Art After Artisan: An Interview with Mostofa Sarwar Farooki

On July 1st 2016, in Bangladesh’s capital city of Dhaka, the world witnessed the violent siege of the Holey Artisan Bakery – where a popular cafe was taken hostage by five armed militants. It was 12 hours of unprecedented terorrism that ended in violent tragedy. It could be considered that event that changed a nation. At least, that’s what I’ve been told by some local Bangladeshi artists, who described an ensuing climate of fear that matched the siege’s serious ramifications, resulting in stricter immigration rules for casual travellers, a significant wound on the history of Dhaka. 

During the day in question Bangladesh’s trophy filmmaker Mostofa Sarwar Farooki narrowly avoided the siege. A detour during a food run spared Farooki, and hours later he experienced the attack second hand, along with the rest of the world.

Saturday Afternoon (Shonibar Bikel) came into form. Almost entirely a one-take work, Shonibar is a fictionalised version of what happened near the end of Holey Artisan’s seige. Upon the film’s completion it was banned in Bangladeshi. But that hasn’t stopped the film – and its director – from travelling to film festivals, discussing the event that scared Dhaka.

There’s more than one way to make a moment-in-time-hostage film, if an unhinged Jessica Chastain or battered Matt Dillon were once needed. In one unbroken take, without much music, Farooki interprets a frank vision of the attack. It’s tempting to write earnestly about the film but Farooki is neither stern nor dramatic. He is a pragmatist who believes art isn’t the danger, but rather the real acts of violence that inspire them. 

Mostofa Sarwar Farooki shares his experience with André Shannon during the Sydney Film Festival 2019. Together they talk about the aftermath of Holey Artisan, censorship, and how to move forward after calamity.

André Shannon: Do you mind describing your day, July 1st 2016, when the bakery attack happened?

Mostofa Sarwar Farooki: I was in my office with my assistant director Reza. It was Ramadan, so I told him “let’s go out and have some good Iftar”. We went out. Initially I told him to go to Gloria Jeans Coffee. Then I changed my mind and asked him to go to 79 (79 is Holey Artisan Bakery’s road). I thought we’d go to that bakery and have some food there. When my car was about to take a turn to 79, I told my driver “hang on, can we go to Cantonment station because the sky is so mysteriously beautiful.” I wanted to take some photos of the sky. We then went to Cantonment station. I  took a photo, I think it is still in my timeline; the sky was so mysterious and there was a fern and the sky was in the background. The whole image was looking so melancholic. I posted the photo with a line which translates something like ‘in this melancholic city’. I dunno what happened. 

All of a sudden, I felt like dropping the idea of going to a restaurant. Then I went back to my office and we had noodles and then we started playing cards – we didn’t know what was happening outside – after half an hour one of my office staff came to me and said “boss there is a situation going on in Gulshan right now”. I said “what kind of situation?”. We didn’t know what was happening. Later on, we came to know what was happening there. And it shook the nation to its core. You know, Bangladeshi people are generally not suicidal. I always thought that Bangladeshi people don’t live in the present. They live in the future. 

AS: What does that mean?

MSF: They earn money, they work so hard, and they don’t spend it for them. They don’t enjoy it for them. What they do is they save money for the future, for their kids. So they always live for the future, they don’t live for the present. Then the question came to my mind – what made these madmen become suicidal? What went wrong with us? That question started torturing me, torturing my mind. I wanted to find answers for myself.  This is what led me to make this film.

AS: Why were the censors trying to prevent the film from being seen? Were they scared to face the events of that day?

MSF: First of all, our film is not a re-enactment of actual events. This is a work of fiction inspired by the incident. I am not dealing with fact. I am making a fictional world of my own.  

What happens in your history, you can’t just wipe it off. If you have cancer, you can’t just act like you don’t have it and go without treatment. And, in these days of Youtube videos, how can you wipe something off? 

We don’t know what the censor board is actually thinking. We don’t know what made them change their initial decision of allowing the film a certificate. What we officially know is that  the board thinks the film might tarnish the image of country abroad and it might ‘incite religious intolerance’ which I completely disagree with. Art doesn’t destroy or tarnish your image, the real world incidents actually tarnishes your image. 

One of the most important international trade magazines is the Hollywood Reporter. In their review, they wrote that if this film can anything to Bangladesh’s image it is to increase it. So it’s a completely different opinion they’re having. I want to keep faith in our government, I want to keep faith in the censor board’s appeal committee. I believe they will listen to our appeal and they will allow us to screen our film. 

AS: Can I ask about extremist films? I feel like Saturday Afternoon is upfront and honest. Did you have inspirations?

MSF: I never watch films to get inspiration and make my own film, because poets are different, and poetry is written in different ways. I mean people are different! They will write things differently. For me, my inspiration was the world that I live in. In terms of being upfront; I don’t know if I’m upfront. Yes, I wanted to show truth but my film doesn’t show gore, my film probably doesn’t show brutality. I don’t show fire but I show heat maybe. 

AS: The theme of mass-communication is explored through television monitors (as seen in your previous film Television [2012]). Are you interested in the theme of expression and wide spectatorship; television as a portal to the whole world?

MSF: Well, television is a big tool. When you make a film about a restaurant, there must be a television. But here, television was not just there; here, television has been used as a window to the outside world. Here, television acted as a character itself. In Saturday Afternoon, it is a strong window to show a different chapter, which I can’t show by going there physically.

AS: What’s the answer moving forward for the art community in Bangladesh? Not just with censorship, what is the answer for the future?

MSF: (long pause) Well I don’t know. Maybe I don’t understand the question. You know why? I don’t know why this Holey Artisan attack would stop our community to work. Why would you stop? Just because this happened? No. 

AS: Maybe artists were fearful because the climate in Dhaka changed so dramatically…

MSF: We’re fearful everywhere! You go to New York; you’re fearful. You go to Sydney; you are fearful. The fear factor is everywhere. I mean, the clash of religion and clashes of culture have turned this world into an unsafe space where everyone feels insecure and unsafe. It’s a completely f’ed up world. 

AS: Do you feel optimistic about the future?

MSF: I have always been vocal about the future of Bangladeshi cinema. I remember in 2012 when Television was the closing night film of the Busan film festival. On the stage I said the same thing; I said, “this is a great stage to introduce a Bangladeshi film across the world, but I want to say there are many more interesting filmmakers in the pipeline. And, I believe, you will see in the future great many Bangladeshi films”. I believe, if our younger Bangladeshi filmmakers stay true to their heart, if they can reflect their time and the space they live in within their cinema, and if they can create their own language in cinema, I believe Bangladesh has a great future ahead. 

 Saturday Afternoon played at the Sydney Film Festival 2019.

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André Shannon is a Sydney-based queer filmmaker and film critic. André co-hosts many podcasts at FBi 94.5 and his Twitter is @andreshannonfr.

André Shannon

I'm André Shannon; film critic, filmmaker, and huge fan of everyone's work on Rough Cut. I make podcasts about film, host a weekly film segment on radio, interview filmmakers, and my mum's cousin is Tilda Swinton which is bonkers to me!