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The writer bringing survivor stories to light

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Credit: Shihab Khan

‘I am an accidental filmmaker, really. I am not formally trained as a director or scriptwriter. Certainly, I did not set out to make Rising Silence – I did it simply because I had to.’

When Leesa Gazi was a child growing up in Bangladesh, her father, a freedom fighter, would often talk in hushed tones to other adults about the so-called ‘Birangona’. It wasn’t until she was 17 that he answered her questions about them.

‘It’s hard to deal with, even now: that look of pain on my father’s face, his voice breaking as he told me about the Birangona – meaning “brave and blameless” – women. He told me that the memory of them, battered and bleeding, being tied up and loaded onto trucks normally used to transport livestock from one place to another, but now used to move them from their homes to military rape camps, was seared into his mind forever.’

Sexual violence has always been seen as a spoil of war. It’s impossible to collate accurate global figures. Suffice to say that the charity Médicins Sans Frontières is currently delivering medical aid to sexual abuse survivors – of any age or gender – in multiple conflict zones including Colombia, Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Bangladeshi government estimates that between 200,000 and 400,000 women and girls were systematically raped by Pakistani troops during the 1971 war for independence from Pakistan.

‘There is something particularly tragic when children are born of those violations. I have witnessed this in the surviving Birangona, so many of whom have difficult or secretive or fractured relationships with their children,’ Gazi says.

She and her small film crew stayed for several days with each of the women featured in her film before she began to record their interviews. She feels this was essential in building a mutual understanding and a relationship of trust.

The film is woven together with a soundtrack by Sohini Alam, from the band Khiyo, and Oliver Weeks. ‘Music,’ says Gazi, ‘is a huge comforter to the Birangona. When I stayed with them, I was struck by how often they would seek refuge in song.’

About the process, she explains: ‘Filming Rising Silence was not an impartial, journalistic sort of exercise – I was already on the side of the Birangona. They had a voice already – even now, some stand on street corners screaming about the horrors of their experience. Others sit and cry in the market places, while those with money and status just pretend it never happened, in order to keep up some show of respectability. I wanted to give the Birangona a microphone, that’s all.

‘I called the film Rising Silence, because we, both inside and outside Bangladesh, have enforced this silence, this hushed tone, this ugly secret, this implied blame on to the Birangona. Many times I have been told that this kind of work will help them break the silence. I used to feel pleased about that. Then I found that the Birangona women actually have plenty to say. All of them, in fact, own a towering voice and burning stories. These are the stories that deserve to be told, but are in danger of dying out. We have never cared to listen to them. So there’s no scope to break the silence when we collectively have made sure that silence prevails. We have been busy stigmatizing them for generations.

‘This film is about the strength of women who have picked themselves up after facing unspeakably brutal physical and emotional abuse. It is about their will to survive, honouring their courage, and bringing to the forefront a crucial part of a nation’s history that has been for too long ignored, made taboo, and forgotten. It is about the invincible spirit of these women the world chose to disregard.’

She adds: ‘I hope this film will make the world see ordinary South Asian women in a different light, in a way that it has never cared to before. Their resilience, bravery, openness; their appreciation of beauty, nature and music, and above all their tremendous sense of love and compassion, which shines through their deeply inspiring stories.’

Four of the women filmed died while the film was in post-production stage. ‘Thousands of stories have perished already, thousands of stories are still untold. The world cannot afford to have such a significant part of its history disappear,’ Gazi comments.

‘The legacy of Birangona women parallels the history of Bangladesh. My only vision for the film is to safeguard the stories of the Birangona women so that they are never forgotten and will be remembered across countries and time with love and pride.’

For more see nin.tl/RisingSilenceTrailer

New Internationalist issue 520 magazine cover This article is from the July-August 2019 issue of New Internationalist.
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