Through Her Lens, Darkly: How Bangladeshi Women Filmmakers Excel Amid Sexism, Resource-crunch
On the sidelines of the Dhaka Lit Fest, a personal take on the unseen wonders of the world of Bangladeshi women filmmakers
I am obsessed with women. I follow black female activists, brown women artists, Asian women comedians, trans make-up artists, and any and every other femme permutation thereof. It takes an overwhelming recommendation for me to read a male writer, and I’ll likely pass if they’re white male fiction writers.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that one of my favourite panels at the recently concluded 2023 Dhaka Lit Fest was a panel of women. And these were no ordinary women but a bunch of Bangladeshi women filmmakers.
Perhaps you’re aware of the abysmal percentage of filmmakers who are women (7 per cent). Perhaps you also know the first time a woman won an Oscar for best director was in 2010, or that the first time a woman was even nominated for cinematography was in 2017 (she didn’t win).
In the 2018 documentary, Half the Picture, a female director puts a call out for female cinematographers. A few terrible reels in, she’s almost ready to give up and go with a guy. But before she does, she calls up one of the makers of one of those terrible reels. It turns out the woman had created it with a makeshift boom and janky gear, and so, in fact, it was astonishingly good rather than terribly bad, given the lack of even the most basic resources.
This is probably the kind of story any of the five filmmakers in the Cosmic Tent on Day 3 of DLF23 would be familiar with. The lively bilingual conversation titled ‘Through Her Lens’ featured (yes, I confess it) two friends of mine, Rubaiyat Hossain (Meherjaan, Under Construction, and Made in Bangladesh) and Elizabeth D. Costa (whose 2021 Bangla Surf Girls was screened during the fest), as well as three others I was very excited to get to know: Humaira Bilkis, Tasmiah Afrin Mou and Rawyan Shayema.
It was depressing to listen to these five fierce and talented women talk about how gender bias and misogyny were baked into their working world. It was also inspiring to hear how they were forging ahead nonetheless.
Tasmiah Afrin Mou (Statement After My Poet Husband’s Death) spoke about the difficulties women face getting funded and being on set because of sexism and the patriarchal nature of, well, everything. I wanted to cheer after her impassioned speech.
Documentary filmmaker Humaira Bilkis (Things I Could Never Tell My Mother) questioned the ‘myth’ of women not being able to finish production since everyone on the panel proved exactly the opposite.
D. Costa added how grateful she was for her upbringing within the minority Christian community in Bangladesh, where, as a child, she was not excluded from traditionally male activities.
Rawyan Shayema (cinematographer, Burning Dust, 2014)— whose outfit, a bright yellow jumpsuit and kickass boots, was also a statement in itself—spoke about yet another double standard where women have to dress and present themselves to the world in a particular way, leading to my favourite quote of the session: “We have our roles as women. We have to be foolish and beautiful.”
At another all-female panel, ‘Seeking and Belonging’ (named after Bangladeshi author Nupu Press’ first book—a lovely clear-eyed collection of essays and a poem), and also featuring the delightful and prolific Indian children’s author Paro Anand, the American ER doctor and podcaster Dr. Resa Lewiss read a hard-hitting excerpt from her forthcoming book, MicroSkills, which described “the good guy defense”, a practice which gaslights women while excusing the offender.
The piece reminded me of another panel in which a male panelist told a female panelist to put down her mike while he was speaking (she refused, thankfully). He then remarked that she would get her 20 minutes after he had had his two minutes (needless to say he spoke for much longer).
Later, when I said to the moderator that I doubted he would have spoken to another man in this way, I was told he probably would have! (A gobsmacking example of the general disbelief men have of women’s opinions even when it comes from a shared experience.)
To add gaslighting insult to injury, another man on the same panel claimed that because the audience was “on her side”, she had “won that round” (an example I could not help but flag as dismissive of, and defensive about, sexist conduct).
I wish we lived in a world where male moderators and panelists spoke out against sexism, and where women filmmakers got all the money, resources, and support they need and deserve. Until then, I’ll be cheering woman power from the audience, and shaking my fist at those who would quell it.