and policies in place. Along with policies and interventions comes development communication where documentary filmmaking plays an important role. Thus, to find a documentary in Bangladesh regarding marginal societies may not be a hard feat. Kabir’s work also encompasses unspoken stories of various marginal communities. At first glance, her films might come across as just another tale of development narrative. Yes, it is part of the narrative. Yet, her work somehow exceeds the ‘status quo’ narrative of the development documentary and rather throws the audience into her subjects’ pain in a much more direct manner. There is a do-it-yourself (DIY) flavour to her films which I think really sets her apart in the documentary filmmaker’s realm in Bangladesh.

 Like her subjects, Kabir’s films seem to belong to the unspoken territory in the written world of film criticism. With a filmmaking career going back to the 1990s and with many of her films having been screened at various international festivals or film societies including Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival and International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (where it received the Jan Vrijman Fund), it is rather surprising that almost no written work exists about her films. However, she is highly revered among the independent filmmaking community of the country. It is a growing time for independent film in Bangladesh. Due to participation of several films in many prestigious international festivals and film markets in recent years, Bangladeshi films are garnering a spotlight as part of South Asian cinema, which used to mainly refer to films from India. I believe it is about time to talk about the films of Yasmine Kabir who has inspired filmmakers in Bangladesh for quite a while now.

The Text

Yasmine Kabir’s films span from the topic of migrant workers to war victims. Her films are extremely powerful, yet minimalistic in their language; no complicated filming techniques are applied. Rather, she delves directly into her subject and makes the audience experience them up close throughout a 16-30 minutes runtime. She is solely interested in capturing the faces and voices of her subjects, like a portrait painting. But her work is diverse. Her films can also be completely devoid of voices and dialogues.

My Migrant Soul

Let us begin with Kabir’s most renowned film, titled My Migrant Soul (2000). It is the story of a migrant worker Shahjahan Babu, who went to work in Malaysia in the 1990s, only to fall into the usual traps of a manpower scam, ending up perishing away in a detention camp. The images in the film are made by juxtaposing interviews of his family members – long after he passed away – and images of streets and locations in Malaysia with the voice of Babu who used to send cassette tape recordings back to his mother as correspondence. My Migrant Soul opens with workers being inspected and selected at a ‘manpower export’ organization. We see close-up shots of the workers’ faces and their bodies with their hands while working. The shots of the faces have no sound. The opening soundscape thus ends up provoking a kind of anxiety by placing loud thuds, hammering, machine sounds in opposition to complete silence.

Screenshots from My Migrant Soul

After the black-and-white opening of the film, the rest of the film intermingles home-video styled images of Malaysia with the smoother images ‘at home’ which create an interesting contrast in texture; images are blurrier abroad, clearer at home. Yet, it is almost as if Babu had recorded those images of Malaysia along with his voice-recordings and ended up provoking a haunting feeling in the viewer. The deceased protagonist of the film exists in memories; in his voice recordings, a few photographs and in the coffin that his sister still carefully keeps in the house while Malaysia only exists in the imagination of her family members. The film is able to create a powerful diegesis in the viewer’s mind, made up of images that are not shown. A secret reel of Babu’s life in Malaysia plays inside the viewer’s mind while watching the film. None of it is present on screen; it is not possible to present it on screen. But that does not stop Kabir from telling the story. I always remember a scene from the film where Babu is working at night, in a construction building with welding sparks flying about. Yet, when watching the film for this essay after many years, to my surprise, I found no such image exists.

The Last Rites

Her next film The Last Rites (2008) is the only one out of the five shorts discussed here that contains an opening with a long shot. However, that is probably due to the film’s topic of workers in a Chittagong yard engaged in the gruelling job of ship-breaking. In 2019, the ship-breaking industry of Bangladesh topped the world market by dismantling 42.2% of the world’s vessels (Hussain, 2019). But one of the reasons behind this success is cheap labour and no standard regulations. Most of the scrapping is done manually, without the use of heavy machinery.

Screenshots from The Last Rites (2008)

The film throws us into a morning at a yard. By repeatedly showing images of men pulling ropes tied to heavy pieces, close ups of their bodily strain, the film shifts from light to dark, from morning to night. But the work never stops and the weights on the workers’ shoulders are never lifted. After the opening, shots become tighter and the subjects seem overwhelmed in their surrounding of water and metal. The handycam tries to zoom in as close as possible. As soon as Kabir gets a chance, with workers reaching the shore, we are back to close-ups and extreme close-ups again; of hands pulling ropes, nets, garbage. The film ends with a combination of silence and haunting music on stills of ship parts and scraps which, by then, scream of death, blood and sweat.

A Certain Liberation

A Certain Liberation (2013) follows a Liberation War victim Gurudasi Mondol, who roams the streets of her small town in Southern Bangladesh and is known as a mad woman who takes money from passersby at will. Some people give her money out of pity, but most tolerate her to avoid some kind of attention-drawing incident. Mondol has garnered an authority in usually male-dominated spaces by physically touching men passing by or beating them with a stick she carries around or simply by uttering swear words that a woman is not supposed to – she defies all definition of being ‘lady-like’. But the people of her community have gotten used to her eccentricities as well. The children of her community love her and find her to be a queen while she calls herself ‘the mother of Bengal’ as many of the children grew up with her around.

Screenshots from A Certain Liberation (2013)

The circumstance of her life is rooted in the atrocities of the Liberation War of Bangladesh. Her family was killed in front of her eyes by the ‘Rajakar Bahini’, the anti-Bangladeshi paramilitary created by the Pakistani army. Although it is never explicitly mentioned in the film, but we can assume that Gurudasi Mondol was most likely raped as she was captured and imprisoned in the ‘Rajakar’ camp for days. The war took everything from her, and she found her own way of liberation and survival. By being obscene, she is liberated and free to do whatever she wants. But it is difficult to say which is more obscene, her madness or her circumstances.

Tazreen and Rope

Yasmine Kabir’s next two films are even looser in structure than the ones mentioned so far. Tazreen (2014) is probably the most DIY in style out of the five films discussed in this article. The film simply interviews the worker victims of a garments building fire, year after its occurrence. From beginning to end, the film records whatever the victims have to say in close-ups. Rope (2016), her last film is made up of close-up images of a child labourer working at a rope factory, manually turning jute thread into ropes.

All of Yasmine Kabir’s films have extremely short exposition, which almost never uses long shots to establish location. Instead, the camera is up-close and personal from the very beginning of the film, creating an effect of throwing the audience into focusing on the subjects’ faces. Just like in a portrait, we can take our time to observe the shapes and colours of the face closely and because of the moving images, also the subtlest changes in expression or shifts in the eyes. We are forced to ‘look at’ her subjects that are usually people who are overlooked in society. A Certain Liberation has a brilliantly minimalistic exposition by which the context of the film is set. Kabir uses footage of the victory of the Liberation War followed by chronological footages of all the leaders of Bangladesh and ends up expressing the country’s history in a handful of shots. Her style of using close-ups usually includes other parts of the body such as hands and feet. As many of her films want to signify physical labour of the working class, it becomes a very effective device to express strenuous labour. Both Rope and The Last Rite portray visual imagery of physical strain and force by using these devices and show how much the human body endures in the age of modern slavery.

The Context

It is important to understand some of the context of Yasmine Kabir’s films. The 1990s saw an explosion of NGO documentary filmmaking and a lot of funding was available in that sector. However, unlike today, the topic of migrant workers was not in much fashion back then. My Migrant Soul is an early account of the perils of migrant workers of Bangladesh and is a film that was way ahead of its time in its thinking. On the other hand, Tazreen might seem like an almost amateurish news-report type account of victims. However, it is important to mention that the film was shot after a year of the original Tazreen garment fires of 2012. It was made in 2013, when another tragedy hit with the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment in Bangladesh that garnered international attention. By bringing the victims of the Tazreen fire on screen, at a time when all lenses were focused on Rana Plaza, Kabir is able to make the bold statement of how quickly we forget these incidents and how they just keep on happening, no matter how much we cover them in the media. As for A Certain Liberation, a great number of women were victims of genocidal rape and went through the horrors of a bloody war. However, the representation of these women on screen usually remains as that of victims, broken, or as helpers of the liberation army (Mukti Bahini). Kabir takes the war victim, embraces her madness and gives her power and authority in her film. We see the strength of the rape victims not in their sacrifice (as sacrificing is deemed as woman’s virtue), but in their resilience and endurance.

Within the development narrative, Kabir’s films, by delving into the micro-level, looking at a single person (My Migrant Soul, A Certain Liberation), forces the audience to remember a singular migrant worker, a singular liberation war victim which in our story-loving minds become much more effective than a broader macro-level narrative. On the other hand, Rope and The Last Rite give us an ensemble of close encounters of the hands, feet, shoulders of working boys and men in blips and glimpses. But again, by repeating and continuously focusing on just the characters, not the backdrop, we are forced to remember, maybe not a single person, but what every ship breaker and rope worker goes through every day. Tazreen, as I have mentioned before is an anomaly. The power of Tazreen portrays Kabir’s sense of urgency, sense of timing for making her films. This completely plain looking video recording of a crowd expressing their pain was a necessary film. It is this urgency, a sense of ‘this must be recorded’ that gives power to Yasmine Kabir’s films. Her intent shines through in this urgency; the intent to directly show the audience whatever is available even if it means that aesthetics of film needs to be sacrificed.

The films of Kabir are usually self-produced, with help from friends. The filmmaker leads a rather secluded lifestyle, often refusing public appearances. Her films have been exhibited in prestigious international film festivals. But that has not stopped her from taking ‘a step down’ and screening her films at as many small film societies as possible. Unlike many filmmakers, she is not very particular about where or how her film is being shown, as long as there is an audience. Her last film Rope was screened in a small rural community and after Gurudasi Mondol’s passing, A Certain Liberation was screened at her community in Kopilmoni. These screenings did not garner much media coverage either.

Yasmine Kabir’s films are not interested in the beauty of an image, per se. They do not contain the perfect shot. She is interested in showing but not showing-off. She is interested in maybe in the absence of aesthetics. That does not mean that her films are devoid of beauty. The beauty lies in compassion and empathy for her characters. It is very difficult to un-watch her films, to forget her images. Most of all, it is very difficult to forget the truth that is portrayed in Yasmine Kabir’s films. 


References

Hussain, Anwar, (2019), Bangladesh secures top position in ship breaking, Dhaka Tribune, 14 November, 2019

Available at: https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/2019/11/14/bangladesh-secures-top-position-in-ship-breaking
Accessed: 21 June, 2020

Filmography

A Certain Liberation (2003), Dir. Yasmine Kabir
https://vimeo.com/175531839
(Accessed: 26 May 2020)

My Migrant Soul (2000), Dir. Yasmine Kabir
https://vimeo.com/142871749
(Accessed: 26 May 2020)

Tazreen (2013), Dir. Yasmine Kabir
https://vimeo.com/136999732
(Accessed: 26 May 2020)

The Last Rites (2008), Dir. Yasmine Kabir
ttps://vimeo.com/144362610
(Accessed: 26 May 2020)

Rope (2016), Dir. Yasmine Kabir
https://vimeo.com/user39067511
(Accessed: 26 May 2020)


About the Author

Tazeen Ahmed holds an MA in Film and Television from the University of Westminster, London. Her research interests include Asian cinema, Bollywood, film piracy, as well as national and gender identity in cinema. She has been teaching undergraduate courses at the Department of Media and Communication at Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB) as a Senior Lecturer. As the Faculty Coordinator of the IUB Film Club, Tazeen has curated screenings and arranged workshops and talks. As a film activist, she works with independent filmmakers of Bangladesh, helping to connect them with the global film festival market. She is also a member of the Gideree Bawlee Foundation of Arts, a community-art based organisation, where she provides volunteer support.