Documentary filmmaker Glenn Baker's upbringing in India, Turkey, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Tunisia plays an influential role in his work. It informs his approach to making media that reflects diverse viewpoints and promotes dialogue.
The former Senior Producer for the PBS current affairs series Foreign Exchange with Fareed Zakaria has produced more than 30 documentaries broadcast on PBS, including STAND UP: Muslim American Comics Come of Age for the national series America at a Crossroads. He was also the Executive Producer for Missile Wars in the acclaimed series FRONTLINE.
Baker has won over a dozen national awards for his productions on Muslim-American identity, Cuba, nuclear weapons, preventive diplomacy, and press/Pentagon tensions.
In his latest film, Easy Like Water, Baker followed Bangladeshi architect Mohammed Rezwan in his quest to bring schools and education to flooded areas of his homeland using solar panel-powered boats. The filmmaker realized that it was the perfect opportunity to give Americans a new perspective on that South Asian country.
We reached out to Baker through email to find out more about his award-winning documentary.
How did you come across this story, and why did you want to make this documentary?
Having spent much of my youth in South Asia, I've long wanted to make a film to counter Western stereotypes of the region ever since U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger infamously labeled Bangladesh "an international basket case" in the 1970s. I learned about architect Mohammed Rezwan's floating schools from a colleague traveling in South Asia to report on water scarcity issues. At the same time, I heard about the Sundance Institute's "Stories of Change" initiative, supporting films about social entrepreneurs, and realized this would be the perfect story for re-framing American views of that region.
Have you ever been to Bangladesh before? Did you have any pre-conceived ideas? Did they change over the course of production?
I first traveled there in 1971 as a boy on a family vacation, just months before the bloody war of liberation that would change it from East Pakistan to Bangladesh. My family was living in Islamabad, Pakistan at the time, so it was a domestic trip, even though it required flying over India to get there. While the poverty was inescapable, it was a place of optimism, color, and energy. We enjoyed a river cruise on the famous "Rocket" paddlewheel ship.
It was 38 years before I would return to begin shooting Easy Like Water. And while I had recoiled at Kissinger's dismissive label for the country, it IS true that at that time it was suffering from a combination of war, poverty, famine, and cyclone that would devastate any new nation. Returning all these years later, I was impressed by the strides the country has made, with sustained economic growth, a reduction in the birthrate since independence from seven children per woman to just over two, and near-food-self-sufficiency. At the same time, as our crew traveled to some of the areas of the country most vulnerable to climate change, I realized that poverty was still widespread, and the gains of the past four decades were threatened by rising sea water, floods, and other extreme weather.
You filmed in a flooded, rural area in a country that suffers from frequent power outages. You filmed in a place where there are cultural and language barriers. What were some of the challenges you faced during production and how did you overcome them?
We intentionally visited Bangladesh during monsoon season, to better depict flooding, and on two consecutive years found parts of it experiencing drought, even as Pakistan was being flooded by unprecedented rains. Such is the unpredictable nature of climate change, and so it became part of our story.
We found most Bangladeshis to be very open to our camera. Many wanted their stories told — especially those clinging to land that's being washed away — and recognized this as an opportunity to bring attention to their situation. We hired a local reporter and production assistant to help find stories and conduct interviews. One of the biggest challenges came later in the editing room as we sought to translate interviews. In Bangla, much is implied but not actually said, so our translators would tell us, "She doesn't actually SAY it, but here's what she MEANS…" We used five different translators to make sure we got it right.
You follow Mohammed Rezwan, the central character in your documentary, all the way from Bangladesh to America and capture some very crucial moments in his quest to get funding for his project. When you began this documentary, did you know you'd be traveling around the world with him? What were some of the other memorable moments you witnessed when you filmed the documentary?
We understood from the start that in order to tell this story, we needed to follow Rezwan both on his project site (known as "Shidhulai," or "self-reliance"), and abroad as he sought support to help it grow, so we were delighted when his travels brought him to our home base of Washington, DC. One memorable moment occurred then, when Rezwan and I were invited to appear on The Riz Khan Show on Al-Jazeera English to talk about the boat schools and the film.
Some other striking moments from our shoots in Bangladesh include riding in a rowboat to follow a teenaged fisherman as he entered the mangroves of the Sundarbans, where tigers dwell, knowing that the young man’s father had been killed by a tiger in these same mangroves; seeing how a farmer elevated his cot on bamboo poles so he and his goats could survive a flood on his char, or nomadic island, in the flow of the massive Jamuna River; getting the opportunity to interview Nobel Peace Laureate Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank and microfinance, as well as Sir Fazle Abed, founder of BRAC, the world's largest NGO, and a global leader in empowering the poor; seeing how, despite floods and lack of resources, the children in the riverine communities served by Rezwan's project are leading rich, hopeful lives with a complete sense of normalcy.
Education and access to education is of great concern in developing countries like Bangladesh. In the documentary, Rezwan faces some of the obstacles (like funding) to improve the situation in his home country. In the bigger picture, what do you think are some of main obstacles to improving education? Where does your documentary fit in the conversation?
Education is the key to a better life, no matter where you live. But in the developing world, it is essential to escaping the cycle of poverty. Educating girls is especially important, as it can delay marriage (two-thirds of Bangladeshi girls are married by age 18), increase the use of family planning, and provide opportunities for women that help their societies thrive.
One large barrier to education has been access — schools are too far away; it's considered unsafe for girls to travel to them; families can't afford to send their kids or need them to work. Climate change has added to that barrier, making it physically harder for children to get to school as flooding becomes more frequent and extreme. (In the year we started filming in Bangladesh, Rezwan told us that nationwide, 330 schools were destroyed by flooding).
Now, with the boat schools, if children can't get to school, the school comes to them. This is convincing many parents of girls to allow them to attend, when in the past they frowned on their daughters going to school because of the distance. This has a snowball effect, so as more girls attend school, making it appear normal and natural, more parents are open to the idea. On top of that, the boat schools and boat libraries have solar-powered Internet-connected computers onboard, enabling students in an area without electricity to engage with the world — and open their eyes to possibilities their parents could never have imagined.
As much as fitting into the conversation, I see the film starting many new ones. There are not too many uplifting conversations about climate change, but that's the role I see the film playing. Easy Like Water offers an inspiring story that will help audiences re-engage with America's biggest "head in the sand" issue — the reality of global warming.
Showing people overcoming adversity with do-it-yourself innovations and old-fashioned courage, the film has universal appeal to anyone looking for inspiration in these challenging times. Many people feel helpless about the climate change issue, and the subject usually invokes images of victims in developing countries. Easy Like Water turns that stereotype on its head: it shows citizens in a poor, Muslim country taking charge of their destiny. And it shows how climate change is our mutual challenge, as citizens of a planet where the skies and oceans are all connected. This story will show audiences their actions and voices can make a difference.
Beyond a general audience, I believe the Easy Like Water story brings together two broad fields that have a shared vision of a better future — the "design for good" movement and global development, by weaving together a host of related areas: climate justice, girls' education, social resilience, and empowerment of the rural poor. I want to connect with people and organizations working in these fields to help use this story as a tool for promoting their goals.
UPDATE: Read Asia Society Vice President for Education Anthony Jackson's post on this innovative school on Education Week.