In Bad Weather, a new documentary produced by ZDF/Arte and Cornbread Films, Italian director Giovanni Giommi explores the sinking seaside community on Bangladesh's Banishanta Island, where the women make their living as sex workers, raising their families the only way they know how. The threats of cyclones and flooding don't weigh on the minds of these women, whose primary concerns are making their money, feeding their families, and surviving to the next day.
Assisted by Bengali journalist Qurratul Tahmina, Giommi documented the lives of three women in the Banishanta community. An architecture major in college, Giommi has since become a prolific independent filmmaker following his time at the Civic School of Cinema in Milan, directing documentary films and TV series for the main broadcast networks in Italy.
Screened at several international film festivals in Europe, Bad Weather makes its American premiere this Sunday, December 2, at the 2012 Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York City, co-presented by the American Museum of Natural History and Asia Society.
Giommi answered AsiaBlog's questions on his film via email.
In the process of developing this project, what was it about this community that piqued your interest?
When I first started to research for a project, I was looking for a community that was endangered by the effects of climate change. I looked to Bangladesh as it is one of the countries most exposed to climate change in the world; it is only 15 meters above sea level. I was assisted by Qurratul Tahmina, a female Bengali journalist, and we started to research the communities of people living on the banks of the main rivers in Bangladesh. Qurratul had a lot of experience working with the socially marginalized groups of Bangladesh, so this naturally took us to visit Banishanta, a tiny island made of mud in front of the Pashur River, where a community of sex workers work and live with their families. The island was a fragile and dangerous place exposed to the violence of the weather. The first time I arrived on the island, it was sunset and the imam was calling the evening prayer. I immediately understood the tragic beauty and vulnerability of this isolated place.
When I started to develop the story and the characters for the film I saw that these women were not even aware of climate change and what it meant. Therefore my intention of the film naturally adapted to talk about this community of women and make a collective portrait of their lives and focus on more universal themes; love, human rights, and childhood neglect.
When talking about love I presented the story of Khadija and Sohel, a young married couple on the island. Khadija was a sex worker and Sohel worked transporting the clients to her with his boat. To speak of human rights I presented the story of Razia, also a sex worker and a political leader of this community. Finally, to present the issue of neglected childhood, I told it through Shephali and her young 8-year-old daughter, Shabana, who lives with her on the island.
But at one point when I was filming all of these stories, the "mad man" of the island, Ismail, strongly attracted my attention. I quickly realized his madness took him to a spiritual state and separated him away from all the urgencies the female sex workers had to deal with on a daily basis, like food, money, and customers. I realized he was the collective memory of the island — he repeatedly spoke of the past tragedies such as the cyclones and floods and he was constantly telling the community of his predictions of the future tragedies to come. Ismail gave me the window to introduce climate change in the only way I could, through his visions and poetic prophecies. Is Ismail's prophecy a question that concerns us all?
How do the projected long-term effects of weather conditions on the island affect the sustainability of this community?
The future of the island is already compromised, the sea level will keep rising and in the following decades one-third of Bangladesh will be submerged. Banishanta Island and Sundurban will disappear. Unfortunately, the community of sex workers is not aware of the dangers as the urgent problems that the sex workers have to face day after day force them to only think about climate change when a catastrophe has already happened.
Was it difficult to get the community on board with the documentary? How did you approach them with the idea of the project?
The most important link was my introduction to the community through Qurratul, the Bengali journalist. To be introduced by a woman in her position was very important; it meant that I was accepted as a friend of the community and not as a foreigner or a client. Following my initial introduction, I had to then develop friendships and honest relationships with the community. They understood my intention and I understood their urgencies. At the initial stages of filming, I spoke to the community about my ideas and fron then on I was able to follow them, respectfully, on a day-to-day basis and build the story.
What were some of your most memorable moments while filming the documentary?
When we were shooting from the helicopter, it was incredible to see Banishanta Island in the middle of the water — all the women came out to watch us, and at that moment I realized how fragile the island was and how heroic these women are to try and survive here and defend their dignity.
Do you have an ideal audience for this documentary? People who might be inspired to take action, for instance?
I think the topics of this film can touch anyone.