Geeta Gandbhir Reflects on A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peackeepers
(from Sag Harbor Express Online on November 12, 2015)
By Danny Peary
A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepersfits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. After this eye-opening documentary’s sold-out screenings at the Toronto and Mumbai Film Festivals, we will get our first opportunity to see it locally at Doc NYC at 4:30 PM, Sat Nov 14 and 5:15 Mon Nov 16 at Bow Tie Chelsea Cinemas on 23rd Street and 8th Avenue. I can attest that the big screen adds to the epic quality of this ambitious work by esteemed co-directors Geeta Gandbhir and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. According to the press notes: “A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers follows a unit of one hundred and sixty women who, between June 2013 and July 2014, travel from their families, friends, and all that is familiar at home in Bangladesh to join the United Nations Stabilizing Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). They form one of the world’s first all female, predominantly Muslim peacekeeping units; shattering every stereotype the world holds about the capabilities of Muslim women…The film dramatically shows how this journey alters the lives of three courageous women and their families…Journey of a Thousand Miles is a bold look at the women who make up this global force, going beyond the statistics and news stories to look at who these officers are on an individual level. Through the organic unfolding of their experiences during this year, the documentary defies the way we look at women from developing nations and asks the difficult questions that must be considered to better the global effort to build peace.” Recently, over lunch at a Vietnam restaurant in the Village, I had this conversation with Geeta Gandbhir about her unique film, in anticipation of its screenings at Doc NYC.
Danny Peary: You live in Brooklyn and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy lives in Pakistan, but were you two looking to codirect a project together when you decided to make A Journey of a Thousand Miles?
Geeta Gandbhir: We had worked together years before at Granada Television and we met again at the Oscars in 2013. Her filmSaving Face [about two women who survived acid attacks), would win in the Best Documentary Short category, and I was there for God Is the Bigger Elvis [about Dolores Hart, the two-time costar of Elvis Presley who became a Benedictine nun], a nominated film I had worked on as an editor for HBO. We bonded and thought we should do something together.
DP: You’re known primarily for your editing of such notable documentaries as Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown, When the Levees Broke, Budrus, Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley, and God Is Bigger Than Elvis. I know you co-directed with Perri Peltz the short Remembering the Artist, Robert De Niro, Sr., but is this your first feature as a director?
GG: I have co-directed another film with Perri Peltz with the working title Redemption Dogs, but A Journey of a Thousand Miles is really my first feature as a director. Perri is served as executive producer. It is Sharmeen’s second feature, after Song of Lahore. [Co-directed by Andy Schocken, it will soon be playing in NYC.] I was working as the editor on If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise, Spike Lee’s his second iteration of When the Levees Broke, when I read an article in the paper about women peacekeepers from India being sent by the United Nations to help in Liberia. I thought that would be a great subject for a film and I reached out to Sharmeen, and she thought it was fascinating, too. Then we spent about a year banging on the UN’s door, saying we wanted to showcase these women by showing what they are doing and what it is like for them to do it. The UN was very amenable, but it’s a large bureaucracy.
DP: Your movie is about women from Bangladesh going to Haiti. But did you originally hope to go with Indian women to Liberia and plans changed?
GG: We did hope to go to Liberia, but the Indian women are deployed only once a year and the timing of their next trip didn’t for us, or in regard to getting funding. So we were asking ourselves, “What do we do now?” Then we found out from the UN about the all-female unit of women being sent to Haiti from Bangladesh. Sharmeen and I thought this was actually far more interesting. That’s because India is much more progressive country and the women going to Liberia would be Hindu primarily and perhaps Christian and every other religion. However, the women deployed from Bangladesh were going to be Muslim, so they would really be defying stereotypes.
DP: I’m curious if before reading that newspaper article you knew anything about women from either India or Bangladesh working as UN peacekeepers, and if the audience at the Mumbai Film Festival knew about this.
GG: I was born in America and grew up mostly in Newton, Massachusetts, but my parents moved back and forth to India, so I lived there part of my life and still have a lot of family there and am very connected, so it was surprising that I didn’t know about these peacekeeping missions by women. Especially since India was the first country to send out all-female units. In fact India has been sending all-female units to Liberia for the last thirteen or fourteen years, but since nobody hears about it was very eye-opening to me and to all the very engaged young people at the Mumbai Film Festival. They had no idea that women were doing this kind of work. And the same was true with audiences at the Toronto Film Festival. People from different parts of the world have no clue this is happening, which is kind of astonishing.
DP: With audiences at the two festivals, one fairly close to Bangladesh and the other fairly close to Haiti, was the surprise that women from anywhere are serving as United Nations peacekeepers in Haiti? Or was the surprise that it is Muslim women?
GG: That the UN is specifically sending out all-female units to do this kind of work was a surprise. That they are Muslim women was the bigger surprise. People were fascinated with the movie because they hadn’t seen Muslim women in anything like a peacekeeper capacity. We don’t see women from the South Asian Diaspora doing this type of work. Usually Muslim women are cloistered and you don’t see them at all or they are portrayed as victims. Because, as we know, the rules of Islam dictate that women don’t leave the house.
DP: So eventually the UN became interested in your project and gave you the green light?
GG: Yes. The UN Department of Peacekeeping was very supportive. We learned that they have an actual mandate to try to get more women into the peacekeeping forces because there has been a lot of scandal involving male peacekeepers behaving very badly.
DP: I know there have been incidents of rape by peacekeepers that has embarrassed the UN.
GG: In post-disaster zones, there are refugees living in camps and rape is rampant. So, yeah, there has been rape by peacekeepers and also running drug and prostitution rings and abusing the local populations, doing all kinds of bad stuff. The most vulnerable people are women and children, so there is a push to get more women safety officers on the ground. Women and children who have been terrorized by men feel safer around a patrol of women than a patrol of men and are more likely to come forward if they need to ask questions or need help.
DP: Is this something you knew from the start?
GG: The UN told us its rational for wanting more women, and though nothing was said about the scandals, it was inferred. We were told it was “a necessity to have more women on the ground in these zones because they changed the complexion” of the situation; and that it was important to have women doing specific tasks like patrolling camps. It tips the balance in a good way. For instance, women soldiers from traditional backgrounds don’t go out drinking after their shifts, as the men do.
DP: You were primarily an editor at the time. So did Sharmeen suggest that she direct and you edit?
GG: No, she didn’t. We decided to co-direct because shooting a film that takes place in two countries is challenging from a geographical standpoint. Sharmeen is from Pakistan, which is only about 90 minutes from Bangladesh, so that made it easier for her to shoot all the pre-journey scenes there, and I was at most of the shoots in Haiti, which is only 3½ hours from where I am in New York. She was at some of the shoots in Haiti and I went to Bangadesh later, when the women returned home.
DP: The earthquake in Haiti was in 2010. When did you make your movie?
GG: We shot it from 2013 to August or September 2014. The women went to Haiti in 2013 and were there for a year. Then we edited it from the time we finished shooting through this past winter.
DP: You start out the movie in Bangladesh with shots of women in uniform shooting guns. This is followed by a scene of them sitting around in traditional dresses and singing. When you edited your movie, why did you choose that footage for your opening?
GG: We wanted the first look at these women to be of them doing something very unexpected. Younever see a woman from a Muslim country in fatigues or combat gear and brandishing a weapon and firing it. Or being part of a police unit. The singing that followed we felt was helpful in showing how Bengali women, even police women, in their culture, pass the time. We did that transition from shooting to singing so viewers can immediately get to know them as individuals and see how they interacted with each other.
DP: Sharmeen is Pakistani and you’re Indian, so were you able to connect to the women of Bangladesh?
GG: We would joke about how a Pakistani and Indian had come together to make a film about Bangladeshis. It all used to be India, one country, so though the languages are different, the customs and culture are the same. If we were Caucasian or from the Western world completely, I think it would have been different and the women wouldn’t have felt so at ease with us and we wouldn’t have had such access. They saw that we understood their world and were familiar with all the struggles they might have to deal with. And we always had a Bangladeshi field producer with us, an associate producer, and that helped a lot, because they spoke the language. Even though Sharmeen and I could understand a little bit of Bengali, there would have been a communication gap.
DP: There were 160 women on this mission, from which you concentrated on three. Did you pick out others as well and found their stories less compelling?
GG: We actually selected five women that we followed till the end. However, one of them was given a job doing paperwork in Haiti and was never outside, so her story didn’t have an arc. The fifth had a story that was less dynamic than the other three, so we didn’t use her, either.
DP: How did you approach your candidates?
GG: We put out a call to all the women and said we would be making a documentary of them and their journey and whoever was interested in participating and being followed by cameras to let us know. Because obviously they had to be willing. About ten women came forward. We did a preliminary interview with all of them and then chose the five who had the most diverse stories and personalities, and also were the most comfortable on camera and would allow us access. It’s really challenging to have a camera in your face for a whole year.
DP: Farida, who is probably your main character, has an interesting background. She had been married once before.
GG: When we started filming, she told us that her father was a policeman who was killed doing his duty. She was the oldest child and ended up filling the role of breadwinner, taking care of her widowed mother and all her brothers and sisters. She had gone into the police against her father’s wishes but that was what saved her family. I love her mother. She is super tough and told her husband, “No, my daughter will work.” True, Farida would marry and become a mother but she’d also work and be independent. Having that job shaped Farida. So that’s the story she told us. We did know she had a son and had remarried, but we didn’t know what happened to her first husband, which was very painful to her. But halfway through our filming in Haiti, as we got closer to her, she finally revealed that her first husband was also killed. Then her in-laws, because of foolish tradition, decided she was a demon and her child was a demon and abandoned her. She felt her job with the police saved her life. She was able to take care of herself and her first child. I’d think someone who has been through so much would just lie down and give up, but she’s so resilient and brave.
DP: She’s a feminist without knowing it.
GG: Yes. I don’t think she’d understand that. She wouldn’t understand her desire to be independent and be able to take care of her family, despite being remarried, as feminism; she would understand it as being practical.
DP: Mousumi is equally impressive.
GG: She’s the one who would understand if you called her a feminist. She knows what that word means. She has my heart—well, they all do—but she has a real concern for women and women’s issues. That’s what drove her to being on the force—she had experienced abuse and wants to help other females who go through that. She has a real desire to build a better future for women and girls in her country, and even outside. Mousumi has a great relationship with her husband, who believes they both should work. I think she had the strongest commitment of the three women to the job in Haiti. She’s a very thoughtful and bright woman.
DP: You third main character is Rehana, who sings, makes jokes, and is into fashion. She is the one I’d least expect to be a police woman.
GG: We loved her because she was funny and bodacious and laughed a lot. At the beginning, I did think she would fit doing the work because she was so outgoing and friendly.
DP: Since they would be away from their families for a year, I imagine that the five women you picked had to negotiate with their husbands, to get them to agree to stay behind and take care of their families on their own.
GG: Absolutely. Some of them obviously weren’t comfortable about their wives leaving them with their kids.
DP: I’d say all of them, with the exception of Mousumi’s husband.
GG: Right, he’s a lovely guy and they have a very egalitarian relationship. Obviously it was a good thing for their wives to be showcased and there was pride that these women were serving their country but the men had an internal dynamic that made them doubt their wives should be in front of the camera rather than spending time with the family. Rehana’s son believed she should stay home.
GG: So did Sharmeen have to wait for the husbands to come around?
GG: Not so much. Basically, the women were told to make sure it was okay with everyone before giving their consent and committing to be in the movie. Everybody was excited to go to Haiti and make good extra money.
DP: Were they excited to be starring in a movie?
GG: Yes! Not all of them, but most of them. They thought it was a great thing. The ones who are police officers are proud of their work and wanted a showcase. However, eventually they got tired of being in front of the camera for a year.
DP: What conversation did you and Sharmeen have at the beginning when deciding the kind of movie you were going to make?
GG: We thought were going to make this film about these “bad-ass” Muslim women going out and doing all this incredible, crazy work. Obviously we had no idea what the logistics would be like, despite the research we did. I hadn’t even been to Haiti. But with all vérité films, you never know what’s going to happen, it’s always a mystery. You don’t control it. The key thing for us was that no matter how the women’s stories played out, it was already significant that they took this peacekeeping job and left Bangladesh for a year.
DP: I bet few of them had been away before, particularly on a plane.
GG: Some had never left their districts. They were so excited to go. The whole thing for them was brand new. Most of them had never been apart from their husbands for more than a night. Mousumi says in the movie, “These are women who go from their father’s house to their husband’s house.” That’s all they know.
DP: So after the scenes in Bangladesh that establish who these women are, they fly across the ocean to Haiti. Is the title of your movie meant to be partly fact and partly metaphor?
GG: The title was taken from Lao Tzu’s quote “Peace is a journey of a thousand miles and it begins with a single step.” Yes, it refers to the actual journey a long way from home, but also it is meant to be a metaphor for the women’s inner journey, how they are affected by their experience.
DP: Were you in Haiti when the 160 women arrived?
GG: No, but Sharmeen was on the plane with them. And then I came.
DP: What was their first impression landing on Caribbean island?
GG: I found it amazing and quite moving that they thought Haiti itself was such a beautiful place.
DP: When you arrived, were you as surprised by the awful conditions in Haiti as they were, since you hadn’t been there either?
GG: I was very surprised. I grew up in India and think of myself as a traveler who’s fairly well schooled, yet I was astonished. There are places in Haiti that are different, but I was unprepared for the conditions in Port-au-Prince, of the poverty, the amount of people still living in camps, and the sewage issues. It’s close to New York but it felt like I had landed in a place that was at war for years, yet it’s not a war zone. And there was corruption and elections that were delayed. I was devastated.
DP: I think part of the shock is that it has been several years since the earthquake and there has been tremendous attention paid to Haiti and a huge relief effort, yet it’s in turmoil.
GG: That was part of it. Where does the money go? Honestly, a whole other film could have been made dealing with an investigation of Haiti and the UN in Haiti. But we wanted to stay with our women, because that’s the story we wanted to tell. I feel the people of Haiti have remarkable patience. There were violent protests, but I’m talking about the daily grind, the daily struggle to survive, and figuring out where you’re going to get your water and food and how you might make a dollar. It’s so dire. And what’s heartbreaking is that the relationship between the Hispanic people and the UN was ruined by the cholera epidemic, which was started by visiting UN peacekeepers.
DP: I’m sure you said at some point, “Once they arrive in Haiti, something had better happen!”
GG: That’s true. The elections were supposed to happen the year we were there. They never happened. They still keep getting postponed. As vérité filmmakers, we were really upset by that. We wanted to see a transformation to what Haiti was meant to be.
DP: Did you worry about what could go wrong?
GG: We thought the women we were closely following might drop out or get injured. And we thought about going to a place that was unstable, where there was a lot of struggle. And the cholera epidemic also threw a wrench into our filming. These women were going to a place where they weren’t welcome. That would make it harder for them.
DP: Were they warned that the people were hostile toward UN workers because of the epidemic?
GG: They were not warned, they didn’t know. As with foot soldiers, the women were told only what the higher powers felt was important for them to know. They had a job, they had to do their duty without asking questions. They could make decisions in the moment but they were not meant to think critically. So there was a lot they didn’t know about–the cholera, the extent of the poverty, how angry the population was, that UN peacekeepers were not welcome. They say in the film, “We were not briefed. We’re just encountering these situations as they are happening.”
DP: Did they know that they were ill-prepared as peacekeepers?
GG: They didn’t know that either. We wondered but we didn’t really know that until we arrived in Haiti, because we weren’t there for the entirety of their training. We didn’t think that was going to be an issue.
DP: How significant was the language barrier?
GG: For them it was a huge problem. They hardly spoke English and at most rudimentary French, so they couldn’t really communicate with the Haitian people. There was meant to be a translator with them at all times but that didn’t happen. They could make some things out, including if someone said someone else was sick or hurt, but it was an issue. The UN really should answer for that. There were issues with the mission.
DP: I’d think in making your movie you were at a disadvantage because you weren’t allowed to really question the women about the mission, because as policemen working for the UN, they can’t express their feelings about what they see without getting into trouble. For instance, you can’t ask them, “Do you feel that you’re on the wrong side when you work for Minustah?”
GG: We did ask them questions. But they were like soldiers and had not been taught to think critically. They didn’t question orders. We put in what they did talk about. They did talk about the fact that they were never briefed. They talked about wishing they knew the language. They talked about the fact that no matter how much they did, the people needed so much more. They talked about how they understood the people’s anger and frustration. They talked about how the people genuinely feared the corrupt Haitian police and believed that if the UN wasn’t there, they would be killed. And they talked about how the people who feared the Haitian police feared them too because they assumed they were the same. There was just a general distrust. All this was new to the women.
DP: So Farida, Mousumi, and Rehana wouldn’t tell you they weren’t allowed to answer your questions, maybe about the UN?
GG: I’d ask, “Don’t you think the UN is messing up here?” And they would just say, “I think the UN is trying to do right.” They believed in the UN mission. It wasn’t their job to analyze things because they were like soldiers who were aware of a hierarchy and just did their duty. I struggled with this and wanted to shake them at times. I was frustrated but they were very proud of what they were doing. In fact, they had to believe in what they were doing.
DP: When the unit first arrives in Haiti, they do a patrol with male security forces and watch as a displacement camp is knocked down although the poor, desperate people who live there have no where else to go. It’s very upsetting but the women say nothing. Could you ask them what they were thinking?
GG: In the scene afterward, they talk about how the UN arranged for camps and fresh water but that it wasn’t enough to significantly help them. What they themselves are expected to do is patrol certain troubled areas and keep the people safe and take them to a hospital if they need it, but they soon realize that they can’t just step in and serve the population and make things better because things are much more complicated than that.
DP: So did you and Sharmeen ever ask each other what the women were thinking that they wouldn’t say to you?
GG: Oh, for sure. But we took into account that they were coming from Bangladesh, not a Western country. And they’re from a country where there’s constant upheaval and uprisings of angry people. In their own country, they deal with riots and strikes. And poverty is nothing new to them. What was surprising to them was that there was poverty in a Western country that was as bad as in Bangladesh. And they were saddened by that. But I think they were less shocked than I was by what they saw in Haiti; because in some ways they are hardened. I think they were surprised by aspects of how the mission was handled and that the UN forces were responsible for bringing cholera to Haiti.
DP: What I see in your movie is that the women eventually—and it may come too late–learned how they could help just by walking the streets and being friendly with the Haitian women and their kids. It’s as if they learned this on their own.
GG: The bond they built with the people came over time. They became much more confident than when they just arrived, when they were like fish out of water. After they got better weapons training from the UN than they had in Bangladesh, they felt much better about what they were meant to be doing in Haiti. They still weren’t up to par but they were good enough to manage.
DP: Did the women ever show the Haitian women and kids pictures of their own kids?
GG: They didn’t do that. But they passed out chocolates. When we filmed, the kids would come out and follow them. When male peacekeepers patrol a camp, nobody wants to talk to them. They might even hide from them. There was actually a desire to talk and to interact with these women. Especially young girls found them interesting.
DP: I’m sure everyone asks you if you think the mission was worth it?
GG: I think so. I think the people at the places they patrolled in Haiti definitely felt safer having them there. They also showed the Haitian females that women can do this kind of work, so that’s empowering. I think the women themselves benefitted greatly from the mission. They were hugely impacted from having had a life experience independent of their husbands and their families, which is completely unusual in their culture. I’m sure they learned an incredible amount of what they’re capable of. And they were able to go back and relate that, as well as relate the gaps in training.
DP: What is the main thing they would say?
GG: I think they would say: “Here is what the job entails. And here’s where we were ill-prepared.” They could talk about not having a translator and not receiving real weapons training before leaving Bangladesh. They had a short re-integration program at which they could easily critique the mission.
DP: Fortunately, the women weren’t put in life or death situations when they were in Haiti. But as a filmmaker, had you hoped for more danger?
GG: I certainly don’t wish for danger, but as a filmmaker you want to see your subjects as active as possible. We were counting on there being elections to shake up things. When we found out they weren’t going to happen, at one point we questioned whether to make the film. Because Haiti isn’t a war zone, we had to ask if these women’s stories were enough for us to make a movie. Fortunately, their stories are incredibly strong. Again, for Muslim women from Bangladesh to take just this step of spending a year away from their families to be peacekeepers in Haiti is tremendous.
DP: Are the three women going to see the movie?
GG: Yes. There is no film festival in Bangladesh but we’ll do a screening for them. We’re going to take it there. I think they’ll be proud. They had a lot of fear about not doing anything that would upset the government.
DP: That’s why I said before that you were limited in what you could ask them. You didn’t want to get them into trouble for criticizing the mission.
GG: But we still asked. It’s interesting that as time went on and they became very comfortable with us, they still didn’t question things. Except for Mousumi.
DP: Her enlightened husband acts as if Mousumi took off for another year that would be no big deal. But Farida’s husband Abdul acts like a baby about it. When she returns home, you place her and her husband Abdul in front of the camera. And he starts crying talking about how much he needs her. He’s such a wimp. What do you think she’s thinking?
GG: What’s terrible is that at every screening I start laughing when I watch him. And Sharmeen always hits me: “Stop it!” He’s just unbelievable. We always thought that Farida’s thinking, “I didn’t sign up for this.” He’s like another child and she has to put up with his nonsense. When she came home, he tried to throw her out and she wouldn’t go. She always stands her ground, which is why I really admire her. Even though her second husband is a pain in the neck, she will not stop working and become the trophy wife he wants her to be. She’s inspiring.
DP: Are you in touch with her?
GG: She got pregnant and either had or is having the baby around now. I guess her husband decided she wasn’t going anywhere.
DP: All three women stayed in their policewomen jobs when they returned to Bangladesh. It again surprises me with Rehana.
GG: Rehana is the heartbreaker to me. At the end she is so subdued because of her grief. Her mother died and she has such guilt for having been away. When she said, “I won’t sing again,” we were all heartbroken, and saying, “How can you live like that?”
DP: Her young son is becoming scarily conservative. Did you meet him?
GG: Sharmeen did and he eventually refused to be on camera because he felt it was not Islamic. When she returns home, he doesn’t even come to greet her. His religious studies were too important.
DP: Is he an extreme case or are there many like him?
GG: Unfortunately, children like him are becoming more common because there is a grassroots movement in Bangladesh. Islamic schools, madrasas, are being set up in rural areas and they recruit children. To parents who have trouble affording school or if schools are far away, a madrasas seems like a good thing—their kids get free lunches and learn Islamic ways. And what happens is that there is a conversion to this more radical form of Islam. This is happening more and more in the countryside. Our team had to convince the head of the madrasa to let us film Rehana’s son for the pre-journey scenes. There was a long protracted argument before there was agreement. However, when I went to Bangladesh to film the scenes of the women returning there, he would no longer film with us.
DP: Did you ask Rehana about her son?
GG: We did. She said in the movie, “We never thought he would go that far, because we’re not like that. We’re a middle class family and we both need to work. This is not how we raised him.” What’s really challenging for women in that society is that you can’t speak out against what he’s doing. It would be like speaking against God. She loves her son, but she doesn’t like that he would like to restrict who she is, even walking around completely covered. She doesn’t want to do that. We didn’t bring this up in the movie but a very prominent person in the madrasa near them is an older male cousin. And they can’t say no to their older male cousin if he wants to groom their son to be a good Muslim. She admits that what her son is doing is changing them. I feel concern for her. It’s frightening. It shows how kids who don’t think they fit in are radicalized. We all felt he was a nerdy kid who probably wasn’t very athletic and didn’t know social skills, and this is how he can fit in somewhere and feel some self-empowerment.
DP: Was it scary for you walking around Bangladesh with your cameras filming Muslim women?
GG: We had females on the crew but we had a male cameraman and that helped. Often times because we were with police officers, we were safe. We didn’t feel threatened.
DP: I’m sure you just read about a progressive Bangladesh publisher being the latest person from the arts community to be assassinated.
GG: I find it heartbreaking and incredibly disturbing. This kind of environment is a product of powerful influences. There’s poverty, the lack of education, the lack of employment for young men—those are reasons men are vulnerable to being recruited to join something that gives them a purpose. It’s also disturbing that these influences are being funded. It’s an attack on the art community and an attack on anything that doesn’t fit into the narrow perspective of conservative Islam. It’s a really dangerous situation where people, particularly artists and political writers, have been murdered. It’s a problem that is getting worse. How do you combat this? The US sends drones over but how do you engage with the people on the ground who are trying to live a life that defies radical Islam. We really must get to know the people whose very existence counters Isis. That’s why I think these stories of the women in the movie are important.
DP: Do you think Bangladesh is become more or less moderate?
GG: Bangladesh is a moderate Muslim country but Wahhabi Islam is coming in. You see that influence on Rehana’s son. There’s conflict. Bangladesh was originally part of India. The people identify as Bengali first and its culture of art and music, where women like Rehana are always singing. Most of India is liberal compared to Islamic countries. As in Pakistan, there is an influx of Wahhabi Islam that comes from the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, highly-funded, extremely conservative. The influx of Wahhabi Islam is threatening the moderate culture that currently exists. Rehana’s son is an example of that. The women face challenges and it’s likely they will increase unless it is figured out how to combat the extremism that is coming in. There has to be a way to maintain what they already have. We wanted to showcase this because it’s critical that these communities that are pockets of moderate Islam where women are allowed to work, be supported and celebrated and encouraged. We all know that the status of women—the freedom they have, how egalitarian it is where they live—determines the status and progress of that society.
DP: How gratifying was it to make this movie?
GG: I think this was a really big endeavor for our first film together. It was a journey for me, too. I learned so much about what makes a film and what doesn’t. I learned how the UN works, I learned where the successes and failures on these missions are. Also, just to be with these women was really inspiring. I don’t know if I would have lasted doing what they were doing. Being away from their families for a year and working fourteen or fifteen hours in a day, back to back to back. Considering the way things are in Bangladesh, I feel a lot of hope.
DP: Has the UN talked to you about your film?
GG: They’re very happy with it, which is surprising. I guess they figured it could be far worse as far as it is concerned. We told them what we thought were the problems with the mission. This film serves as research for them when they’re planning future missions.
DP: Where can people see your movie?
GG: It’s playing at Doc NYC, on Saturday November 14th and Monday 16th. You can find it listed on the Doc NYC website. It will also play in December at the Pan African Film Festival in New York. We’re basically doing the film festival circuit. You can keep track of the film at peacekeepersdoc.com
To see the DOC NYC page with the trailer: http://www.docnyc.net/film/journey-of-a-thousand-miles-peacekeepers-a/#.VkFzIK6rSRs
Geeta Gandbhir is currently working on The Conversation, a series of short films about race in America with the New York Times Op-Docs. Here is the link to the first piece and series.http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/17/opinion/a-conversation-with-my-black-son.html?_r=0
Additionally: Democrats, a super political documentary set in Zimbabwe by Danish director Camilla Nielsson, begins a two-week run on Wednesday November 18 at the Film Forum in NYC. Don’t miss it! She will be doing a Q&A at the 7:10 screening on Wednesday. Read my interview with her for Sag Harbor Express Online from April when it won Best Documentary Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival:http://sagharboronline.com/camilla-nielsson-films-history-as-it-happens-in-zimbabwe-in-democrats/
Also, if you’re a movie fan who also loves baseball or knows a baseball fan in need of a present, I recommend my newest book Baseball Immortal Derek Jeter: A Career in Quotes:http://www.amazon.com/Baseball-Immortal-Career-Quotes-Immortals/dp/1624141625/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1447361233&sr=1-1&keywords=baseball+immortal+derek+jeter+by+danny+peary