136: I ACT ROHINGYA
Saiful Huq Omi | Bangladesh | 90 mins
A film about genocide, love and friendship.
A man wanted to reunite with his family and live an idyllic life in a rural village in his own country. Instead, his family and kinfolks had to cross the border to join him following the latest brutal military onslaught on their community. A woman, despite all her efforts to make ends meet, slid through the slippery slope of life and became a sex worker. A father’s decision to send his son to a distant country has become a matter of perennial pity and repentance since he has gone missing.
These are the stories of Abul Kalam, Hasina and Maulvi Rashid. They are just three among one and a half million people who were catapulted into foreign lands because of the genocidal intent of the Myanmar government. Ever since, they haven’t even got the time to get over the trauma of violence that they faced from their own military and people. They perpetually search for subsistence, security and better life but to no avail. Shamim, Alam, Rafiq and Nurul risked their lives to reach foreign countries as illegal migrants. But without the refugee status, they have become mere subsistence workers who are being constantly bullied by local law enforcers and often taken to incarceration. Still, luck was on their side as they made it to the destination countries alive. Many of them who endeavoured maritime journey found themselves at the mercy of traffickers or fell victim to harassment, torture and rape and worst of all, many got killed.
The film is an odyssey of the photographer-turned-filmmaker Saiful Huq Omi, who has delved into the lived life and experiential world of Rohingya people for more than a decade. The more time went the more he got entangled with them. His Rohingya fixer Abul Kalam has become the principal social actor with his kinfolks becoming the essential elements of the narrative and thus shaping the film’s events and actions.
A genocide changes the core attributes of a people who face it. Rohingya resistance against it has been apparently feeble. But there are notions that some of them are trying to withstand it from within. The filmmaker has taken note of it. He has seen that against all odds life makes its ways. Abul Kalam has turned to photography for inspiration to move on. Hasina has quit her profession to start life anew. Rashid is devoted to make sure his children are not forced to move to another foreign country for subsistence. And despite immeasurable past sufferings, many of them want to return to the homeland. Life goes on though they don’t know what the future has in store for them.
The aim of the film is therefore to create a ‘human piece’ and to humanize the crisis. It features characters living in four countries – Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia. The film records their lived lives and experiences. It primarily revolves around one central character, Abul Kalam, and explores my relationship with him. Kalam and the director became friends almost 10 years ago and since then I have spent almost a decade in documenting the crisis around the world. Despite the large number of characters in the film, there are a few characters and families who we follow over a long duration. In some places there’ve been interactions with the characters and even intervention in the events of their lives. In other places, the narrative thread has been woven through the director’s own journey.
It all began very casually in the summer of 2008 when I had no particular story in mind and no real plan. And of course, I had no idea that I was just about to open the chapter for the next ten years of my life.
Expected date of completion:
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I remember my first encounter with the Rohingyas very clearly. It was a terribly hot summer day in early March. I got off the local bus, met the officer-In-charge of the refugee camp, showed him my official permission and walked into the camp. I felt like I was walking onto a film set. It was unreal. It was surreal. It was oppressively hot. My first visit didn’t last more than ten days. I hardly took any photographs, but I conducted hundreds of interviews. I barely needed to learn the story and meet the people. I had to get to the heart of the matter.
I was not prepared for what I saw or heard. My findings were shocking. The stories of persecution, rape, abduction, abuse, forced labor, displacement and killing were horrible. But perhaps no less horrible was how lonely the Rohingyas appeared to be. Other communities and nations who faced similar deprivations and denials had friends who stood with them. I, however, felt that in the wide open world of Allah, there were no true friends of the Rohingyas. Nobody cared or at least, not enough.
I returned, listened to my recordings and relived the horrible tales. Then I decided that I’d have to work on this for much longer period. Perhaps two years later, I realized that I was under a spell. I couldn’t leave them 10 years ago. I still cannot leave them.
I began telling the story using my photographs. In the early 2012 I decided to start making my film. It is finally taking shape after all these years of rigorous filming in 4 countries, namely Myanmar, Thailand, Bangladesh and Malaysia.
Saiful Huq Omi was born in 1980 in Bangladesh. He is a photographer, filmmaker, educator and an activist.
Known globally for his long-term projects, Omi has won many major international photography awards and grants and been published in many major publications in the world. He has been exhibited in 23 different countries since he took photography as his carrier in 2006.
Omi has published seven photography books till date.
Omi has founded one of the finest photography institutes in the region—Counter Foto—A Center for Visual Arts in 2012.
He produced the ‘Hidden Genocide’, a documentary on the ordeal of the Rohingya people for Al Jazeera TV. He has worked as producer/director for BBC and Channel 4. He directed and produced the Bangladeshi part of TV series, ‘Lawless Oceans’ for National Geographic.
He has directed the 56 min long documentary titled, ‘Roaring Kansat’ on the struggle of people of Kansat, where they demanded uninterrupted electricity, which eventually became one of the largest movements in Bangladesh’s history.
Omi has been working for the last 8 years on his film on the Rohingyas, which would be ready for global premiere at about April 2021.