It’s mid-September as I write and I am still wearing open-toed sandals, but I can’t feel my toes – they’ve gone on strike. My toes have formed a picket-line at the front of my feet with the left toes chanting, “What do we want?” And the right toes responding, “Socks!” Autumn is coming – a phrase not yet given ominous meaning by RR Martin – and, happily, for us Catskill Mountain people, that means two things: fabulous fall color and, from October 2 – 6, the Woodstock Film Festival.
And if you have time to see only one film screening at this year’s festival, let it be Bamboo Stories, a documentary film by acclaimed director/cinematographer Shaheen Dill-Riaz. Bamboo Stories is set in Bangladesh and is, per the title, the story of bamboo and the people who depend on it for their living, from cutting the 22 foot-long bamboo logs in the last great bamboo forest in the northeastern province of Sylhet to its arrival in the capital city, Dhaka, for sale. The film is a tour-de-force of story and cinematography accompanied by Eckart Gadow’s extraordinary and often haunting musical score.
I had the good fortune to discover Shaheen Dill-Riaz’s films during an extended sojourn in Berlin in 2016. Dill-Riaz is from Bangladesh and many, but by no means all, of his films are set there. My first introduction to his work was Ironeaters; I assumed it would be a small film by a little-know independent film-maker – both assumptions were soon smashed. Dill-Riaz is highly acclaimed in the field of documentary film-making, and it was a huge film. Ironeaters is the story of farmers who, for months every year, must trade their idyllic but poverty-stricken home-lands in northern Bangladesh for the hell-on-earth of the beaches of Chittagong where the sea-faring detritus of the Western World goes to die – old cruise ships, vast container vessels, and massive oil tankers. There the erstwhile farmers work as ship-wreckers dismantling these behemoths without heavy machinery or protective clothing, risking their health and their lives for a pittance. During that ten-month sojourn in Berlin, I saw a number of Dill-Riaz’s other films including Korankinder (Koran Children), a film set in the secretive world of the Madrassas, and none disappointed. So it was with great delight that I learned that he was bringing his latest documentary, Bamboo Stories, to Woodstock this year, 2019, which also celebrates the festivals 20th year in existence.
In Bamboo Stories, the film moves back and forth between a team of bamboo loggers in the forest led by foreman, Liakot, to the team of rafters led by Shoheed who ferry the cut bamboo on its month-long journey by river to be sold in the capital, stopping along the way at smaller port-towns in the hope of selling some of the logs ahead of arrival at the big market of Dhaka. Along the way we are introduced to the cast of characters for whom these men work: Mamun, the loggers’ boss, who worries that the bamboo isn’t being harvested fast enough; Juj-Mia the wholesaler to whom Shoheed answers; Ali, Ashraf and other retailers, who must drive a hard bargain in order to be competitive in the markets. The one thing all these men have in common is that they do not want their children to follow in their footsteps.
Over the course of the film we also meet the families of our protagonists, their wives and children, and their stories are revealed. And our hearts break for them. Dill-Riaz’s films manage to combine pathos with laugh-out-loud moments and Bamboo Stories is no exception. The rafters, though away from their families for weeks at a time and burdened with the care of the cargo: 25,000 bamboo logs, the worries of their bosses, and their own fears of river pirates, retain a great sense of humor ribbing each other about their habits and lack of bathroom privacy. Shoheed points out the “amenities” of their floating home: here the bathroom; there the laundry room. We first meet Shoheed singing a sentimental love song as he and his team-mates, Nuru, Shiraz, and Hussain, make the bamboo raft (the raft and the cargo are one and the same). We might assume what he sings is a popular song from the radio; later we may have to revise that assumption. As the film progresses, we come to know these men and to be invested in them, and in their hopes for their children for whom they work so hard. And we learn that these are kind people, kind to each other.
Back in the forest where the work is unrelenting and back-breaking, where the bamboo loggers are plagued with mosquitos, leeches, and even the bamboo itself which is covered with fine filaments that irritate the skin, there is less to laugh about. The boss, Mamun, who holds a limited-time lease for this section of forest, arrives to see how the work is progressing and accuses Liakot of always taking the easy route. Then, paradoxically, speaking to the camera, he confides that cutting bamboo is so exhausting that “If I cut one stem of bamboo, I need to sleep for two days.”
The genius of Dill-Riaz is the lightness of his touch. It is as though there is no camera nor any sense of an invisible hand directing the narrative. The protagonists appear to speak directly to us, the viewers, and their lack of self-consciousness is testimony to Dill-Riaz’s ability to put them at ease – how does he do it? A good question for the Q & A after one of October’s screenings (both Shaheen and his film-composer, Eckart Gadow, will accompany the film to Woodstock). In Bamboo Stories, having forgotten that there is a cameraman in the forest with the bamboo loggers, we suddenly become aware of him when Liakot comes racing towards us (the camera) through the woods shouting: “Shaheen, run, run!” A male elephant has appeared in the forest and being in musth (in “heat”) is aggressive and might charge. There follows camera chaos as the director/cinematographer hastily follows the instruction. Choosing to keep this chaotic shot in the final cut, despite its revelation of the camera, reminds us that this is real, and it works as the viewer is also behind the camera, also scrambling over roots to get out of the way, also in danger.
Bamboo Stories will be screened at Woodstock’s Bearsville Theater on Thursday, October 3th at noon, and at Rhinebeck Upstate Films II on Saturday, October 5th at 4:30pm.
Featured Image: “After the sale, the bundles are removed from the raft.” Photographer: Shaheen Dill-Riaz © MAYALOK
For more about Shaheen Dill-Riaz and his films, go HERE:
To book tickets for Bamboo Stories from the Woodstock Film Festival:
Claire Lambe is an Irish born painter whose works have been exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic; she is a graduate of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and holds an MFA in painting from the City University of New York. Writing credits include contributing author to Teen Life in Europe (part of the Teen Life Around The World series), and articles and reviews for this publication. Claire Lambe’s art work can be seen here: