Bangladeshi Cinema and Tanvir Mokammel’s “1971”, a review of John Hood’s ‘The Bleeding Lotus’

Hood

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Prepare yourself for trauma. John Hood’s book The Bleeding Lotus: Notions of nation in Bangladeshi Cinema (2015, Palimpsest) is not intended primarily as a gore-fest horror but is the more devastating for being a documentation of real and brutal violence on film, presented in relentlessly modest prose, requiring careful and sustained, if confronting, reading.

 

Hood begins his wonderful study of Bangladeshi cinema with an all too cute first line recognition that there were still many people who were ‘born in India, grew up in East Pakistan’ and who, he is writing in 2015, without having travelled, now ‘live in Bangladesh’ (Hood 2015:14). His next 200 pages document that bloody and violent history, tracking films from Zahir Raihan’s Stop Genocide (1971), Tariq and Catherine Masud’s Ontarjatra (2006) through to Nasiruddin Yousuff’s Guerrilla (2011), all the while in extended (short) book length commentary on Tanvir Mokammel’s epic three-hour documentary 1971 (2011). An elegiac annotation of the horrors of partition, language conflicts, civil war, and other assassinations and atrocities, the discussion is all the while shot through with solemn insights about Mokammel’s other films. Hood’s book casts up an ensemble – if that term can be used – that includes the rapist Pakistani military, the bloated bodies of murdered women, groups of dead children in a screen violence perhaps unprecedented, and a horrific witness: ‘deeply moving, powerful visuals’ (Hood 2015:75).

 

Hood knows Bangladesh, and his descriptions of movies that treat the events of the 1971 war, the Pakistan Army, the Razakar collaborators and the resistance, are comprehensive and relentless. Returning over and over to Mokammel’s 1971 with intuition and argumentation, the commentary and synopsis of a great many related films, documentary and feature, are hung on this bleakly enticing frame. The overwhelming humanity of the treatment obliges close attention (many of the films are online, albeit sans subtitles for non-Bengalis). No other film scholars are mentioned and little obvious debt to film theory is required, but the writing is fluent, engaging and engaged. One learns both of Bangladeshi film and and of the difficult birth of Bangladesh as nation, in a fraught emergence which cannot be reduced to a concert or a newsreel summation. Hood shows more clearly than anyone else I have read on this subject that the secularist revolutionary struggle for Bangladeshi freedom was heroic and so are the films, in various degrees of cinematic dress and competence, not spared any necessary critique where warranted, but all in all informative and done with care.

 

The problem of circuits infects film distribution as it does publishing or politics, imposing an hierarchy of visibility and voices according to who shouts loudest with which speaker system. Distribution costs money or favours and without vast resources, sensation and political intrigue substitute for worth. Thus it can be that the most widely viewed documentary ‘evidence’ of the Pakistani Army atrocities is a film that owed its international renown to a cross-border machinations by someone previously not much into the business of facilitating film reviews. As Hood argues in discussion of Zahir Raihan’s Stop Genocide (1971):

 

‘Released even before the war was over [this] was perhaps the earliest cinematic expression of a people’s aspiration for freedom in the face of an occupation army’s inhuman barbarity. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi bought the film rights and had it distributed around the world to project the excesses of the Pakistani military [and so] to justify the Indian intervention’ (Hood 2015:17)

 

Never previously had a twenty minute film found such unlikely international backing, as Indira also used the cover of the war intervention to quash urban Naxals at home. It is then not without irony that Stop Genocide begins with a quote from Lenin and a refrain from ‘The Internationale’, before shadows of palms and the sound of marching boots, barking dogs, and gunfire. Lines of refugees – stop – close-ups of hungry faces and wide abject eyes – stop – the return of revolutionary anthem as a pleading dirge at the end smears misery across the screen, exceeded only with a reference to Auschwitz – stop, stop stop Genocide across the final frames.

 

What further circulates, however, supported in turn by that indubitably well-meaning and necessary Concert for Bangladesh, starring George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, is the globally distributed image of Bangladesh as a space of trauma. Abject nationhood sells, in the hands of such philanthropic friends. Other films or images of a tranquil Bangladesh find distribution deals harder to come by unless they can market the exoticist angles.

 

Hood’s lyrical description of the opening sequence of Morshedul Islam’s Khalaghar (PlayHouse, Dir. Islam, 2006) illustrates the dual tendencies in more recent times:

 

‘The setting is a lush and dense tract of riverbank. The camera focuses on a boat coming along the relatively narrow and secluded stretch of the river. Other than the boatman nothing comes into view; the only other sound than the splash of water by the moving punt is a gentle twittering of birds. It is a truly idyllic scene, which lasts for just about two minutes before the boatman draws to the bank under the cover of low over-hanging branches and in scary silence six young men emerge from the jungle behind the camera to meet the boat. Without a word the boatman proceeds to unload a cargo of arms, passing out guns to the men on the bank. Not a word is spoken’ (Hood 2015:122-3)

 

Reflections in the water play an important role in the sequence, ripples and shimmering in the image, the youth collecting the guns framed under the tree, before a bell rhythm introduces the opening credits. It is a full five and a half minutes before a word is spoken, when the teacher is informed of news about the fight for freedom. The idyll contrasts with an indication of the guerrilla war. Hood is right to double up on noting that words are unnecessary for the effect. Bangladesh, like Nepal, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan are rendered as paradise with violence; only sand, dust, mountains, or swollen rivers are interchangeable, and these stereotyped images, along with the all-singing, all-dancing Bollywood ready reckoner, circle the globe. Partition horrors, the emergency and the pogroms dull the tune. Of course other images and critiques of stereotypes are possible. A counter-narrative is found in Humayan Ahmed’s Shyambol Chhaya (2004) where towards the end the Bengali freedom fighters approach a Pakistani Army post disguised as musicians, who, when they get close enough, ‘exchange their instruments for guns and grenades’ (Hood 2015:140). This book and these films take us beyond the lingering consequences of long years of colonial misrule, restoring initiative where there is otherwise only the fading of the vibrant Raj pink of Empire’s nostalgic fantasy – rose-coloured as if the Jallianwalah Bagh massacre of unarmed civilians or Churchill’s wartime ‘necessary’ famine were mere administrative anomalies. If Empire left its outcomes in arbitrary lines and compromises that were unworkable from the get go, Islam’s film Khalaghar, Mokammel’s 1971, and Hood’s book as a whole, alongside many other films and commentary (Prasad et al.,) are efforts to help us negotiate the difficulties and stereotypes that refuse, perhaps especially through invitation and containment, to otherwise succumb to critique.

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souvenirs of the wars

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 03.15.06dejavu. been here before, sort of… from and article in 2004

‘As the world prepared for yet another Oil crusade, I was reading my daily paper, as you do. On the same page that reports the speech of Colin Powell to the United Nations Security Council in the lead-up to the attack on Iraq – in his talk the General cited a plagiarized British MI6 research paper on Iraqi weapons while standing before a hastily covered-up tapestry of Picasso’s Guernica – there appeared an ad for the aid and relief charity Unicef. In the style of a soap powder commercial, this ad extols the virtues of the organization and what it could do for a girl called Farida. Tragically subject to domestic oppression (see Figure 1), she would be saved if I would just donate a few coins to the charitable cause. The face of someone I have never met, and whom Powell will never meet (with more sinister consquences), is used to demand an intervention. I feel like we have been here before…’

Read there rest here: Souvenirs and Infancy, Jrnl Vis Cult 2004

Palestine Solidarity London Friday 10th July, 2015, 5.30-7.30pm,

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The Palestine Solidarity Campaign works for peace & justice for Palestinians, in support of human rights & against all racism
Gaza: one year on
Friday 10th July, 5.30-7.30pm,
Richmond Terrace, opposite Downing Street, London
Gaza September, 2014. Credit Agencia de Noticias ANDES – shared under Creative Commons licence
We are approaching the first anniversary of Israel’s devastating assault on Gaza last summer, which terrorised the Palestinian population of 1.8 million for 51 days, killing more than 2,000 Palestinians and reducing much of Gaza to rubble. Now is the time toshow Palestinians and the world that we remember their losses, and are with them in their struggle for peace, freedom and justice.
On Friday 10th July we are holding a vigil in London to remember those who were killed and those who grieve for them. We will be asking people to share the names of those Palestinians who died during Israel’s attacks. If you can, please bring along flowers and the name of a person or family you want to remember. We will collect all the photos of those who come to remember. More information>
Gaza vigilA message left at a vigil after Israel’s deadly attacks
By signing our petition and attending our vigil (or an event near you)  we can send a global message to government: Israel’s attacks must end, Israel’s blockade must end, the occupation must end. Send the message to government – support peace and justice for Palestinians. 
If you are able to help before or at the event please contact info@palestinecampaign.org
UK Complicity in Israel’s war crimes continues
Arming Apartheid report
The latest official government figures, collated by Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Campaign Against Arms Trade, and War on Want, reveal that the UK approved £4 million worth of arms sales to Israel in the four months that followed last year’s bombardment of Gaza (read the Independent’s report on the report)
The revelations are included in Arming Apartheid: UK Complicity in Israel’s Crimes Against the Palestinian People  a new report which focuses on the extent and nature of the arms trade between the UK and Israel.
Email your MP to demand an immediate end to the two way arms trade with Israel

the mortality of paraphrase – book scraps left on the cutting room floor.

It has often been noted that war is hell, or ‘heck’ in the old 1970s ‘M*A*S*H’ anti-war comedy version, but the cold war too has its unwelcome replays as austerity today, this time as grotesque rerun of terror and economic malaise.

For many in the West, a first look at ‘Asia’ came with Altman’s 1970 film M*A*S*H following the adventures of a front line medical unit in the Korean war, but the Vietnam War was the allegorical context. The long-running television series featured Alan Alda as Hawkeye and his bumbling foil Major Frank Burns, an incompetent officer and surgeon played by Larry Lindville, who offered the mortal paraphrase – ‘war is heck’. An occasional character, the paranoid Colonel Flag, played by Edward Winter, should also be remembered for his surrealist reinforcement of the absolute winning incoherence of the phrase ‘military intelligence’.

notes for a hebdo talk (more links, questions, angles welcome)

  • What is it to give offence? To insult with intent? To use insults as a mode of revenge? Are these only insults or always also weapons of mass destruction?
  • What is humour in a time of war? Humour and culture – from the Keep Calm slogans to the Je Suis Charlie and ‘pardon’ image. The aesthetics and context of cartoons, and what can be said inside a box and not elsewhere.
  • On cartoonists, translators, books, mosques, persons, countries, faith.
  • Irony and contradiction. Freedom fighters opposing freedom of speech, and vice versa. The recoding of events as freedom of speech versus terror (Spivak 2002). Binary thinking that opposes civilisation and barbarism, liberalism and fundamentalism, occident and orient (Kay 2015) or medieval and modern, uneducated or sophisticated, religious and secular (Miller 2015).
  • What is revenge? Militarily and culturally? Can anyone win in this sphere? Or are we dealing with perpetual war? – as distraction for other more fundamentally economic interests? Taking sides (Kumar 2015) and anti-racism, anti-imperialism, justice and the creation of Death Squads as traps for alienated youth (Chandan 2015).

[pic is of the collaborationist newspaper of the French Nazi’s edited for several years ’43-44 by Antoine Cousteau (yep, Jacques’ brother)]

The Eastern Question

Screen Shot 2015-02-07 at 22.47.37

Insane desperation of the stagnant economies, troubled in Europe by dominos starting in Athens but threatening to head west. To avoid a European revolution they would risk an even greater conflagration in a chaotic war in the East, not extending the failed and brutal turmoil of Syria into Turkey, but replaying the Crimean war games with what is now called Ukraine. Just as Sebastopol in 1856 was the site of a futile slaughter, with French, English and Russians wasting as much as the Ottoman Empire was paralysed, this gambit looks like a guaranteed failure and no-one, not even a diplomat, reading history should be surprised. As old beardo set it out in his articles on The Eastern Question… let us then hope that some repetitions are a little quicker in coming. The threats of Merkel and co echo those offered long ago. Marx wrote: ‘The very fact of the threat having been uttered may call forth insurrectionary movements’. It took some time, but the consequences of chaos have elements of promise. It will take some untangling to read these runes, but the situation is promising.