Deliberate Disjuncture | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 30, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, March 30, 2018

Deliberate Disjuncture

Empathy and critique in Zahir Raihan's 1971 documentary

In 1971, Zahir Raihan, renowned feature filmmaker, made a documentary entitled Stop Genocide. The documentary played an important role in drawing international attention to Bangladesh's cause of liberation. Yet, this documentary, in my opinion, transcends beyond such historical specificity. Meaning, even though the film documents a reality of a particular country and its people, I think it holds a deeper criticism for the common human condition all around the world. This article will look at how this criticism appears in the film's form.

First, let me explain what I mean by “form”. Simply, it is how the director uses sound, visual, and narrative, as a combination to produce cinema. Without these editing elements, cinema would be no different from footage such as a Snapchat clip or GoPro video. A film's form is important because it allows the director to extend emotion or idea over to the audience. Therefore, studying the form allows us to understand the film beyond its surface reading. To say that we will look at the form of Stop Genocide is to mean that we will break down how and why Raihan uses the particular footage and sound elements in the documentary in that particular sequential order. Mainly, we will look at his experimental storytelling that uses disruption in the narrative to critique oppression and evoke a universal empathy in the viewer.

The disruption in narrative comes early on in the film when a narrator dictates the United Nations Charter for a telegram while images of war and destruction are shown. This produces an interesting display of irony and pun. As we all know, when dictating a telegram, one has to state “Stop” to indicate a full stop. In that nature, the narrator reiterates the word “Stop” multiple times while dictating a doctrine that is meant to uphold equal rights and freedom for all human beings accompanied by images that illustrate the doctrine's hypocrisy. Later, the narrator moves onto describing the situation in Saigon, Vietnam and in Bongaon, India in the same manner (Fig. 1 and Fig. 2). By stating “Stop” repeatedly, not only does the narrator create a moment of suspension, he also demands for such heinous activities to be suspended. In those suspending moments, when the viewers internalise the hypocrisy, they are forced to think about the nature of the genocide and question their own positions as bystanders.

Raihan further disrupts the viewer's conscience by using animal images in the documentary. Several footages depict dead ducks and feather-less chicken, often juxtaposed between pictures of human corpses, piles of raped women, and disassembled limbs. These images hold a shock effect. They interrupt passive viewership and create a space for empathy. How does this happen? First, many viewers going into a war documentary expect to see dead humans, and so in some sense, they are desensitised to the images of genocide. Second, most viewers have not come in close contact with tortured corpses and so, cannot truly realise the scale of tragedy through images. However, they do encounter butchered poultry in their kitchen on the daily. Seeing humans in the same state as an animal whose death we have already been desensitised to, makes us aware of our desensitisation to violence. In this way, seeing images of dead animals creates a unique kind of discomfort in the audience.

These are few of the examples using which the documentary pokes the viewer in the eye, demanding empathy. But what of “universal” empathy that I spoke of earlier in the essay? Raihan's attention to empathy's universality is explicit in the film's content. The documentary opens with a quote from Lenin's “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination”, a book which discusses a nation's right to exist. Raihan strategically puts this quote in the beginning to cut straight to the chase and present his argument: the documentary is about a nation's struggle to freedom, nothing more, nothing less. The documentary (and the Liberation War) takes place during the Cold War and so the quote is also a way to subtly resist Nixon's America, or in other words, pledge closer alliance with the Soviets. Moreover, Zahir Raihan was inspired to make this documentary after having watched several Eastern European and Cuban documentaries during his stay in India in 1971 as a political refugee (Leahy, 2002). Various styles used in the film pays tribute to the style of Cuban filmmaker, Santiago Alvarez (Leahy, 2002). By putting Lenin's quote at the start of the film and following the cinematic styles of socialist filmmakers, the director introduces the audience to the film's larger ideological association.

Later into the documentary, Raihan inserts footage of burnt Vietnamese villages, drawing a comparison between Saigon and Dhaka. Zahir Raihan here is situating Bangladesh's genocide amongst a lineage of imperial violence such as the American invasion of Vietnam. The documentary then moves to Bongaon, a refugee camp in India full of fleeing Bengalis. A Bengali man shouts statements and is dubbed by the narrator. He accuses Yahya Khan of genocide of the same scale committed by oppressive rulers such as Mussolini of Italy, Sultan Mahmud of Gajni, and alas, Hitler. The parallel put forward by Raihan makes an important case: fascism is not unique to any region or race or religion. Fascism, in its various facades is only a form of oppression that has similar destructive consequences on the weakest members of society. In fact, Raihan's visual critique of oppression is not only universal, but also timeless. For example, a still from Stop Genocide (Fig. 3) put next to a contemporary painting such as Syed Jahangir's Fleeing Rohingya (Fig. 4) brings forward an uncomfortable truth that not much has changed since then.

In a culture where scenes of tragedy saturate mass media, Zahir Raihan's documentary stands out for being able to incite critical self-reflection in its viewer. The film has a particular impact in reminding its viewers about the reality of oppressive regimes and our role in relation to it.

References:

James Leahy, “Films that Make a Difference…Santiago Alvarez and the Politics of Bengal: Ciclon,” in Senses of Cinema, 2002.

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