‘Cinemata Features’ is a series highlighting film practitioners in the Asia-Pacific – filmmakers, film groups, curators, critics, and archivists – who create and disseminate social and environmental issue films in the region.
In this fifth feature, Cinemata puts a spotlight on Zayed Siddiki, an award-winning independent filmmaker, human rights defender, and development communications professional based in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Zayed has a postgraduate degree in TV, Film and Photography from the University of Dhaka. His films have been screened in various international film festivals in South Korea, India, Bangladesh, Romania, Turkey, and the Philippines, among many others. His area of work includes right to information and communication justice, media freedom, good governance and transparency, privacy rights and data protection, and freedom of expression.
EngageMedia [EM]: What is it like working as an independent filmmaker in Bangladesh? What are some of your notable works?
Zayed Siddiki [ZS]: Bangladesh is a land of stories. Whatever form of art you practice, you will always find fascinating stories here to weave into your craft. The environment around you can provide a thousand elements for artists and filmmakers to make their films, whether they are documentary or fiction, because there is a rich and diverse culture and tradition here; a huge population, beautiful landscapes and people’s struggles, sorrows, joys, and celebrations along with it.
In Bangladesh, things are hard for independent filmmakers. If your stories are politically, socially, or religiously sensitive, you’ll always be fearful of censorship and criminalisation of your thoughts especially because of the Digital Security Act (DSA). As a result, artistic freedom is hindered, and self-censorship is a reality. We also face resource scarcity when it comes to making films, as they are the most expensive form of art and require a lot of funding compared to other art forms.
Thematically, my films deal with socio-political issues, and so far I have made nine short fiction and documentary films. Other than this, as a development communications expert, I have produced more than 20 development documentary films, and they often portray the topics of freedom of expression, human rights, etc.
My notable films include Tale of an Ecliptic Time (2018) which criticised global terrorism and was an official selection in 15 international film festivals and won three awards. Colorkite (2014), about a slum child’s dream to attend school, was selected for 23 international film festivals and won seven awards. A street child’s struggle to earn a livelihood was highlighted in Dream Lithe (2016), which was selected in seven film festivals. A documentary film about the lives, livelihood, and social struggles of garbage pickers in Dhaka city, Lives Behind Garbage (2013), won a best film award and was selected by three international film festivals.
My latest short documentary, In Expedition to Happiness (2022), is more of a spiritual film searching for happiness on a backdrop of religious cohesion. It has so far won a best film award and screened in three international film festivals.
EM: Your films touch on urgent issues on human rights, digital rights, and media freedom. Can you share more about your interest in these areas, and what prompted you to pursue these complex yet relevant topics?
ZS: Personally, I’m very conscious of socio-political issues around me, and this influences my decision to make films about such topics. I am aware that making films on sensitive socio-political issues brings many difficulties and challenges.
As a filmmaker, I believe portraying time is very important because it tells the realities of your society, the struggles and problems people face; it’s a sign of the times we live in.
In addition, film is one of the most effective tools for disseminating information and raising questions that build a sense of awareness and resilience among people and assist in transforming society for the better.
EM: How has your work in the development communications sector influenced your own filmmaking practice?
ZS: My experience in development communications helped me gain a deeper understanding of Bangladeshi society, its socio-political, socio-economic, religious and cultural dynamics. Travelling across the country and meeting people from the metropolis to the grassroots builds my understanding of people and their problems as part of my job.
In addition, it provided access to the intellectual, activist, and development community for making films about social and political issues.
EM: What were some of the biggest challenges you encountered in making your films? How did you work around them?
ZS: It is often challenging for independent filmmakers to film in sensitive locations, including those owned by public and private entities, due to the requirement for prior permission. Permissions are also a lengthy and tiring process. To obtain them, you need connections and contacts.
When shooting in the community, however, the people are very supportive, and they offer assistance. That’s how we manage to film. Sometimes we have to disguise ourselves while filming.
EM: How has Cinemata supported your work as a filmmaker in terms of outreach to various networks? Tell us about your collaborations with Cinemata and what the experience was like.
ZS: Cinemata is a unique platform that curates social issue films in Asia and the Pacific. I have several films available on Cinemata that help me connect with a large number of focused audiences in the Asia-Pacific region as well as different activist networks working on social and human rights issues.
The ability to reach out to new audiences and build solidarity networks with your films is always great, and this gives you more strength and motivation to make better films in the future.
For instance, Shrinking Civic Space in Bangladesh (2022), one of my political documentaries, will be screened at the DRAPAC23 Assembly in Chiang Mai, Thailand, later this month under the Cinemata Big Screen program. As a filmmaker, it’s a great joy for me to screen my film in front of new and large audiences and interact with them, which wouldn’t be possible without a platform like Cinemata.
EM: Networks and partnerships between filmmakers and film programmers are vital in solidarity building, co-producing, sharing resources, and distributing works. What do you think is the role of video platforms like Cinemata in building a community of Asia-Pacific social issue filmmakers and audiences?
ZS: When it comes to making films and showcasing them, filmmaking is a networking job; it requires collaborations and partnerships. Nevertheless, finding the right network for resource acquisition and distribution is a very complex job for a filmmaker.
These tiring and complex jobs can be made easier with Cinemata-like platforms providing a solid platform and establishing a community of filmmakers who can support each other. Additionally, Cinemata helps filmmakers connect with new audiences and networks by helping promote their films to film festivals and streaming them online.
EM: What are you currently working on?
ZS: There are three films in various stages of production that I’m working on at the moment. Among them, Delta of Despair, is a political short documentary which is a sequel to my previous documentary Shrinking Civic Space in Bangladesh (2022). The documentary focuses on press freedom, artistic freedom, the application of the DSA on artists and journalists, freedom on the net/social media, self-censorship, and freedom of academics in Bangladesh. The film is in post-production and is expected to be completed by June 2023 and will be curated on Cinemata. I also hope that Cinemata will promote the film to relevant film festivals and platforms for screening.
The other two are fiction films titled Raven and Necrophile. Raven is a short fiction drama, which is in the final stages of post-production and is expected to begin its festival journey in the last quarter of this year.
Necrophile is a feature-length psychological thriller drama which was among the 10 selected South Asian projects in West Meets East Screenplay Lab this year at the Dhaka International Film Festival. This film is in the mid-development process, and we are currently working on the second draft of the script. It revolves around the psychological exploration of a young hospital morgue attendant who gradually becomes necrophiliac. I’m participating in different screenwriting labs and co-production markets with this project around the world and expect to begin its production phase in 2024.
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