The pavements in Dhaka's New Market belong to both vendors and pedestrians, causing the chaotic buzz so characteristic of Bangladesh's capital.
On my first day at the 14th Dhaka International Film Festival, sipping coffee after a screening, I met a group of volunteers. Three boys and a girl with a small notebook: decent young people. They approached my colleague Steven Yates and me in a big red tent at the main venue of the festival; it was the Public Library, next to the National Museum. Since we were both foreign film critics and members of one of the juries, they asked us about the Festival and the differences between Bangladesh and our two countries, Britain and Italy. Their smiles were beaming, full of curiosity, with a tender trace of shyness. I had no idea what to answer. I had seen nothing except traffic jams and my hotel room: it was definitely too early for an interview. At the same time, being a guest, I didn't want to let anybody down. Therefore, my answers sounded like a heart-warming appraisal. Yes, the city was fascinating. And yes, I was feeling waves of positive energy. Magnifico.
The last question, right before the clicking sound of a camera pointed at my face, came as a surprise: "Do you think our Festival will become as important as the ones in Venice and Cannes?" That 'important' meant of course big movies, famous directors, red carpets, TV crews and frantic fans. I can't remember my reply – probably something about institutional support and the local audience's keenness on discovering foreign cinema – but I can still feel, almost as a prolonged shiver, the puzzlement that followed. At that stage, Bangladesh was an unknown land to me. I didn't know what to expect from the people.
The previous evening, during a tiring trip from Shahjalal International Airport to my hotel, Rossi, a smart young Bangladeshi named after the famous Italian footballer Paolo, had decided to open my eyes to the current state of things. "Our time has come", he had told me, pointing to the factories hidden from sight in the outskirts of the capital – a clear sign of the Western economies' dependency on Eastern manufacturing talents. "Bangladesh has a population that will soon reach 160 million. Most of the country's citizens are under 30, and have big dreams and energy." Big dreams and energy. Coming from an old and stagnant continent where the fertility rate is dropping at suicidal levels and youth unemployment is blighting a whole generation, I could understand the reasons behind this young man's outburst of pride and enthusiasm. But, still, the insistence of the volunteers on the glamorous aspects of cinema and show business struck me as odd.
In the days that followed, I discovered — always under Tourist Police protection — parts of Dhaka, to feel on my skin and in my lungs and ears its unique blend of noise and pollution. Buses, rickshaws and pedestrians darted haphazardly before my eyes, in a spinning whirlwind of poisonous car fumes and blaring car horns. The dust covering the plants in the University Campus reminded me of the pinkish bauxite haze described by V.S. Naipaul in the first pages of his novel Guerrillas – there a lonely Caribbean island exploited by the White Man, here an overcrowded Asian metropolis destroying itself in the rush toward development.
The newspapers were full of articles about the problems of the capital. But only on reading A city dying, an opinion piece by Selina Mohsin, a Bangladeshi scholar and diplomat, did I realise the scale of the emergency: a core area of 325 square kilometres with an unbelievable density of over 45000 people per square kilometre, an air concentration of lead of almost 463 monograms in the dry season, a sewerage system based on 43 canals, 17 of which are dead and the others in precarious condition. Plus the shocking prediction of the World Bank that Dhaka's population could exceed 25 million in 15 years' time.
Apparently, a congested and fatally compromised urban environment had produced many proud young men and women striving for something 'bigger' and 'more important'. So what could be a reasonable response to their righteous claims? And what could art and cinema do here and now?
Too many questions. The one made by the volunteers at the end of our unexpected encounter in the tent, for example, had been on my mind since the very first day. But the answer was stuck somewhere in the traffic. "If a film festival grows," another colleague and I agreed after a dinner at the Dhaka Club, "it's because of money, caring organisers, passionate viewers and good local movies." In retrospect, I must admit to myself, not a particularly original thought.
When finally my jury had to view the three Bangladeshi films selected by the Festival director, I was very curious to see how the filmmakers had managed to depict that same reality I was ineffectively trying to grasp as a traveller holding a camera, as a foreigner who could only focus on small, exotic details or on astounding and confusing landscapes.
"Where is everybody?" I often asked myself while heading towards the light outside the cinema after an Azerbaijani, a Chinese, an Iranian or a Turkish movie. Dhaka's viewers didn't seem too keen on the works of non-Bengali filmmakers. Maybe I had to wait for the national productions to understand something of this seething world, so distant from what I was used to.
From the three Bangladeshi titles in competition, I was expecting the frenzy that enlivens the streets of the capital, the dynamism that overwhelms, spins and baffles whoever visits this amazing turmoil-ridden city for the first time. I was expecting the social and political contradictions of a country in the middle of a swirling process of economic transformation, as well as meditations on the causes that have led to the present situation. I was expecting the tensions and the aspirations – which, honestly, I could only guess – of the boys and girls I had met. Again, the iconic close-ups à la Steve McCurry, the smiles, the hieratic rickshaw drivers and the nature in danger, covered with dust and mud. Again, big dreams and energy.
Very little of this could be seen on screen. Apart from the at times powerful and exhilarating Jalal's Story, by Abu Shahed Emon, the films showed a slowed-down Bangladesh, with almost no savour and momentum. Nevertheless, the audience's reactions turned out to be extremely positive: packed theatres, long lines of youngsters waiting to get in, viewers laughing at every joke, raving applauses for the laconic compatriots at the closing ceremony. Such joyful attachment made the screenings of the foreign movies look even more deserted in comparison. Within the warm and safe ambience of the Festival, everybody liked those same local movies nobody wanted to see during the year.
Probably, now I can't help thinking they are in love with the idea, with the thought of the event itself. This, one could say, answers some of the tricky questions that popped up during my stay in Bangladesh. Reality, the mother of all the sources of creative inspiration, stays there, in the background, pulsing and screaming for attention, partly denied and neglected. But precious for whom it may concern.