'A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers': TIFF Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Look at an odd UN mission raises more questions than it hopes to answer.

160 Bangladeshi women attempt to keep the peace in Haiti.

Crisis points around the globe beckon for intervention, but not every example of foreign aid is equally useful. Introducing three individuals taking part in a mission sending Bangladeshi policewomen to Haiti, Geeta Gandbhir and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy invite more doubts than usual about this UN intervention. But they leave several big-picture questions underexplored here, preferring to focus without judgment on how the experience affects the three peacekeepers. While this angle humanizes the sometimes dry doc, the narrowing of focus also makes it a more minor film than expected, one that will have trouble attracting interest in the West.

It may be eye-opening for some viewers to meet these women and their many fellow officers, who in a Muslim country are given such a position of authority. Their work isn't entirely controversial: One, Rehana, has an adolescent son whose increasingly fundamentalist beliefs convince him she shouldn't work outside the home at all, much less be going to other countries.

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About that: For reasons that are only hinted at late in the film, 160 women from this Bangladeshi police force have signed on for a yearlong mission with the UN's MINUSTAH team in Haiti, where they are tasked with helping stabilize a country transformed by the 2010 earthquake. What skills do they have that will be useful there? What sense of purpose justifies the arguments they will endure with husbands over leaving, the tears shed by their children?

Once they arrive in Haiti, we realize just how little the newcomers have to offer beyond their willingness to help. They have nearly no training in crowd control, don't know how to handle the weapons they're given, know nothing of the country's language or customs. (Nine months in, they still don't know what "ça va?" means.) Worse, they're thrown into a place where UN forces are increasingly unwelcome, accused of beating locals and introducing a cholera epidemic.

Gandbhir and Obaid-Chinoy don't dig into the validity of Haitians' complaints or ask who is responsible for throwing these women into such a situation. They prefer to observe, and to ask how all this makes the women feel. By and large, the answer seems to be: conflicted. After they have fulfilled their yearlong obligation and arrive home to less-warm-than-expected welcomes, nobody seems certain just who was helped, and whether the benefits outweighed the costs.

Production companies: G2P2 Films, SOC Films

Directors: Geeta Gandbhir, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy

Producers: Geeta Gandbhir, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy

Executive producers: Irfan Izhar, Perri Peltz

Director of photography: Asad Faruqi

Editor: Maya Mumma

Music: Kishon Khan

Sales: Submarine Entertainment

No rating, 94 minutes

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