Filmart: Bangladeshi Filmmaker Documents the Plight of the Rohingya People: "A Tragedy With a Very Human Face"

Image courtesy of Abid Hossain Khan
Abid Hossain Khan

Documentary director Abid Hossain Khan's debut feature 'Belonging' is told from the perspective of a six-year-old girl as she searches for her missing family in the sprawling Rohingya refugee camps across the border from Myanmar in Bangladesh.

The plight of the Rohingya people, whose ethnic persecution and forced flight from Myanmar has only worsened since 2017, is one of the great international humanitarian crises of present times.

Bangladeshi documentarian Abid Hossain Khan, 34, volunteered at one of the sprawling refugee camps across the border from Myanmar in Bangladesh, and witnessed the Rohingya's displacement, losses and suffering firsthand. As a filmmaker, his instinct was to pick up his camera.

The resulting project, Belonging, is being presented this week at the 2019 Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF) at Filmart. Told from the point of view of a six-year-old girl in search of her parents, Belonging is Khan’s first feature-length film, after his debut short, 20 Continuous Shots Followed by Siddhartha (2016), screened internationally and won a best documentary award from Bangladesh’s Daily Star newspaper.

Before his arrival in Hong Kong, Khan spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about forging a close relationship with the Rohingya refugees at the camp, his personal link to forced migration and why he has chosen to focus his work on the very human face of the tragedy. 

What inspired you to depict the plight of the Rohingya people in your debut feature?

In 2017, when the crisis started and an ever-greater number of Rohingya people were crossing the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, I decided to go and see the situation for myself. The issue had personal resonance for me — memories of displacement were embedded in my family’s psyche. As a child I frequently heard stories about my parents’ and grandparents’ long and painful journeys to escape the atrocities of the Pakistani army during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. Now a similar forced migration was taking place. I had to witness for myself. As soon as I arrived at the Cox Bazaar area I started filming. I guess that documenting with images what mattered to me was my instinctual response as a filmmaker. The idea of doing a full-length documentary was a natural next step.

You established a vantage point to tell the story of the Rohingya refugees by staying within their community. How did you gain access to the refugee camps?

Upon arriving at the crisis area, I realized that one of the most urgent problems faced by the refugees was the lack of documentation. They had left their communities in a hurry, sometimes escaping burning villages, and had no time to gather the legal papers that proved who they were, where they were born. The documentation issue was the source of innumerable bureaucratic problems. As a result, I decided to work as a volunteer in the camps, helping with the production of temporary documents, which put me in contact with the camp administrators and the refugees themselves. After that initial experience my producers and I decided to apply for government funds to start my film project. The support that we received from the Bangladesh Government Film Fund gave me further credibility with the officials at the camp and opened many doors.

Belonging follows a little girl in search of her family members within the camps. What made you decide to document the struggles of the Rohingya people from the viewpoint of a child?

When I was at the border, I made a connection with a Rohingya family and we became close. This was very fortunate since the refugees are often distrustful of outsiders. My connection with the family became close; we shared the journey from the border to the camps and communicated quite well. While I was with them, the family experienced a private crisis, which compounded their problems as refugees. The different family members told me their stories, their versions of what had happened to them — only their little girl had no stories. She was experiencing all the trauma but had no stories to explain what was transforming her world. She had no prepackaged explanations, no previous framework, she was witnessing enormous suffering and had to explain the events to herself, from scratch as it were. There was a story there: the awakening of a child to life in the midst of momentous, harsh, profoundly unjust events. It was a journey of discovery through innocent eyes. I felt that building a narrative from her perspective would help me avoid the distortions of the “official” stories of different interest groups.

The human stories of the Rohingya people deserve to be told on the international stage. Apart from a personal standpoint, will Belonging also provide commentaries from the political, cultural and religious perspectives?

This is an issue that has been analyzed many times by sociologists, political scientists, journalists, university types. Similar social science explanations have been given for other refugee crisis in Syria, Palestine or now Venezuela, but human beings keep making the same blunders. Academic explaining goes just so far. I decided to go in a different direction. I want to help the Rohingya people to tell of their own experiences, feelings, frustrations, hopes — in their own voice, without interjecting. My idea is for the documentary to be a vehicle for them to speak, so that the viewer can establish a more immediate connection with them, understand their plight at a deeper personal level. I want people to see their fortitude and episodes of weakness, their resiliency and will to forge a future no matter what the circumstances. Also, their moments of despair. But, of course, there is something idealistic about the project. The presence of a filmmaker documenting the travails of a family is disruptive, no matter how much he or she tries to blend into the background. My documentary will acknowledge the sometimes fraught dynamics between the filmmaker and his subjects.

How do you plan for Belonging to add to the international understanding of the Rohingya refugee crisis?

That is the main point of making a documentary such as mine. My hope is to add to the understanding of the plight of the Rohingya people by presenting voices and images of the refugee experience at a very personal level. Individual human beings in all their personal and familial complexity dealing with the cascade of crisis that fell on them. A tragedy with a very human face.

Considering Belonging is your first feature-length film, what kind of challenges did you face during the creative process?

Making this film is a journey. It started with the experiential phase, my initial interactions with the Rohingya refugees, becoming friends with some of them, gaining their trust. The creative process unfolded as I witnessed and even participated in their day-to-day trials. The film took shape in my mind gradually, in an organic fashion. I cannot say that there is a specific moment where challenges surfaced. The question that is always in my mind is how to tell the story. In that sense, every decision is a challenge; but I am not sure it is different from my other projects, only that this time the scale for me is more ambitious.

You mentioned that Belonging will examine the relationship between a documentarian and his/her subjects, which has been a topic under scrutiny with various forms of documentation of human crises and natural disasters, including news journalism, photography and documentaries. How do you address this topic?

As I mentioned before, there were moments when the family questioned my presence. Particularly after my second visit, they began to wonder if there were ulterior motives in my questions, the constant filming of their experiences. It became clear to me that I had to include these difficult dialogues in the documentary. Sometimes works of this nature give in to the temptation of ironing out difficulties, pretending that the camera is neutral. I feel that it is important to introduce the reactions to the filmmaker and his standpoint as part of a reflection on what documentaries are, their potential, but also their limitations as yet another experience of humans interacting with humans.

You have said in a previous interview that you would like to break down the barrier between fiction and nonfiction films. Are you trying to do that with Belonging?

Yes, to tell the story the way I want, I felt the need to re-create some scenes. It is important to acknowledge this element. In the same vein, the family also helped me in re-enacting important moments in their past experiences. In service of a deeper truth, the documentary includes re-creations that, although not figments of the imagination disconnected from reality, they are re-creations, and, as such, partly fabricated.

Belonging is produced by Bangladeshi film company Khona Talkies, known for shepherding films about controversial subjects. How did this collaboration come about?

My relationship with Khona Talkies began with a previous project, a short film, 20 Continuous Shots Followed by Siddhartha, that was presented in 2016 at Rio de Janeiro’s international competition Curta Cinema. Thus, the production of Belonging is a continuation of my association with Khona Talkies.

What is the production status of Belonging at the moment? 

Most of the shooting was done during my two stays in the refugee camps. I will do some extra filming to fill gaps. Most of the work left to do is postproduction.

Apart from funding, do you also intend to secure distribution deals and festival opportunities at the HAF?

Funding and distribution are kind of complementary. Completing the financing will help me finish a documentary at an international level, both as an artistic accomplishment and as a polished production. My hope is that distributors will appreciate the quality and intrinsic interest of the work and give me the opportunity to show Belonging in festivals, movie houses and other channels of distribution, such as DVD and streaming. I feel that my film will have something important to say about an important humanitarian crisis and I want to reach a wide audience. I see HAF as a splendid opportunity to meet the people who will help me accomplish my goals. I am very appreciative of the opportunity that I was given when the selection committee chose my project.

How can the international community do more to assist the Rohingya people?

This is a difficult question. I am a filmmaker and not a policy expert. The role of a film such as Belonging is to present the complexity of the human tragedy of the Rohingya people. I venture to say that this is the type of work that should encourage profound deliberations that are not limited to one case. Seventy years have passed since the partition of India, almost 50 years since the War of Liberation of Bangladesh, the Syrian crisis is expelling hundreds of thousands. Politicians keep leading us into crises that produce massive migrations and we do not even understand how profoundly millions of lives are upended, how many children are thrown into suffering.