Film production commenced in this sub-continent during the second decade of this century and was tagged to long length format virtually from the start. During thirties, the British colonial government organized a film production department to make short length news reels and documentaries to serve colonial interests. After the British left the power the inheriting only replaced the masters and the essential character of the film produ-ced remained unchanged. The story has been no better during Pakistani colonial days.

Until 1971 war of national liberation, a number of documentaries were made by Zahir Rihan, Rokeya Rahman Kabir and Daud Khan Majlis mostly with government fund and with government imposed rules portraying the so called Islamic culture.

In the beginning of liberation war the Bangladesh Government’s temporary headquarters in Calcutta opened a Department of Films & Publication headed by Dhaka based first film director Abdul Jabbar Khan. Other professional film makers who had fled from Pakistani occupation were Subhash Dutta, Narayan Ghosh and Zahir Raihan.  Zahir Raihan, a fellow traveler of Pakistan Communist Party’s cultural wing had the political vision. It was sheer coincidence that exactly that moment Zahir Raihan was exposed to Andre Wajda’s Ashes 7 Diamonds and some Cuban films. Zahir Raihan was a not a trained but born film-maker who could visualize a whole film without having a write a word on paper. He tries to generate some fund from his Indian friends to make a film on Bangladesh genocide and the violation of human rights and then Zahir Raihan made the celebrated and historic short film “STOP GENOCIDE”. It was truly the first free length i, e. short film of Bangladesh of which one could justifiably feel some national pride.

In June ’71 about halfway through the war, the provincial government assigned Zahir Raihan to produce three short films over riding obstructions from its own film department. Three war documentaries were made approximately 19-minutes’ duration each. These were “Liberation Fighters” directed by Alamgir Kabir, “Innocent Millions” directed by Babul Chowdhury and “A State is Born” directed by Zahir Raihan himself. Made on shoe-string budget, these films hardly qualify for high grades in the craft of film-making but authenticity of the sincerely filmed material now impart them invaluable value.

After 1975, the Department of Films and Publications and various ministries engaged themselves in propaganda documentaries. This resulted in the growth of a trend of extremely shoddy film-making technique. A number of unsuccessfully commercial film directors adopted these ‘documentaries’ as back-up source of earning. Without having any idea either about propaganda theory or about the art and craft of short film format

Alongside, the commercial film industry made a steady nosedive to lowest point of degeneration ever. Discerning audiences have been driven away from the cinemas. In this gloomy atmosphere the only ray of hope appeared from direction of film society movement. Unlike in most countries, the cine club movement here took upon itself the additional task of initiating a socially responsible cinema alongside creating a sizable clan of discerning audience.

When a decade back short films like AGAMI-HOOLIYA were made in alternative format of 16 mm and distributed in the off cine-hall parallel network, people lent all out support, not always for the intrinsic artistic qualities of these films, rather to patronize the sincere and well meaning efforts by some youngsters in their struggle against the fatuous commercial filmdom of Bangladesh. But now with films like CHAKA, MUKTIR GAAN, THE RIVER LETHE being made, where worthy artistic qualities are no longer aims, people seems to have really taken a liking these films. The genre of alternative cinema in Bangladesh, over the year now, has been coming more and more to the foreground, and receiving nation-wide attention with raise expectancy. The international success of CHAKA – a number of prestigious awards in European film festivals, and the phenomenal popular success of MUKTIR GAN, have uplifted the whole alternative cinema movement to a higher plain. The good thing about alternative cinema is that it has become quality conscious – “CHAKA”, “MUKTIR GAN”, “THE RIVER LETHE”, “PAROBASHI MON AAMAR”. The bad thing about alternative cinema is very few makers are actually making films.

These alternative film makers are the only individuals involved in film making in this country, to whom cinema is not a money-spanning commodity, neither a medium of entertainment, but a serious art form. Except the group theatre movement, no other cultural endeavour by so few in this country, could reach an influence so many, as the short film movement has done. Now this term ‘short film’ is often a misnomer. Because some of the best films coined under this genre are quiet long at length and are hardly ‘short’ films in anyway. But as we know the connotation of any definition changes according to time and space. Somehow the term ‘short film’ has now become a term generic rather a literal one in Bangladesh. It is a success of the short film makers of this country to be able to make their films, as well as the genre itself, popular to the people.

Through out the late 80’s, couple of more attempts took place by more individuals. In 1986 Bangladesh Short Film Forum (BSFF) was established. The filmmakers were essentially urging for their own platform to counter and strengthen their attempts and to try to organize these scattered attempts under some shared platform. The success of an organization like BSFF depends upon its ability to preserve its pristine ideology, and at the same time, to maintain a relaxed organizational set up within which every individual film maker can freely pursue his own path of creative film making. The short filmmakers started receiving awards from various reputed Film Festivals from abroad. As a result, the movement became the only platform of true cinema culture in the country. 

In 1988 the Bangladesh Short Film Forum members planned an International Short Film Festival -the 1st International Short Film Festival, Dhaka 1988. The first of it’s kind in the sub-continent, and with an open goal of introducing the contemporary attempts in the global short film arena. It also became the meeting place of independent filmmakers and the local audiences were moved with this experience. The acclaimed independent filmmakers of today-Ranjan Palit, Bashuda Joshi, Ruchir Joshi, Aparna Sen, Goutam Ghosh, Mrinal Sen, Buddhadev Dasgupta, Sanjay Kak, Arun Khopkar, Kumar Sahani and many others from India, Sabiha Sumar–from Pakistan, Rada Sesic-from Bosnia, Kristov Zanusi from Poland, James Leahy from UK, Mani Mir Sadegi from Iran were associated with these attempts as regular contributors and shared our experience in their community and abroad. As on today, we are exposed and acclaimed as one of the most reputed Independent Short films’ festival-wouldn’t have been possible without the direct participation and acceptance of the concept seriously. The slogan of the festival for many years is Free Cinema, Free Expression. The idea is of leaving the length free and of allowing the free realization for filmmakers and viewers.

Since the liberation in 1971, there had been a great demand for a Film Institute in the country. But till today we don’t have any Film Institute in Bangladesh. As a consequence, being the pioneer for true cinema movement, Bangladesh Short Film Forum undertakes the responsibility of arranging a Film making Course on its own, which is considered as the only authentic Filmmaking Workshop, where Filmmaking is taught practically and each year two workshop productions are made by the students groups under the supervision of Bangladesh Short Film Forum. Unfortunately our dream for the infrastructure remained unfulfilled.

The main inadequacy is the silence of the Government. Generally what happens, the government acts according to the necessity of the community-means, where there were specific demand for direct patronization of the government and support of the FDC (Film Development Corporation of Bangladesh), the DFP (the Dept. Of Film & Publication), Bangladesh Film Archive for the movement that was contributing mainly for the development of the true cinema culture in the country, failed to act in any extent but has created a lot of obstacles including the unfair censorship attempts for most of these short  and alternative films. Government has never forwarded its support in flourishing this independent film movement, but the scene has grown to the worst. 

It saddens us when we know how much television contributes to develop good cinema in their different other countries and how little Bangladesh Television (BTV), the only national terrestrial television in Bangladesh is doing. It is a pity that BTV does nothing for good cinema and with its fatuous programs only squanders tax-payers money. Recently a private satellite television ‘Channel-I’ produce number of feature films, but they always consider their business, by selecting commercial approach story and also film makers, even some times they made film by the actress, who have no minimum direction capability. BTV and other private television channels produced hyped packaged soap operas have failed become anything more than silly middle class escapism and it seem quite obvious that is monopoly TV networks is not in a position or mood to support better cinema in this country.

There is no film institute in this country, whereas our neighbouring India has two – FTII, Pune and SRFTI, Kolkata. Film is a high tech art form. One has to know the gadgets and learn the skill to use them. BSFF and some other film societies conduct some film appreciation course and training workshops for the young film makers and activists, but in spite of all good and sincere efforts, resource constraints limit our endeavor and these sporadic attempts can neither replace the functions of a proper film institute.  Bangladesh Short Film Forum has taken an initiative of establishing a 50 seated auditorium on its own to facilitate the member filmmakers with the projection facility, where they would also store their valuable productions. Many newer members have shown their interest to start a new project in 16mm, even knowing their fate, as many have progressed with the ideas.

The short and alternative film movement has reached to its 20 years. The filmmakers who started the movement have all become feature film makers by now, but they are often addressed by most of the audiences as short and alternative film makers, because of the phenomenal impact that the movement has created among. The expectancy of the audience has increased too, and rightfully so. It no longer will pacify the spectators to view technically flawed sub-standered films with poor aesthetic qualities. Now the short and alternative film makers really have to prove their brand and make flawless films made with professionalism and intrinsic artistic appeal. Only then we will able to keep the tempo going. 

(Pictures used in this article are from the Documentary The River Lethe Directed by N. Rashed Chowdhury)

Aminul Islam

Born in 1964. Complete M.A. in Linguistics from University of Dhaka. Aminul Islam is involved with film society activities and alternative film movement in Bangladesh since 1984. Mr. Islam is an active member of Bangladesh Short Film Forum. He serves this organization as President for three terms. Besides filmmaking Mr. Islam is the Festival Director of International Short & Independent Film Festival, Dhaka. Based in Dhaka, Bangladesh.