The fight for workers and women’s rights in Bangladesh on full display in poignant, beautiful film
If you’re anything like me, you likely don’t pay attention to the little tag on the inside of your t-shirts except when you’re not sure how to wash them. Even then, when I see where my shirt or dress or pants have been made, I don’t pay much attention to it. It’s a luxury that many white North Americans are afforded: knowing that our clothes were made somewhere else but are ready for us here without so much as a second thought.
Made in Bangladesh, the third film in Sackville Film Society’s fall season, has changed that for me. The 2019 film, which was an official Toronto International Film Festival selection, focuses on a woman named Shumi Akhtar, a woman living in Dhaka, Bangladesh who works in a clothing factory making t-shirts for a living while her husband looks for work. After a fire in the factory results in the death of a coworker, Shumi and her fellow workers decide to unionize to better advocate for equal pay and better working conditions. The film mostly focuses on the politics of trying to get the union started, the steps involved, and how Shumi’s involvement affects those around her like her husband and her friends, (rather than what happens when they become a union) which makes it even more powerful in my opinion.
Director Rubaiyat Hossain, who also helped write the screenplay along with French screenwriter Philippe Barriere, is well-informed in her filmmaking — not only is she from Bangladesh herself, but she is familiar with a lot of the practices going on in these factories through her work as a women’s rights activist. I completely agree with the films official listing on the TIFF website in that this is a film that could have been pointing its finger at white audiences and shaming us for not being more aware of where our clothes begin their lives, but Hossain shifts the story into a colorful piece of cinema that is incredibly engaging, suspenseful, and moving.
The obvious cast shout-out here goes to lead actress Rikita Nandini Shimu, who is not only striking on camera as not a “traditional” beauty that lead actresses so often are, but is incredibly captivating as Shimu journey’s through the process of fighting for herself and the other women that she works with. She makes sure the audience is on Shimu’s side from the very beginning, and in the final shot of the movie, it is so clear that the journey Shimu has taken not just physically, but emotionally — she is stronger for it, and it is a narrative that we don’t often see coming out of this part of the world.
The cinematography of this movie is also striking. Unlike with Burnt Orange Heresy (last weekend’s viewing), which spends so much of its time focusing on the sole female character in what can only be described as a “male gaze,” Hossain uses long-lasting, steady shots to her advantage to show her characters moving in the space. The camera provides and doesn’t use the usual Hollywood trope of constantly shifting between characters when they’re sitting next to each other and speaking. Often, it feels like you’re just watching them like you would if you were sitting across from them as opposed to being in a stylized film version of real life. The color palette is also incredibly gorgeous, and each and every costume that is shown on screen is so full of color and life that you can’t help but notice the smallest details, from the way certain garments fit a person to the tiny embroidery embellishments on a sari. Hossain makes sure that the location does not seem remote to the audience and settles them into the city of Dhaka right away, regardless of the obvious language barrier between the film’s characters and much of its audience.
One of the most compelling elements is the film’s virtually non-existent soundtrack. So often we’re used to listening for the ambient score in the background of a scene to help set the mood and tone for the audience, but there isn’t much of that here. There are pre-existing Bollywood-style songs in a party scene about halfway through the film, but as I watched the credits, I noticed that after the composer of the films score, there are only two instruments listed: the cello and the ronroco (which is from the guitar family of instruments). Largely, however, the film’s “soundtrack” is the sound of the world around the characters, which helped to ground it a lot more. The bustling of the streets, how the characters have to shout over noise to be heard at night walking home from work or over the sound of the sewing machines in the factory, and the quietness of moments of domestic intimacy between Shimu and her husband, help to ground the film. It makes Shimu’s plight feel all the more real, like she’s just one of countless women who have gone through this process and there will be more that follow her.
Shimu’s story is one of empowerment, and possibly what is even more fulfilling than her journey of becoming an activist is her discovery of self-worth and purpose in her life. By helping to fight for the rights of her fellow workers, she inspires her friends who normally would have stood aside and just let things happen to support her and take a stand with her for women in factories everywhere. It’s a story that is so needed right now, whether you’re living here in Atlantic Canada or on the other side of the world. Made in Bangladesh is not only visually stunning, but engages you from the first frame and truly shows that, as they mention in the film, worker’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.