How can garment workers empower themselves for a better life?
When the film Made in Bangladesh by Rubaiyat Hossain ended in a recent screening in the Toronto International Film Festival, there was a hushed silence for a second, and then the entire hall of non-Bangladeshi audience members stood up and applauded.
I stood up and felt proud and teary-eyed. This doesn’t happen to me often.
It was a powerful movie (also one of the best Bangladeshi films that I have ever seen), one that shook me up from my middle-class complacency. I was not so proud of the fact that I was wearing a brand-name Eddie Bauer vest that was also made in Bangladesh -- the cost, according to my quick calculation, more than a month’s salary of a garment worker in Bangladesh.
The movie is about a non-compliant garments factory, somewhere in Dhaka, and centres around the life of Shumi and a few of her female co-workers. The film is directed by a young woman, Rubaiyat Hossain, and it is all about other young women who work in garments factories.
Soon after the movie begins, there is fire in the factory, and a stampede down the stairway as the workers try to escape (clearly there is no fire escape), which highlights the conditions of thousands of such factories throughout the nation. One woman dies, the factory closes down, overtime payments are stopped, and as the struggle for survival increases, the need for a voice to demand justice becomes imperative.
It is at this point that Shumi (played by Reekita Nondine Shimu) emerges as a true heroine at a time and an age when such heroism is so rare.
In a stellar, and incredibly nuanced and authentic performance, Shumi defies her husband, resists the threats and bribes of a thuggish floor manager, and manages to overcome all the bureaucratic obstacles in her struggles to form a trade union in the factory.
This in fact is the crux of the dramatic plot: To establish a trade union of female garment workers where such formations are seen as subversive to the new captains of industry in Bangladesh.
This is obviously a serious film with a serious message; Made in Bangladesh expertly combines documentary realism with drama in a way that is not in the least tendentious. The message which I got, and which the movie transmits very powerfully, is that female garment workers whom you see everyday (usually from your car) walking past you throughout the city, are real people with real lives and real struggles, and who are indeed the real heroes.
The real heroes are not the ones who tag along with the PM to the UNGA in New York, but the ones who earn less in a month (under Tk6,000) than the retail price of two or three “Made in Bangladesh” t-shirts in New York or Toronto, of which they sew more than 1,600 in a single day. The real face of brand-name “Made in Bangladesh” is the face of Shimu and not the face of the president of BGMEA.
The film doesn’t depict an idealized, romantic view of garment workers. With uncompromising realism, Rubaiyat Hossain takes us through the squalid underbelly of their lives; we see the squalour of their living conditions; we have glimpses of their dreams and their real love lives; mostly we see lives lived in excruciating deprivation, while “Made in Bangladesh” products are lavishly displayed in expensive boutiques abroad.
Their only hope for a better life is by empowering themselves through trade unions, to give themselves a voice to speak up against the daily grind of injustice and oppression that they work under.
Perhaps the film’s greatest virtue is its remarkably restrained realism in the portrayal of an underclass -- the dark, wet streets, the dingy slums, the hot and airless factory floor with no fire exit, depressing government offices overflowing with ancient files -- depicted with admirable authenticity.
The dialogues ring true and the costumes are just as shabby as they are in real life. It almost doesn’t feel like a movie made in Bangladesh.
Clearly, not every movie-goer is going to enjoy this movie, but I found it especially moving. My only hope is that the makers and distributors of this film make an effort to have a special screening for all the owners of garments factories in Bangladesh.
I would love to watch their faces as they watch this film.
Shawkat Hussain is a retired professor of English.