Just after evening prayers on a cool spring night in February, thousands of Bangladeshis young and old tumbled into a village school yard, chattering excitedly. Sitakunda, a community of 5,000 people in the country’s poorest province, has no electricity, and the arrival of a high-tech cinema truck promising an evening’s entertainment generates a great deal of local buzz.
Since the launch of IREX Europe’s Mobile Cinema Project, capacity crowds have been turning out in dozens of villages to watch a documentary featuring young Bangladeshis speaking in their own words about issues that matter the most to them. Each showing of the 45-minute film is followed by a lively moderated discussion on democracy, Islam, education, justice and other topics that affect rural youth.
The project is supported by the British High Commission in Dhaka through the Global Opportunities Fund of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. IREX Europe designed the initiative to hear first-hand from rural Bangladeshis about what drives young people away from democracy and toward extremism and to allow their comments to launch a larger discussion about how those issues can be addressed. IREX Europe’s UK-based director joined with Bangladeshi filmmakers and community organizations to produce the documentary and organize the calendar of showings and discussions.
Traveling thousands of kilometers and conducting hundreds of interviews, the team heard Bangladeshis talk with pride about their hard-fought independence, cultural diversity and rich history. However, many of those interviewed in the age group 11 to 25 expressed some frustration with the direction the country is taking. Access to education and to justice topped the list of their concerns, but worries about other subjects such as the dowry system, terrorism, underage marriage, the gender gap, and unemployment also emerged during the interviews. For example, a young motorcycle mechanic in Sylhet lamented that he was unable to attend university to study engineering. A 20-year-old mother of three girls in Rajshahi wanted nothing more than for her daughters to attend school. A young student in Rangpur was adamant that the dowry system be abolished.
Eager to hear the conversations the film would launch, IREX coordinated 60 viewing locations in Rajshahi, Sylhet, and Chittagong divisions and arranged to hold moderated discussions after each exhibition. Many villages in these regions exist in “media dark spaces,” with no electricity and largely out of the reach of radio and television. Because it can be so difficult for citizens in such areas to participate in the national dialogue, creativity is needed to ensure their voices are heard. IREX Europe turned to mobile cinema, organizing a van equipped with a generator, sound system, large collapsible screen and LCD projector. The van generally arrived in a village in the early afternoon to set up the cinema and advertise that evening’s show. At dusk, the open-air theater would begin to fill, often drawing crowds of 2,000 to 3,000 men, women and children. After the film, interested viewers were invited to participate in facilitated group discussions that brought forward their views on subjects such as domestic violence, access to justice, democracy, extremism and religion that all too often are taboo. Following r one showing, a 22-year-old man from the Sylhet division village of Gowainghat told IREX: “The film did a wonderful job of addressing the issues that most people are frustrated about, but no one is talking about. We need to begin to talk about these problems if we are ever going to organize ourselves to fix them.”
By giving young people opportunities to speak candidly, engaging entire communities and putting these subjects on the tips of everyone’s tongues, IREX hopes that the dialogue continues in rural Bangladesh long after the mobile cinema has left the village.