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For our latest Screen Southasia Q and A session, recorded on 3 July 2023, we speak with Shaheen Dill-Riaz, director of the documentary film ‘Sand and Water’ – which follows the lives and experiences of natives of Char Islands in Bangladesh.
Film synopsis: The middle section of the Jamuna, one of the three main rivers in Bangladesh, is called ‘the deadly paradise’. This part of northern Bangladesh is home of the Gabshara Union, a small district comprising a group of tiny islands. Sand and Water shows how the people of these islands live in the most extreme natural conditions and cope with the ‘moods’ of Jamuna, which also provides them with their livelihood and fertile islands. Dill-Riaz describes this fragile world from a personal point of view using poetic images.
This is a machine-generated transcript of the event and may contain inaccuracies. For exactness, please refer to the recording.
Sana Amir: Hello, welcome everyone. I’m Sana Amir and this is Screen Southasia and this weekend we have the pleasure to screen ‘Sand and Water’ by Shaheen Dill-Riaz which was on the live and experience of Chauras, the people of Char Islands Bangladesh and before we begin I would like our editor, Roman Gautam to start with a welcome note.
Roman Gautam: Sana, thank you so much, Alok also. I’ll keep it very short. I am not the star of the show here. The co-stars are Sana and Alok and of course the main star is Shaheen. Thank you so much for taking the time to be here with us but also more importantly for letting us share the film and screen it, and also for making it. It’s such a spectacular piece of filmmaking. I watched it over the weekend and the music especially for me, as someone who listens to a lot of music, has stuck in my head. That passage that Sana just played for me was probably the most memorable one in the entire film but so much else of it as well. Thank you for making such a spectacular film. Thank you for being here with us to all of you who are joining us for Screen South Asia. Thank you for watching. Thank you for joining us for this conversation. Sana, Alok, back to you.
Alok Adhikari: Thank you, Roman. I’m going to quickly introduce Shaheen. It’s so wonderful to have you here. Shaheen Dill-Riaz was born in Dhaka in 1969. He spent most of his childhood in a small village on the coast of the Bay of Bengal until his parents sent him to a military academy. Shaheen moved to Berlin in the early 90s to study art history and theatrical science. He later enrolled at the University of Film & Television Konrad Wolf Potsdam-Babelsberg, where he graduated in cinematography with his feature-length film Sand and Water (2002).
Now based in Berlin, Shaheen works as an independent filmmaker, director and writer in Europe and Asia. Almost all of his films have been released as feature-length documentaries in German movie theaters, and most were broadcast on German national television as well. Those include The Happiest People (2005), the critically acclaimed film Ironeaters (2008), which earned Dill-Riaz the renowned Grimme Award. More successful films followed, such as Korankinder (2009), The Networker (2011) and Distant Fortune (2015) among others. Shaheen’s latest film, Bamboo Stories (2019) won the Ram Bahadur Trophy for Best Film at Film Southasia 2019.
Sana: Welcome Shaheen, and to those who joined us, also live on Facebook. So let’s begin. Shaheen, in the beginning of the film, you mention that people would use this word like “Don’t be a Chaura.” What does it actually mean and what led you to want to tell the story of the Chauras?
Shaheen Dill-Riaz: First of all, thank you very much for showing the film and inviting me for this conversation. I’m really feel privileged to be in association with Himal because many of my films have been shown in Himal Film Festival and Film Southasia. And unfortunately I was never able to be there personally but, my films were shown and I’m really very grateful to have this access through you, through your initiative. And this is also a wonderful chance to be in touch with the audience in such a wide range. And showing this film, most of all, after such a long time. It was 34 years back that we showed the film and it’s really amazing to see that it still resonates, and people feel the importance and the relevance of this film. People feel that there is personal note in the film, they think that I have kind of personal relationship to this content. The thing that I mentioned is a kind of myth that existed and it still exists about the Chauras, that they are a different kind of people and the hostility, that the nature creates in this life, in this landscape, river landscape has something, to do with these people, it has an impact on the people. And that’s why people think that there must be something special about these people. There are prejudices, of course, because the mainland people always, of course, have their interests and try to settle things when a dispute comes about land. And it’s a big issue, the land issue. So the question is how do the Chauras solve this problem?
So there are myths and stories that Chauras actually get violent when they want to take possession of a piece of land. But it was probably a very, very old myth. Very, very old stories which existed, but nowadays it is not at all an issue of dispute, because everybody has documents and everyone can really even say “this is my piece of land,” even if you see only water everywhere. But still this social phenomena existed and the mainland people do think that Chauras are maybe violent. And of course the vice versa, the Chauras also have their prejudices about the mainland people. And in the conversation in the boat just before this song that you have shown, it was also clear that people do see the mainland people in different eyes or they have different experiences about the habits and characteristics of the mainland people. So, these are the things that existed then still exist among the people about the Chauras. That’s what I wanted to point it out, but the reference to the childhood was exactly what I heard also because this misbehave, this rudeness is kind of a brand mark of the Chauras which not at all true. I mean, I experience those people since two decades, more than two decades. I have also shot another film last year, in 2021, and it was really amazing to be there and this friendly and cooperative and nice people living in this spatial geographical context.
Alok: Thank you, Shaheen. So early on in the film, we were told that like the Jamuna didn’t always behave like this and like at one point they say it’s like the river used to be so far away and now it changed its course in the last 25 years or so. Could you say a bit more about what possibly led the river to change its course?
Shaheen: Well, that’s a difficult question because it’s really a geographical and very specific question for experts who knows about the river behaviors. But what I heard during my research and during my shooting in all these years, again and again, people who are river engineers and geologists, they all say that it’s nothing surprising because for Jamuna or Brahmaputra itself, it is said that the character of this river is like that. It’s a flat river, it’s not deep and it blooms depending on the water flow and of course the sediment and it is flowing since centuries in a very flexible way. That means it might change its course or it might move around on its track and that’s why as you can see in satellite photos, it’s really huge, very wide and if the water quantity rises and the force of the current rises. automatically it erodes in both the sides depending which part is really having the force and which part is the mud or the earth. This is a typical character of Brahmaputra, and its entire path, especially after it leaves Nepal or China and enters India, the flat end, till the bay of Bengal. So this is a characteristic that existed. That is not really a specific reason why it is more in certain years and devastating some of the parts, but there are of course particular reasons in some areas: like for this bridge that was built, they had to force the river to flow in a certain direction and squeeze it together. So the reason they used to hear on this spot is these embankments is one of the reasons why it got worse, especially in this area just before the bridge. There are some that are protecting their land, and there is this huge embankment project which is good for the mainland people of course but it has some consequences: the water force tries to go in different directions to make a make a branch out of the main river. So this is a typical characteristic of Brahmaputra that happens, and the bridge building and embankment building of course enhances this character.
Sana: I will share a clip from a film and then I want to refer to that by my next question. There is this section where he talks about the prophet Khiz-Khizir who has workers who dig soil. Towards the end we also have a sequence of Zikir and dancing by fakirs. Could you explain the significance of these sections?
Shaheen: As you remarked, the beginning of the film starts with a myth of Brahmaputra. It’s interesting to have this in the film through this story from this guy, because I didn’t know him of course. And it is really interesting again and again for me to experience this among the people who have these kind of stories, and live in their culture, in their day-to-day life. As you could hear he was saying that I haven’t seen it, but it’s true. And that’s a really interesting statement. What is actually truth for them, or what does he mean that it’s true but I haven’t seen it? These myths and stories, also this spirituality that you can feel through the sounds that are for kids. This is something that exists in many cultures and especially people who are very much affected by nature, are very much connected to nature. It might be a mountain. It might be sea. It might be a forest or it might be a river. And they kind of have the necessity to have an explanation but it is not a rational explanation. It’s kind of how does it make sense that we are having these calamities or these fortunes. So they make stories out of it, or the story emerges. And all these epics and also the Mahabharata, they are the necessary element of the living culture of these people. This is the main aspect of these stories and of these myths. But to find out scientific explanations for these kinds of events that may take place, they are unable to or they don’t have the vast knowledge that scientists have. So, they have their explanation in these stories, in these myths, and this is something very essential and a very utmost part of their reality. For us people who don’t live in this spiritual kind of reality, it is not a very serious thing, but for them it is something very serious and they confront it that way.
Alok: I really enjoyed that scene I watched it a couple of times. Some of the other people really seem to claim to be happy, ‘this is where I want to be’. This conditioning where it feels like they have also surrendered to the situation, to the river, to the sand, like they’re trying to make the best of their terrible situation and want to be happy however they can. But why do you think that sense of resilience, but also that contradiction exists. What is your analysis of like how they feel about themselves and what they live?
Shaheen: Well for me, for us mainland people, if I call myself that, it’s difficult to really grasp the real feeling of how they really feel. I can only speculate about those people because I observed them quite a long time. I also in 2021 made another film on this area and I have the impression that the resilience that they have, it is actually nothing unusual. You can find it in the coastal area. For example, in the mountain area, people on the one hand surrender to the nature, and on the other hand they actually are in a battle with the nature. This is a kind of balance that they try to maintain in their life, where sometimes they try to conquer the force of the nature, or at least make his space and take his things to survive, but on the other hand he lets this nature reveal or rule over their life. This is my very personal feeling when I observe them and this is the beauty of this game that they are playing with each other. It belongs also to these stories, to this explanation, or to this exaggeration of things. For example, he’s saying it’s wonderful here, it’s beautiful it’s comfortable. Part it is true but this is not the real, the complete truth. But still he is thankful because the whole existence of these people is actually dependent on this riverbed: the sediment they can grow plants, they grow the berries. They really don’t have to go anywhere else for their basic needs if you have a little bit of land. If you are lucky the land comes out of the water now and then, then you can actually survive there because it grows so well. You could see in the second film that we made where I let them speak especially about the agricultural part of it and it’s really amazing that this new protagonist who is just a 23 year old and he’s actually the nephew of this man who is walking with his wife on the riverbed. And he is actually even more adamant to stay on the Char than this person. So I could see really that generation after generation is the feeling, this emotional connection to this land, or to this river, is extremely visible. And this bond, I don’t think it will ever go away. Because this 23 year old guy he’s educated well enough he could actually go to the city and get a job, and he had a job, but he quit this job and he loves to be a farmer and with a heart and soul. So these kind of characters do exist in these Char areas and they are in a kind of not harmony but in a kind of arrangement with the nature that they are living in. And this is not really a romanticizing image, it is lot of struggle, it’s a lot of fight, but it’s still a relationship and relationship is always with complications even among the nature and human being.
Sana: Thanks Shaheen, We would like to understand the role of state machinery in Char Islands. Could you comment on it? I am asking because there is also a section in the film where a woman says “people like you do nothing but take pictures all the time” probably referring to the camera or maybe to the media and the state in general.
Shaheen: It is still true, because the media and the government only come in the Char area when there is a problem, when there’s a conflict, when there is something serious is going on. For example, recently there was an issue about sand grabbing which was done, according to Chauras, with the pretext that they want to deepen the river so that it can flow properly. Which is really not the real reason because taking away the sand from the river especially in Jamuna means you actually taking away the land of these people, because this is not only sand just randomly lying there, it is the earth that will be cultivated after the water is gone. And the government just ignored it and they implemented or partly implemented their idea. And we know through the research that actually the main reason why they dig around in Jamuna is that there is a huge syndicate who are selling this sand for construction purpose. So the real issues that are being taken care of, or should be taken care of, are actually the people themselves. The only thing that the government does regularly is collect the taxes, because even if the land is under water they have their document. They always have to pay tax, otherwise the government will seize those lines. And recently an idea came to ensure electric supply on the char islands, which is not really understandable because it is dangerous to bring direct electric line on the Char because it’s middle of the river and it can erode anytime. There is no guarantee and it will be really dangerous to have this high voltage cable in the water and nobody can guarantee it, but the initiative has been done and the pillars are already there but the electricity is not running properly. But the other solution could be actually solar energy, which is very effective for the Chauras. They privately manage to buy these solar panels and they can live with these power sources very well, but for these kind of things they is not that much support from the government. But it is really not clear whether the state wants these people having a better life. With some facilities, it would be really effective for them. But when the flood comes and the relief material has to be distributed, then the government or the NGOs come there and distribute some help and support but for long term solutions of some problems, some things that should be taken care, there is not enough help from their state.
Alok: There are a lot of dialogues in the film where people talk about inheritance of land and ownership of land. Many have lost their parts of land but they come back when the water recedes. Some people also build houses on someone else’s land. Could you talk a little bit about land ownership in Chars and if and how politics and power impact ownership and exploitation of Chauras?
Shaheen: Well the attitude towards land ownership also changed in the last 20-30 years. Earlier it was not that easy to prove that land belongs to you. You need a document which is a paper, and there were cases where these documents were burned allegedly because of an accident, but then later came out that that was deliberately done. So these kind of things happen and that was really vulnerable, but nowadays it’s all digitized you can really have this document somewhere. If you want you can collect it and you can prove that your land is there or the ownership could be handed over to the next generation, this is not a problem anymore, but earlier it was much more difficult. And there was also not a big issue about owning the land 20-30 years back, people were more flexible, there was enough land there and people were not that scared about losing the ownership. For example, if you allow some person not your family, and his house is demolished by the river erosion, the family could build a house there and it’s still possible, but the scary thing nowadays is people think that if you let him stay too long he might claim that this is his own land. There’s also some laws that would allow it which is of course half his reason but this context of human relationship that has changed, this trust that I will allow my neighbor to stay in my land, is not that secured anymore. You know people are scary and that’s why they’re trying to avoid it, or they try to not to easily allow somebody to stay there. I could observe during my last shooting this kind of sensitivity that had grown, and there’s also a tendency of selling the land. That means selling the sand. Grab sand out of it and sell it. It’s also a development in the main land that many farmers don’t see any point of cultivating anymore because he can sell part of this land and get a huge amount of money. So these kind of tendencies grew and the relationship to the land ownership and dealing with it among the people have changed a lot that’s my personal observation recently
Sana: In one of the interviews online on the film, you mentioned that you don’t consider your film as in the category of “environment documentaries”. Why is it so?
Shaheen: Well I made this film to explore something, and re-film and it’s a kind of journey. Either I want to go to a particular area I never been to or I want to especially because I know this area or I know these people. It’s actually my own personal journey to explore something: either to meet these people or to experience the human relationship among the people, and with the nature. But nature is always there, I mean human being is also part of nature, so I never actually considered this journey to be specifically exploring environmental film in that sense. I mean 20 years back it has also a different definition than today. I used to say that it’s not a typical environmental film, I actually wanted to make a film because I was personally interested to know about these people, how they live, and I really spent time with them and I always try to emphasize that actually my personal gain from this adventure of making a film is huge for my own life. And I get 90% of it for my personal private experience and the 10% I can probably put it in the film, so that’s a huge privilege for me. And you can call this film whatever you like, environmental film, or ecological film, or film about the working world. Some people think that I always come again and again in a sphere of working people who are working in the nature or with the nature or against the nature, but this is all kind of coincident. I actually follow my curiosity and interest and it comes from all possible sources
Alok: So this was your first film, your first feature in film at least, referring to the camera work and storytelling style, how did you plan the shoot? Who all were you in touch with? And how long did it take to complete the film?
Shaheen: The research of this film from my side was completely zero. I couldn’t research especially for the film as a filmmaker, but I had support from a German anthropologist who had been working on this area for quite a long time. She was also part of the project and contributed through her expertise and that was a great help that I could utilize for the film. But as a filmmaker, I was actually not prepared to shoot the film the way I shoot nowadays because I was a cinematography student. I was not really supposed to make my own film it was just my own wish, and my professor and the department allowed me to do that but they were not really expecting a completely edited film. They said, well you can try but it’s not important that you edit the film and it should be a complete film, it’s enough you just collect some footage and show your cinematographic expertise and what you learned and that would be enough. But I was ambitious and I wanted to make a film out of it, and the basic attitude for me was really that I was a very enthusiastic cinematographer who was observing everything and the director was not really present. I mean a director should actually be conscious about what he is doing what he’s doing, how he’s going to edit, or what is the plan. Nothing was there. I was actually a cinematographer who was allowed to do anything he wants because there was no director. The material that I collected was three weeks in the monsoon, and three weeks in winter. It was 1998. Monsoon was August July, and then February 1999 we came back with the material and as we started editing with my German editor, at that time he used to study in the film school as well, he couldn’t speak a single word Bengali, so I translated everything and he was very patient and really thorough. But it took a very long time to edit the complete film and during the editing I could feel that that was really not very clever to shoot just randomly and my editor was also struggling to give an structure to the film. But the advantage was because there was no structure in advance, because there was no real guideline to follow the shooting, we had a very interesting atmosphere in the film. You don’t have a linear story that follows a protagonist or a development, you just actually have this river and the changes in these two particular period of time and you have some excerpts out of the life of these people who are living there. Nothing else. But still we made through some kind of arrangement a structure that kind of flows that goes till the end. You can feel that tension can be grabbed can be caught till the end of the film. So it followed, although the television people who saw the film later said it was not enough. They say it’s too loose there’s no real structure, but cineastes did like this film very much especially the festivals. All the audience could connect to this lucid structure of the film because that’s life actually in this area. There is no particular structured timeline that you could follow if you live there, or if you experience this life. So that’s why it was kind of adaptable, compatible with the experience of the people. But it was not a kind of narrative structure that normally I have in in my later works and it took in total four years to finish the film. We had gaps because during that time we shot other films, my editor had to do other jobs as well, so it was very slow
Sana: The residents of Char island talk about ‘found songs’ that they picked up for themselves. Were these oral histories something you intended to collect or feature in the documentary from the outset, or was this also something you encountered while filming?
Shaheen: I was there, I didn’t have any clue how I going to shoot or edit the film, but I knew that I was curious about this life in these moments. So I had a sensitivity as a cinematographer to take the moment that is important and tell something about these people in this area. That was the only criteria that I had, so I was collecting material and through this attitude it came to 35 hours of material all together: a winter and monsoon. And we made the film out of it, so this collection came actually out of necessity, out of the situation that I was in.
Alok: You mentioned another film on Chars which you made after 20 years. Could you talk a little about that?
Shaheen: This time the film was commissioned by, and they had a series of particular documentaries under the name of Wonder of the World that actually focuses on some particular areas where people live a kind of unusual life. It could be nature conditions, it could be just the lifestyle of those people. So they were interested in Sand and Water, they had seen Sand and Water, and they say that maybe you can make a TV compatible formatted documentary on the same topic because the film is a few years old or more than two years old. It was of course a cinematic work which is more for cinemas but we want a formatted documentary but on the same content, and you have to follow the standards that we have in the format. So it’s an interesting approach and I never did something like that but I wanted to try. I must say I don’t like it that much because of there is one explanation that they want information and less observation and less personal. I mean not at all personally, it shouldn’t be at all present in the film. And that’s the way I had to do this film and I was shooting in 2021 and at monsoon 2021 and then beginning of 2022 and I went exactly the same area but this village was completely gone. I mean the people came to another place because the whole area that we shot in Sand and Water did not exist anymore on this spot but the moved to the mainland some people are still living there and the interesting thing for me was the communication had changed a lot because people have motorbikes now on the sand. They have solar energies for running television, freezer and everything. I mean they can do actually anything. Also the protagonist in the film who does outsourcing jobs via internet, sitting on the Char, and driving his laptop with the solar panel and the electric supply, which was at least initiated by the government so people are not that isolated anymore as they were in the 90s or beginning of 2000. And now they are really very much connected to the mainland it is not an issue anymore to get people to the mainland or people coming to the Chars. It is still of course hard travel depending on how much water you have on the river or how much dry sand you have on the surface. And the agriculture hadn’t changed that much because people always trying to cope with rhythm of the river. The interesting thing was this time we didn’t have flooding experience that much, people were actually waiting for flood because if flood don’t come the sediment don’t get to the soil and also the grass grows on the new charts and they have to eliminate this grass to cultivate on this land again. So it is more difficult, so flooding is actually necessary for them as well. For the communications and watering, all this rhythm has changed through climate change, you can also see the effect of climate and directly on the Chauras, or the rhythm of these Chauras. The heat temperature rose extremely high, people are complaining so there are a lot of changes they could see in both the context of climate change, and also in the context of the general lifestyle and the so-called civilization movement that took place in the last two-three decades.
Sana: The global south is the most impacted by climate change especially countries like Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. This has also led to a lot of push and funding in reporting and storytelling on related topics. Do you have any tips and tricks on how to shoot stories on climate change in Southasia, what should one keep in mind while covering such stories?
Shaheen: There’s a problem of shooting films in certain issues, you know people in the coastal areas complain that a lot of documentary filmmakers come from BBC or AlJazeera or some other plot-casing companies, and they try to hear a certain story. They have this narrative of climate change in the coastal area, I am giving just an example, and the people say that I was in coastal area, I was looking for other things, but they told me that you know the situation here, salinity is one problem, but more difficult problem is the industrialization of films of this culture that rose in eighties. So people are actually more interested to talk about that, but since the project or the commissioned work comes from these broadcasters, and they want to cover the story on the context of climate change, they don’t want to hear those things they want to hear actually this is climate change, the reason that spoiled our soil and as a farmer I cannot survive anymore. But the farmers themselves would also want to say that it’s the industrialization that is going on. There is a huge range of prawn industry that is growing there from the eighties actually, that changed the entire life of those people, so there is a problem that people come there with the narrative they want to hear. The other problem is people are scared to talk about certain things because of power structure. In the char areas people are scared about talking against this electrification that the government is running, sand grabbing from the river. If we concentrate on the life of the people and if you observe them, you can automatically see what’s really happening, you don’t need to blame anybody directly, and I also had this experience with the shipping industry where we worked on the ships and the working condition. There’s also this environmental issue of course and but we never talk about this in the film, but still the film was awarded several times in environmental festivals because of this environmental aspect. But we never talk and spoke about it in the film. But of course it is visible everywhere so these are the two things that the filmmakers should be conscious about when they address this kind of content in production.
Alok: Is there something about stories with water and rivers that attract you? I ask because your last film to be screened at FSA was Bamboo Stories which won the Ram Bahadur Trophy for Best Film at FSA’19 which follows a 300 kilometre long on a 70 meter long raft with 25000 bamboo trees.
Shaheen: Well I was not that conscious of the beginning, but I am like all Bengalis. especially people living in this delta, influenced by water, the river. Our food habit, our cultural base, is actually nourished by river landscapes, even if we don’t live close to the river. River’s always there and the effect of the river is there, and the sea of course also. So it is automatically part of our life, we are not really conscious about how deep it’s rooted in our culture. It comes automatically, exposes itself automatically, either literature or in paintings, or whatever you do in any art form, even in architecture, that will reflect the core of our living condition here in this delta. I’m not an exception to that but of course through these several works again and again I came to water again and again. But I was not really intentional looking for topics that had to do something with water, it’s just a constant, but anyway what is a constant.