Chrissy D finds herself in the grip of the enigma of a documentary about the Bangladeshi "brothel island"
In Giovanni Giommi’s documentary Bad Weather, the sex workers on Banishanta, the island off the Bangladeshi coast, know they are the victims of exploitation, yet refuse to let this define them. It’s a story of survival, religious imagery, unionisation and an attempt to give a personal history to the members of a forgotten community who tend to only be remembered by a select few when their services are required.
Giommi, known for his documentaries Parafernalia (2008) and Politica Zero (2006), is a director, cinematographer and writer and this latest project is an attempt to illustrate the threat of climate change across the world by focusing on a sinking seaside community.
The film follows the lives of several Banishanta women, varying in age, story and motivation, who inhabit the small strip of land, along with their families, and work as prostitutes serving the crews of passing ships. We see the women bargaining with the men who come to use their services and ultimately accepting that sex is their trade, upon which they must attempt to capitalise. The narrative is punctuated by the musings of two devout men who reside on the island with the women, each taking no part in, but refusing to denounce, the work of the girls.
The island is under the constant threat of rising tide, a very real consequence of climate change, with Bangladesh itself being only 15m above sea level. The destruction caused by the ever rising water reflects the ensuing havoc upon the arrival of a new swathe of passing men, often brought to the island by the lover of one of the workers.
The establishing shots tell the audience the setting is as bleak as the prospects of its residents: remote, isolated and enigmatic, but not hopeless.
When the boat full of ship workers arrives, it feels like the island springs to life. When they leave, it’s as if modernity is deserting the women and their strip of land is left defenceless to the mercy of the powers above. The religious imagery of floods as punishment for a sinful existence provides a creepy sense of inevitability and an impression that the factors at play against the girls are just too big to comprehend.
The boats bring a superficial and fleeting hope, as well as an artificial intensity and drama and the sense of possibility and love. Meanwhile, the real drama emerges slowly and endures as we get to know the girls and their lives in between clients (which is most of the time).
The Bengal tiger analogy reinforces the sense that the girls’ habitat is being pursued to its end by the encroaching sea, while their hope diminishes as the years pass and their children grow.
Shakespearean in its characterisation – the island’s imam as the modest moral anchor; the exchanges between not-quite-lovers – the film is haunting a western audience in the grip of glamorised rape culture and the rise of misogyny on our dry, paved streets. We know misogyny and exploitation isn’t just a Bangladesh problem; it isn’t just the problem of poverty. But the film’s subjects remind us of where sexism and conservative attitudes towards sex and sin, supply and demand, will take us.
The representation of the men in the piece is contradictory – on the one hand they are the moral pillars, the religious puritan and the patient lover, while on the other they are fuelling the isolation of the girls with their money and sexual demands.
This is the only film I’ve seen where climate change and sex are portrayed side by side as responsible for a community’s downfall, with these creeping and ominous unknowns together representing the volatile forces of nature.
The film in its entirety evokes feelings of fear and a sense of something ultimate, an inevitable end. The somewhat predictable imagery of the Bengal tiger does well in encapsulating the feelings some audience members may have watching the girls being swallowed up – their lives, their familiarity, their profession – by an aggressive predator, be it nature or the sexual dynamics of their culture.
The film doesn’t so much ask us to do something, but just to observe and learn from the subjects and their predicament. Which is what I did. Indeed, I remain in the grip of the enigma, almost unable to communicate the piece’s impact on me.
The picture is a still from the film, courtesy of DocHouse.