Time and time again they have risen up against persecution and violence. They have fought for the abolition of slavery and run the underground railroad. They have struggled for equal rights for women and promoted peace. But what do Quakers have to do with Bangladesh’s independence struggle? The Blockade documentary tells the David-versus-Goliath story of how Bangladeshi expats and Quaker peace activists came together in 1971. Together, they changed US policies and stopped military aid to Pakistan.
The story In March 1971, news broke about the campaign of atrocities that the Pakistan army had unleashed on its Bengali counterparts in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). A young Bengali expat in the US, Sultana Alam, was filled with anguish as she followed the news from afar. She couldn’t feel content for the newborn she had just brought home. After all, the rest of her family was in Dhaka, living in the midst of an unspeakable horror. Meanwhile, her adoptive country was not only turning a blind eye to the massacre of Bengalis, the Nixon-Kissinger administration was, in fact, secretly supplying the Pakistani dictatorship with arms and ammunition.
Sultana felt compelled to do something about it. She decided to go through the telephone directory and make a hundred calls a day till a movement gelled. Eventually, she found allies in two young Quaker activists. Richard Taylor and Bill Moyer had been the staff of Dr Martin Luther King's civil rights organisation in the 1960s.
The Blockade captures the story of how Bangladeshi expats (like Sultana) and Quaker peace activists joined forces to stop US military aid to Pakistan. Armed with just canoes and kayaks, they blockaded Pakistani freighters carrying ammunition. In cities across the US, they organised peaceful demonstrations. The lobbyists among them put pressure on congress to ban military aid to Pakistan. Together, they kept stories about Bangladesh alive in the media till public opinion began to sway. In the process, they saved thousands of lives halfway across the world.
Through the narratives of Richard Taylor, Sultana Alam and others, the documentary provides a moving insight on the power of non-violent resistance. It recounts how young Americans from different faiths and backgrounds, stood up against their government and coalesced to support the Bangladeshi cause. Most of them had little prior knowledge of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Yet many of them risked getting arrested and even death as they took on the freighters carrying ammunition.
Together, they kept stories about Bangladesh alive in the media till public opinion began to sway. In the process, they saved thousands of lives halfway across the world.
The making of the documentary The seeds of the documentary were planted in 2008. Arif Yousuf and his friends, Mridul Chowdhury and Rashid Mamun Pallab, read Richard Taylor’s book about the Blockade movement. Arif was an IT specialist working at Colombia University. He had no prior experience in film-making but had a keen eye for a good story. Moved by Richard’s account, Arif and his friends decided to video tape interviews of several Blockade activists. This was no small task, given that the activists had long scattered. They even tracked down Sultana Alam, who had ended up moving back to Bangladesh. Over the next few years, Arif painstakingly collected Blockade-related photographs, newspaper stories and video clips from various news outlets and university archives.
After sitting on the footage for several months, he eventually teamed up with Washington DC based Tasbir Imam Shakkhar to edit the documentary. Shakkhar inherited his father’s film-making gene and was a self-taught jack-of-all-trades working on story telling, video editing and animation. Over the course of six years, numerous New York/DC trips and countless Skype sessions, Arif and Shakkhar gradually pieced together a story from hours and hours of footage. A California based musician, Sujan Bin Wadud, composed the soundtrack for the documentary.
The film-makers had day jobs and volunteered their time for this passion project. So there were times when the project stalled, sometimes for months. Finally, after eight long years, the project was finally completed in February 2016.
Since then, the documentary has been screened in several US cities including New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Washington DC. A few of the Blockade activists, who are now in their seventies and eighties, attended the screenings and spoke to the audience. One noteworthy screening was hosted by Philadephia’s Deputy Mayor, Nina Ahmed, on the occasion of Bangladesh’s Independence Day. In the months ahead, more screenings are planned in the US, Canada as well as in Bangladesh.
Nadia Afrin is a Washington DC-based communications professional and the official “cha-wali” for The Blockade team.