Reviewing women-centric cinema in Bangladesh

This week in North Philly Notes, Elora Halim Chowdhury, author of Ethical Encounters: Transnational Feminism, Human Rights, and War Cinema in Bangladesh, writes about female representation in Muktijuddho films.

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A modern remake of Ajoy Kar’s 1961 film Saptapadi, Shameen Akhtar’s film Rina Brown (2017) unfolds intimate geographies of love and loss among individuals from India, and West and East Pakistan. One of few independent women filmmakers in Bangladesh, Akhtar offers a tale about unfulfilled dreams of love and freedom, set in contemporary Bangladesh (or, Dhaka City), that traces the return of Rina, an Anglo-Christian, to the now-independent nation that she left during the Bangladesh Liberation War (or, Muktijuddho). Forty years after the war’s end, Rina comes back to participate in a seminar about women in conflict. She seeks out her adolescent love, Darashiko, a Bengali Muslim freedom-fighter-turned-business-executive. Over the course of a long afternoon, the two reminisce about the fading aspirations of the nationalist struggle and its unreconciled trauma.

Though Rina’s past is indelibly linked to the history of Bangladesh, she is now a stranger whose suffering is incomprehensible to the post-war generation. As the couple look out on the sweeping urban landscape of Dhaka City, and think about what could have been, a vacant footbridge bereft of pedestrians serves as a metaphor to all that the war has torn asunder and imaginary borders, intractably entrenched. War changed everything, yet as Darashiko expresses forlornly, “We could not change the country.”

The poster for Rina Brown

I begin with this vignette from Akhtar’s film—a woman-centered Muktijuddho film—because it highlights what the essays in Ethical Encounters strive to do: reimagine a Muktijuddho gender ideology that through visual culture engages with, disrupts, and incites a new imaginary for gender justice. The collection defies conventional readings of the aesthetics and politics of Muktijuddho narratives. They tell stories of the birth of a nation from its margins, constructing a ‘Bangladeshi’ identity that embraces Bengali Muslims, as well as non-Muslims and non-Bengalis, coalescing into a national cinema that crystallizes an emergent Bangladeshi modernity. Yet at the same time, this modernity also relies on a middle-class and masculinist reading of the nation and its history. Ethical Encounters, inspired by women-centric cinema in Bangladesh, illuminates a feminine aesthetic as well as the politics of disruption and agency, healing, and reconciliation.

The poster for Meherjaan

The attempt to memorialize the varied experiences of women in the Liberation War is a way to advocate for and ingrain their complex, agential roles into the national history. Notably, instead of primarily focusing on state-level negotiations or masculine combat, films in this genre highlight the intimate, domestic, or “feminine” sphere as the site of struggle and meaning. By a “feminine” sphere, I mean those spaces that are usually considered feminized—and thus subordinated—within dominant patriarchal ideology. However, reframed, they can also be read as portrayals of nonconformity, mutuality, and solidarity. By allowing the viewer to remember, imagine, and work through traumatic events such as war and conflict through a feminine aesthetic, cinema can encourages appreciatiation of the moral choices and interpretive acts of women, previously consigned to only the “feminine” sphere, cast as passive victims or witnesses. Women in these films instead make unexpected, sometimes jarring, choices: nursing a wounded enemy soldier; seeking the assistance of a sympathetic Pakistani soldier after having been raped by others like him; and embracing a child of rape even when the nation rejects them. Recognizing these moral choices is a legacy of the war that viewers learn to appreciate through the cinematic medium, and these films are an evolving archive where diverse women’s stories are memorialized, as significant and precious as the memorials and museums the state erects to commemorate martyrs.

These films redefine what humanity, loss, and justice mean for victims, and reconfigure relationships between viewer, witness, and ally. They point to the open wound that 1971 still is, especially for women. This foundational trauma remains constitutive of the nation, and Muktijuddho cinema plays a pivotal role in constructing—and disrupting—the gendered subjectivities beget by the war’s legacy. Women’s cinema, and human rights cinema, capture more broad, transnational visions of feminist filmmaking. They recast the relationships of women to war—as plunder of the nation, as dislodged women from that nation—and question the terms of what constitutes the human in these fraught circumstances.

Ultimately, women-centric Muktijuddho films emplot global human rights narratives and aesthetics that defy reductive and monolithic renditions of social reality. They offer complexity and nuance beyond just a tussle between victims and aggressors, loss and triumph, and colonization and liberation. Simultaneously, they strive for more ethical recognitions, drawing on a multiplicity of histories, struggles, and experiences. Woman-centered films provide an alternative reading toward decolonizing notions of agency, freedom, and justice; they imagine a new kind of feminist knowledge-making.

“I’ll take film for $1000, Alex”

We’ve taken control of North Philly Notes to celebrate its illustrious creator and owner.

His twitter handle is “I’m a twin and a film critic who always has a book in his hand. I also have an opinion, and I’m not afraid to share it.“ That pretty much sums up Temple University Press’s publicity manager Gary Kramer. Gary has worked at the Press for almost 20 years and before that he had a brief stint at Princeton U. Press. At Temple, he’s responsible for the preparation of copy for book jackets, catalogs, and press releases as well as securing advance promotional statements from various academics. He plans and coordinates publicity activities for all Press books and participates in the development of marketing strategies. He compiles and produces a weekly update e-mail titled “News of the Week,” which informs our mailing list subscribers of the authors in the news, appearances, reviews published that week, and any new blog entries on our North Philly Notes blog site. He’s incredibly hard-working, smart, and engaging with amazing skills and abilities. He is also witty and imaginative. He responds to emails with lightning speed, and maintains such good relations with authors that oftentimes authors write him before they even approach their acquisitions editor.

GarywithBookBut Gary has much more going on beyond his work at the Press. He’s the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews and co-author of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. He’s also a film critic whose blurbs often adorn movie ads in the pages of the New York Times. Ask him any question about a film and he knows the answer; if you don’t know the name of the film just give him one actor’s name and a one sentence description of the film and he’ll name the film.

Gary exemplifies everything we love about university press publishing.  He gives his all to the Press and our authors, he’s a published author, and his film reviews are read by moviegoers worldwide.

Jeopardy anyone?

Celebrating Temple University Press Books at the Association for Asian American Studies conference

This week in North Philly Notes, we spotlight our new Asian American titles, which will be on display at the Association for Asian American Studies conference, April 25-27 in Madison, Wisconsin. Several Temple University Press titles will be celebrated at a reception for new books on Thursday, April 25, at 6:00 pm in the Madison Concourse Hotel.

But wait, there’s more!…

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Temple University Press is hosting a reception at 2:00 pm on Friday, April 26 to celebrate 50 years of publishing. Our Asian American History and Culture series editors are expected to attend.

 

Temple University Press titles in Asian American Studies for 2018-2019

From Confinement to Containment: Japanese/American Arts during the Early Cold Warby Edward Tang, examines the work of four Japanese and Japanese/American artists and writers during this period: the novelist Hanama Tasaki, the actor Yamaguchi Yoshiko, the painter Henry Sugimoto, and the children’s author Yoshiko Uchida. Tang shows how the film, art, and literature made by these artists revealed to the American public the linked processes of U.S. actions at home and abroad. Their work played into—but also challenged—the postwar rehabilitated images of Japan and Japanese Americans as it focused on the history of transpacific relations such as Japanese immigration to the United States, the Asia-Pacific War, U.S. and Japanese imperialism, and the wartime confinement of Japanese Americans.

Anna May Wong: Performing the Modernby Shirley Jennifer Lim, re-evaluates the pioneering Chinese American actress Anna May Wong who made more than sixty films, headlined theater and vaudeville productions, and even starred in her own television show. Her work helped shape racial modernity as she embodied the dominant image of Chinese and, more generally, “Oriental” women between 1925 and 1940. Lim scrutinizes Wong’s cultural production and self-fashioning to provide a new understanding of the actress’s career as an ingenious creative artist.

America’s Vietnam: The Longue Durée of U.S. Literature and Empireby Marguerite Nguyen, challenges the prevailing genealogy of Vietnam’s emergence in the American imagination—one that presupposes the Vietnam War as the starting point of meaningful Vietnamese-U.S. political and cultural involvements. Examining literature from as early as the 1820s, Marguerite Nguyen takes a comparative, long historical approach to interpreting constructions of Vietnam in American literature. She analyzes works in various genres published in English and Vietnamese by Monique Truong and Michael Herr as well as lesser-known writers such as John White, Harry Hervey, and Võ Phiến. America’s Vietnam recounts a mostly unexamined story of Southeast Asia’s lasting and varied influence on U.S. aesthetic and political concerns.

Where I Have Never Been: Migration, Melancholia, and Memory in Asian American Narratives of Return, by Patricia P. Chu. In researching accounts of diasporic Chinese offspring who returned to their parents’ ancestral country, author Patricia Chu learned that she was not alone in the experience of growing up in America with an abstract affinity to an ancestral homeland and community. The bittersweet emotions she had are shared in Asian American literature that depicts migration-related melancholia, contests official histories, and portrays Asian American families as flexible and transpacific. Where I Have Never Been explores the tropes of return, tracing both literal return visits by Asian emigrants and symbolic “returns”: first visits by diasporic offspring. Chu argues that these Asian American narratives seek to remedy widely held anxieties about cultural loss and the erasure of personal and family histories from public memory.

Sticky Rice: A Politics of Intraracial Desire, by Cynthia Wu, examines representations of same-sex desires and intraracial intimacies in some of the most widely read pieces of Asian American literature. Analyzing canonical works such as John Okada’s No-No Boy, Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt, H. T. Tsiang’s And China Has Hands, and Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Blu’s Hanging, as well as Philip Kan Gotanda’s play, Yankee Dawg You Die, Wu considers how male relationships in these texts blur the boundaries among the homosocial, the homoerotic, and the homosexual in ways that lie beyond our concepts of modern gay identity. Wu lays bare the trope of male same-sex desires that grapple with how Asian America’s internal divides can be resolved in order to resist assimilation.

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