30 May 2011

Where do ships go to die?

KARACHI - For those who wonder what happens to ships when they’re decommissioned, the answer was presented on Friday through ‘The Last Rites’, a 17-minute documentary screened at t2f as part of Travelling Film South Asia (TFSA). Produced, directed, shot and edited by filmmaker Yasmine Kabir, the documentary relies solely on visuals and sound (by Polo Dominguez) to relay the tale the shipbreaking process in Chittagong, Bangladesh, the plight of the workers and the impact of the industry on the environment.

Gadani (West of Karachi) - ships demolition yard. Workers are pulling heavy cables which will be used to winch up cut metal structures from the ships. A similar picture like Bangladesh shipbreaking yards exists in Gadani.
Not a single word is uttered throughout the film, and yet, the story is told in a manner that misses nothing out, as the emaciated workers pull at ropes to get a ship closer to shore, and then begin to take it apart. The effect on the process on the environment of the area is shown in its horrifying totally – from the floating debris, to workers trying to look for food by separated fish and crabs from the garbage that is hauled up in their nets, the grey waters of the Bay of Bengal, and the smog that hovers over the area.

As such, slow as a ship’s death is, the death of living beings associated with the industry and the area is as even slower, and just as sure. Every year, hundreds of ships are taken apart in the shipbreaking yards of Chittagong, where thousands flock to the shores looking for jobs. In the process of trying to save themselves from hunger, desperate workers push themselves towards a death hastened by overwork, asbestos and toxic waste.

As such, ‘The Last Rites’ tells, in just 17 short minutes, Kabir’s version of the story of man (and they’re all men), ships, and the sea and everything in it. Meanwhile, if one goes by ‘Afghan Girls Can Kick’, a 50-minute documentary about the Afghan national women’s football team, countries or groups aiming to rule over Afghanistan undemocratically need to watch out: Afghan girls can most definitely kick, literally and figuratively. Produced, scripted, directed, and shot by Britain-based Iranian filmmaker Bahareh Hosseini, and edited by Marta Velasquez, the film, shot originally in Dari, but presented with English subtitles, had the audience laughing with the protagonists and collectively gasping in horror at scenes of Taliban brutality in Kabul.

Through members of the Afghan national women’s football team, ‘Afghan Girls Can Kick’ related the tale of the resilient women of Kabul during the Taliban reign and the transition to Karzai’s democracy. The team captain speaks about her experiences during the last days of the Taliban. She talks about how, when she went out shopping with her mother without a Burqa, she was tapped on the shoulder by a Talib and ordered to cover herself up.

The next day, she went out in a Burqa, but the garment made it so difficult for her to even walk, that she had to ‘hold on to [her] mother’s hand like a child’. While she was out, the call for prayers sounded. Seeing her on the street, a Talib approached her, ordered her to pray and then chased after her as she tried to escape. While this wasn’t her first time running from a Talib on the street, this was the first time she was doing so in a Burqa.

She got tangled up in the garment and fell; and while she was down, the man who had been chasing her decided to teach her a lesson by beating her up. The girl went home in tears, vowing never to wear a Burqa and never to step out of her house. ‘There’s no point,’ she exclaimed. ‘They’d beat me up if I didn’t wear a Burqa, and they’d beat me up if I wore one. I decided to not wear it.’ So traumatic was the experience, that almost six years after the incident, her indignation and anger were palpable when she related the tale to interviewers.

For three days, she stayed locked up inside her house, and on the fourth day, Kabul heard the news of the fall of the Taliban. ‘My mother told me that my prayers had been answered,’ she said. Cultural body-politic, meanwhile, creates many problems for the team. They are ordered to wear headscarves during televised matches, even when they don’t want to do so. ‘What pests they are,’ the girls exclaim when right before the start of one match, they are told to run back to the locker room and ‘cover their heads’.

Despite adversity and opposition, the girls’ display immense talent – their coach has obviously worked hard to get them where they are. Their first match abroad was in 2007 in Pakistan – around the time some Koreans were kidnapped by the Taliban. The federation only had funds to send the team to Islamabad by road, and most of the players’ parents refused – they would only let them go by air, which, they said, was safer.

‘We might have to pass through Taliban areas,’ the coach said. ‘Even if they’re not Taliban areas, there is very little acceptance and a lot of opposition to women’s sports in Afghanistan. There might be danger.’ Eventually, much to the relief of the harried coach and players worried about missing their first match abroad, the team managed to obtain corporate sponsorship and money for airplane tickets. They landed in Islamabad, played against the best teams of Pakistan, and won second place in the tournament.

According to ‘number 9’, they deserved to win, because during the final match, which they lost 1-0, ‘the referee gave the other team a point for handball.’ Aided by footage from during the Taliban regime obtained through the Revolutionary Afghan Women’s Association (RAWA) and the resilience and humour of the protagonists, the film showed that Afghan girls can indeed kick – and how!

The first screening of the day, meanwhile, was Maheen Zia and Tehmina Ahmed’s ‘The Battle for Pakistan’. While dated (it was made four years ago), the 40-minute documentary explores the connection between extremism and madressahs in Pakistan. As Ahmed said in the post-screening question-and-answer session, some things have changed during the four years since the film was shot, ‘but sadly, many things have remained the same’.

They explore madressah culture and curriculum, the mindsets of those that run and fund these institutions, and the superficial nature of the reforms enacted in 2002 under General Pervez Musharraf. ‘The curriculum is uniform, and doesn’t promote hatred or extremism, per se,’ Zia said. ‘It is how it is taught in some places that is problematic’.

While at first glance, the documentary might seem to promote stereotypical narratives woven around poverty, madressahs and terrorism, a deeper reading shows that it throws up some extremely important questions about where the problem lies and how it needs to be addressed.

Source: Pakistan Today. By Urooj Zia. 30 May 2011

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