Challenges and aspirations:  Experience of DIFF
Ahmed Muztaba Zamal

Organizing any cultural event not only gives positive exposure to a particular nation, also it tends to create a congenial atmosphere which can foster relations between countries both regionally and across the globe. Cinema, as it is a global medium certainly enhances a harmonious collaboration of different cultures in one platform through the organization of events like film festival of world cinema.

My experience as a proactive organizer of such events of cinema has already reached two decades. I have been organizing Dhaka International Film Festival through The Rainbow Film Society since 1992. I would like to express my profound gratitude to Mrs H. Lechner , Former Director of the Goethe Institut Dhaka for whose kind support and initiative I was given the opportunity to visit the Munich International Film Festival in 1991 as a participant. My visit to that festival was very overwhelming and it influenced me a great deal which led me to organizing such an event back in my country Bangladesh as well. It was a thrilling experience for me as an organizer of a Film Festival here in Dhaka. As much as I was influenced by the Munich Film Festival, The Short Film Forum in Dhaka which organized two such events respectively in 1988 and 1991 also encouraged me on my own venture in this arena.

DIFF, was a different one though since from the very inception stage of our venture we decided to launch an event which will broadly showcase full length feature films. After having an experience of almost two decades, I must say, one should be prepared to face extreme challenges and impediments in their journey of organizing film festivals here in Bangladesh. It is rather a daunting task given the fact that cinema is a global medium and organizing an international event of cinema needs both local and international recognition and support. All this is a hard earn.

Bangladesh in its struggle for democracy has been experiencing extreme cases of political turmoil the direct effect of which was on our economy. Broadly speaking, many other functional sectors of the country were hugely effected too included in which was the cultural arena of Bangladesh. The successive governments, every time they resided office implemented clashing and conflicting programs and policies for which organizing cultural events as big as an International Film Festival with uniformity and consistency has been a very difficult deal.  This created a negative impact on the country’s positive image of branding abroad.  Film festival, as I mentioned earlier is an international event, which in many ways attracts the attention of cine-buffs globally and when such an event is organized here in Bangladesh, it enhances and strengthens international cultural exchange.

Undoubtedly, financial support still remains the biggest challenge for us. During the early years when the festival started, we experienced real debacle to meet the expenses of the festival. In recent times, thanks to the support of corporate business entities – both local and multinational, who extended their cooperation for supporting such a gala event of cinema in the country to the best of their capacity.  It is true that we do not receive any proper or sufficient sponsorship from the state that could cover all our expenditures but the help from our corporate counterpart enables us to carry on despite all the obstacles.

Apart from financial support, there are many other obstacles that hamper our goals and aspirations. Quality of any event of cinema depends on the selection and exhibition of films for the purpose of a film festival. Festivals around the world generally have a preview committee, which take final decision about whether to exhibit a particular film within the festival schedule. This preview committee also plays the role of censorship for the films to be showcased in the cinema event.

Unfortunately, we are facing a double censorship problem in Bangladesh for the festival films. It really becomes difficult for us to send the films already selected by the preview committee again to the Film Censor Board for censorship clearance. It becomes even more hazardous since in most cases the films arrive at the 11th hour of the event commencement. We would be grateful if this very responsibility of film censorship is being entrusted to the preview committee of the festival. This would reduce the hassle and facilitate the entire procedure.

For the last two decades or so Central Public Library Auditorium has become the main venue of all such events of cinema. This has already turned out to become a tradition, as during the mid eighties—the short filmmakers utilized the potential of this location to exhibit their films, which were mostly shown with handy 16mm projectors and screens hired from some govt. offices or in some cases some individuals also came forward to serve the purpose. Hence said, this venue has become a hub for organizing events like film festivals.

When we decided to hold our event of Dhaka Film Festival in 1992- we also found the venue of Public Library suitable for serving our purpose and since then this gala event of cinema has been held regularly there. But, apart from some bureaucratic hassles this venue still lacks the basic facilities for exhibition of cinema. None the less one should mention about the standard of exhibition of films—which requires to be maintained during the period of a film festival.

Unfortunately, the demand of National Film Complex or an established infrastructure for organizing film festivals and like events still remains a dream. Although cine activists of the country have been vocal with this demand for almost two decades the policymakers extended their contribution to the extent of mere lip services only. This proves that they are unaware of the necessity to build such a venue for expansion of better cine culture of the country.

This venue that we demand or aspire for will be able to open many windows for the cine activists of the nation to visit and participate in film festivals just like they do in Nandan (Kolkata) or National film theater (London) . The venue should accommodate at least two auditoriums of more than 500 seat capacities. It also requires having spaces for special programs like: seminars, workshop etc. A resourceful library and reading space would be an added advantage for the budding cine buffs of the country. A spacious cafeteria is also essential for creating a friendly atmosphere for cine enthusiasts. The Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy fulfilled the long cherished dream of the country’s theater activists –unfortunately it lacks the capacity to incorporate spaces required for cinematic exposition.

As a matter of fact big events of global cinema regularly take place in the western world and thus have created commercial value for the filmmakers and producers around the world. But due to lack of support such events in Bangladesh is yet to explore the commercial side of the aspect. Hence said DIFF has not been able to create any business potential among the cine buffs across the region. It always remains open for independent filmmakers around the world since their films are shown non-commercially during this festival.

Although, films shown as part of the festival from the very beginning of our journey were given the waiver of censorship fees—but during the tenure of care taker Govt. in 2008 fees were imposed for censorship on all the films which were given permission for non commercial screening at the festival. The procedure, which is still continuing not only shows a rather reluctant approach of the bureaucracy towards country’s cultural activities. It already has created a “negative” impact on “positive” image building of the country abroad. As a result of which we have been in a situation of dilemma whether or not to include and accept all the films that enthusiastic filmmakers send to us in huge numbers since high payments are required for even non commercial screening of films.

Bureaucracy always  remains a stumbling block in any effort initiated by the private sectors in countries like Bangladesh. Organizing a cultural event such as film festival is no different. Although its been almost two decades since we started this event of Dhaka Film Festival we literally have to battle our way to organizing our festival. I must make a mention of another trial that we are faced with which is the struggle to seeking approval and clearance for organizing the festival from the Ministry of Information followed by two more ministries that of Home and Foreign affairs.

Having to go through all these bureaucratic barriers sometimes dims our spirit. We are even obliged to seek permission from the concerned ministries to invite each delegate as part of the program and also keep the security officials updated about the status of the festival activities. One particular incident I can mention in retrospective of the aforementioned phenomenon was that in the early nineties a renowned Indian filmmaker Mrinal Sen was supposes to visit a film festival in the country. But too much of a surprise his visit was cancelled due to mere security/visa issues.

The current situation has improved to some extent for which cultural activists do not face as many obstacles to organize cultural events, but to much of our anticipated fear the situation is more than likely to be reversed due to inconsistent policymaking. The persistent implementation and continuation of a uniform policy for the purpose of better film culture is very essential.

After mentioning all this it should not be perceived that we intend to avoid Govt. formalities. As aware citizens we will go through and abide by all that is required to seek approval from the Government. Our demand is only that the complications be reduced and the policies made flexible. There are people within the bureaucracy, who favor our efforts by facilitating the permission or clearance seeking procedure from different Govt. offices. And we are grateful to them for their kindness and support.

Establishment of a festival directorate still remains an unfulfilled dream. Cine activists around the country have demanded to establish a festival directorate within the framework of Information Ministry. This directorate can be established not to control all the film festival related activities but to facilitate the entire process in a harmonious arranged manner. Their responsibility will be to accommodate all the facilities required for organizing a film festival. Thus the directorate will play the role of a one stop center for the cine activists, who intend to organize events of cinema in Bangladesh.

It is indeed a good news for all the cultural activists in the country that the Government  has announced a financial support of around hundred crore taka to carry out the cultural activities around the country. This is the first time in the country’s history that the state came forward not only to recognize and promote the cultural activities but also to patronize all sorts of events and productions which actually promotes the image of the country’s culture abroad.

Organizing a film festival is a matter of immense perseverance and sincere efforts; it is a big responsibility which requires both monetary and other logistic and moral support. As I mentioned before it has become easier to receive corporate sponsorship now a days. But, it is actually and entirely the state’s responsibility to patronizing such events as per international norms. Therefore it would be a great achievement and a positive initiative if the Govt. steps forward to creating a  fund under the umbrella of the proposed festival directorate which will regularly support any activities related to  film festivals.

To be honest I don’t find it a good idea to be complacent to discuss the success of the festival we have been organizing for so long. It is the spectators, who will actually judge our efforts. But, after all these years I think it is a must mention that we at least added some value to the greater cine culture of the country.

It is through this festival that local cine spectators get the chance to meet some of the great names of global cinema, such as: Dariush Meherjui, Adoor Gopakrishnan and many more renowned personalities. To add to it all we have also experienced a special genre of films that became a regular event of our Dhaka Film Festival which is showcasing Iranian cinemas. Many of the budding cine enthusiasts of Dhaka found it really worthy, when they got the opportunity to watch films of Abbas Kiarostami, Zafar Panahi, Majid Majidi or Mohsen Makhmalbaf in the past events of Dhaka International Film Festival.. This year was no different. We have shown a package of films of one of the pioneers of modern Iranian cinema: Dariush Meherjui.

Although DIFF is not commercially successful because of all the barriers and obstacles but indeed it earned the respect among many independent filmmakers across the continent as an event of cinema, which really promotes films of independent filmmakers, alongside big names.

Apart from theses, as a regular event of global cinema, the festival itself enabled a change among the local cine buffs—who actually are the catalyst for changing the local cine culture. The festival created a space among the young and aspiring filmmakers of Bangladesh and South-east Asia to connect with global artistic trends and to strengthen the parallel development of Bangladesh independent cinema.

As many of my colleagues might wonder I would like to clear the fact that organizing such events does not mean that we are on the receiving end, in fact its just the opposite. It is indeed a thankless job. It is because of sheer passion and love that I still carry on despite all the trauma and painful experiences.

And finally the audience, without whose moral support and enthusiasm we couldn’t have come so far, it is indeed because of their support that we even DARE to move forward and plan for the next film festivals respectively.  In this age of capitalism and commercialism which breeds extreme competition cultural events such as film festivals seem to be a window of some recreation for the general mass.