Art dies where anything may be deemed a threat

vintage film-projector and film screening  prohibition or forbidden sign
(Photo: Envato Elements/ Jordan News)
DHAKA — The celebrated Bangladeshi director had tried to do everything by the rules.
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Before shooting his movie, the filmmaker, Mostofa Sarwar Farooki, submitted the script for approval by the country’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. He had received permission to cast prominent Indian and Palestinian actors, in addition to Bangladeshi artists.

But even as the film, “Saturday Afternoon” — a single-shot feature loosely based on the 2016 terrorist attack at a bakery in Dhaka, the capital, that left 24 dead — has been screened to applause and awards at festivals abroad, Bangladesh’s government has refused to permit its release at home.

For three years, the country’s film censor board has been denying Farooki’s appeals — an indication, analysts and activists say, of how the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is shrinking the space for free speech, sometimes in arbitrary ways.

“They didn’t inform us of a specific reason,” Farooki said of the film’s rejection. “They only said the film might tarnish the image of the country or incite religious unrest.”

Officials in Hasina’s government justify their actions by citing Bangladesh’s credible threats from Islamist militancy, which they say could derail the country’s impressive efforts at expanding its economy and lifting the population out of poverty.

But the analysts and activists say she has blurred the lines between counterterrorism efforts and political crackdown. As Hasina, 75, seeks another term next year on top of her already record-setting tenure, she is increasingly demonstrating a tendency that has long plagued Bangladeshi governance: a winner-takes-all politics verging on authoritarianism.

Recent election victories by Hasina, who is the daughter of Bangladesh’s founding father and has been in power for a total of 19 years, have been marred by accusations of vote rigging and intimidation of opponents to secure inflated margins. Unsure of the extent of their actual public support, officials in her government have resorted to crackdowns and tight control, analysts say.

Officials from the governing party, the Awami League, said that its opponents were playing politics by criticizing regulatory control of films and other works. “Those who are publicizing that free expression is being stifled are actually running a political campaign against the government,” said Biplab Barua, who serves as Hasina’s special assistant. “We want to uphold all the rights guaranteed in the constitution.”

But in Bangladesh, a wide range of independent voices have said those rights are being infringed.

In recent years, Hasina’s government has particularly weaponized a digital security law to arrest journalists, activists and opposition members, creating an atmosphere of fear.

The UN has called the 2018 Digital Security Act “an example of flawed legislation” that “imposes draconian punishments for a wide range of vaguely defined acts.”

In the past two years alone, about 2,200 people have been detained under the law, according to the Center for Governance Studies, a Dhaka-based think tank. Over the past nine months, 25 cases have been filed against people who criticized the prime minister or her allies, according to Article 19, a London-based human rights organization.

One of those arrested, writer Mushtaq Ahmed, 53, who had been critical of the government’s COVID-19 relief efforts, died in jail after being denied bail half a dozen times.

“It has created an environment of self-censorship,” Akter Hossain, an editor and the general secretary of the Dhaka Union of Journalists, said about the law. “Every newsroom in Bangladesh thinks twice before filing a story that is critical to the ruling party or the government.”

Sometimes, the crackdown has veered into the absurd.

In July, police arrested an amateur crooner with a large social media following who sang poems by well-known Bengali writers. The reason? The singer, Ashraful Alom, known online as Hero Alom, was singing out of tune — and that was an insult to Bengali culture.

Alom was released after giving a written promise that he would “not create or publish any content that represents Bangladeshi culture perversely, and he will not create contents that are satirical, libelous, and derogatory,” according to Hafiz Al Asad, a deputy police commissioner.

For filmmakers and other artists, the challenge is navigating an environment in which authorities could find anything a threat, and anything to be against cultural and national values.

A few weeks ago, a group of film directors and other artists held a news conference to protest repeated legal battles and censorship challenges. Speaking from behind a wall of barbed wire, erected to make a symbolic statement, they said they would not be able to tell stories if the restrictions continued.

“Every act of putting pressure on art should be stopped,” said Jaya Ahsan, an actress who is popular both in Bangladesh and in West Bengal, across the border in India. “Not just film, every type of art should be free — otherwise, how can we write, act or even speak our language?”

The director of one film, “Hawa,” has been sued by the government for showing birds caged or eaten, which the country’s wildlife protection authority found offensive. Police objected to another film, “Nabab LLB,” because it showed a police officer using vulgar language while questioning a subject.

The Bangladesh Film Censor Board recently denied a certificate to yet another film, “The Border,” directed by Saikat Nasir. The work of fiction, which portrays a Bangladeshi village along the Indian border, includes an Indian protagonist who takes part in a killing mission and other crimes.

The board said it could not allow a film that tarnishes the image of India, a close ally of Hasina. But it also mentioned a reason that seemed to misunderstand the very nature of fictional works.

“The film shows a godfather in the country’s Satkhira region, to whom the ministers and lawmakers are all hostages,” the board’s director told local news media. “But no such situation exists in Bangladesh.”

Mejbaur Rahman Sumon, the director of “Hawa,” said the atmosphere in which “anything can hurt anyone’s sentiment” was making it impossible to produce good art.

“The bird was caged for a while and then released,” Sumon said of the animal at the center of the government objection to his film. “But after freeing the bird, I now feel like I’ve caged myself.”

For Farooki, the director of “Saturday Afternoon”, the most difficult part of the three-year struggle to release the film to audiences in Bangladesh has been figuring out exactly what about it is objectionable.

The film, which depicts tense moments of human struggle during a terrorist hostage-taking, clearly aims to expose the hypocrisies of the terrorists throughout.

Several of the characters, ordinary citizens stuck in the attack, stand up to the terrorists. A hijab-wearing woman fights back tears to defend the character of other women whom the attackers disparage, including her own mother, who is repeatedly cursed by the terrorists, and a young woman in ripped jeans and a sweater who is shot dead for failing a piety test.

Mushfiqur Rahman Gulzar, a member of the censor board, said he had no objection to the film. The board’s vice chair declined to comment, saying the decision to issue the film a certificate rested with the information ministry.

In a recent interview with local media, the information and broadcasting minister, Hasan Mahmud, said the ministry would issue a certificate for the film if the director adhered to the suggestions of the censor board.

The problem, Farooki said, is that he did not receive any specific suggestions from the board.

The minister, however, cited another issue in his media interview: that the film had not shown the sacrifice of two police officers killed in the bakery attack.

“My film is not a documentary of the attack,” Farooki said. “It’s a fictional feature where no real character exists.”“Even if I had intended to portray real characters,” he added, “can they dictate a story?”

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