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Groundbreaking: Abdullah Mohammad Saad on his Cannes official competition title 'Rehana Maryam Noor'

The first official competition film from Bangladesh, 'Rehana Maryam Noor' premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, in Un Certain Regard to a standing ovation. MIME caught up with the young filmmaker.
Groundbreaking: Abdullah Mohammad Saad on his Cannes official competition title 'Rehana Maryam Noor'

Rehana, played with a full range of nuances and subtleties by Azmeri Haque Badhon, is a woman who stands for the truth. As author William Faulkner wrote, “Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world...would do this, it would change the earth.” 

And Rehana does manage to change the world, around her -- only she is a woman. And a woman in Bangladesh. And a woman against a whole system of lies and manipulations. So we can kind of imagine where this is going and yet, thanks to Abdullah Mohammad Saad's masterful direction, we still want to go along for the ride.

The groundbreaking film screened in the first week of Cannes and received positive reviews both from industry insiders as well as cinema critics.

We wanted to catch up with Saad, whose youthful appearance hides a man wise beyond his years. He shared whether Rehana Maryam Noor is a political statement, what inspired the story and how it feels to screen a film in Cannes, in this very special year.

Is Rehana a political statement?

To be honest, I didn't try to make any political statement I mean, I didn't set out to make any statement. For me it was more important to present her case and examine and investigate her from as many angles as possible, as deep as I could and then let my audience decide for themselves whether her choices are right or wrong. Is she a good mother, is she a good teacher, is she a good person or not? That's what I tried to do, actually and I don't think of myself as a political filmmaker, but, of course, as I try to make my character as deep as I could, of course there are so many contexts, you know. So the political context is very important, is one of the most important aspects. But I leave it to my audience.

What inspired the story, what made you say this is the story I must tell?

That’s a very interesting question. I'm a very character-driven writer, so it really all started with an image of a stubborn person — a stubborn woman. Because I grew up in a big family with three older sisters, they influenced me a lot. I mean, I'm their little brother I used to do what they told me to do, and I've seen them from being daughters to sisters to professionals to becoming mothers. They really have a very long lasting impact on me so I I've been trying to make a film about this kind of person, about this kind of woman who doesn't accept things so easily. Because me, as a person, I am the kind of person who looks away, who doesn't want to be involved and just tries to be safe and be comfortable. So when I found this character, I really, really tried to dig deeper. And hat's how it all started.

Because of your own family story is that why there is the character of the brother in the film is he inspired by you somehow?

Yeah, maybe a little bit — because I wanted to present Rehana from a brother's point of view as well, since I have been through that. Yeah, there's a connection, definitely a personal connection.

Filmmaker Abdullah Mohammad Saad

And were you ever afraid of making a woman's film -- for whatever that means? Were you ever kind of scared of going into that and being told no, a woman story is supposed to be told by a woman?

Thank you for asking me that, that's a really interesting question. To be honest, I didn't feel any kind of pressure. I didn't feel like, okay, I have to do research, I have to speak to women to write this, because that's not how I approached Rehana. I mean, for me, she's a person, she's a human and every time I write about a character, I follow the same process. Even when I'm writing about women, I didn't give any extra attention or research. Like, as a man, should I write about women? Do I have enough understanding about them? That's not how I felt to be honest. I wrote about her, just like I wrote about anyone else in my life. I tried to examine her from as many angles as possible and that's what I did.

Would you explain to me what the infrastructure is like in Bangladesh, to be able to film something like Rehana? What are the highlights of being able to work in your country, and what is lacking in the infrastructure?

Of course it's not a very mature industry so it's not yet a very structured industry. But the positive side is that as independent filmmakers, we all are really trying our best and for the last decade there has been a really inspiring situation. Although we are the first film in Cannes' official selection, we have been placing films in international film festivals regularly for the last decade. So I think it's getting better. It's not that we are waiting for any massive government support, because it’s still not a mature industry. In any country, for any industry, you have to prove yourself, to draw the attention so they understand, okay, this is the time you should give us more assistance. And that's starting to happen now, so I think it's going to be better from now onward.

What I find interesting is how supportive your local audiences are. How do you feel the film will do at home once you get to screen it there?

Yeah, it's true, it's true, everyone is inspired and, you know, this is our 50th years of independence so it makes more sense and it inspires everyone much more. In terms of Bangladeshi response, I hope it will be thought-provoking enough. I hope it will make our fellow countrymen think more, and I hope it would make more people feel about Rehana, about this kind of person, this kind of human. I hope it will start some interesting discourses.

And is there a censorship board that the film needs to get by, or is that something that's not really important?

I think it's the same in every country. Yes, we have to go through the censorship. And when we finish Cannes then we'll be applying to the censor board. I think it will be okay. I mean, at this point I'm not really worried about censorship.

Because you didn't have any kind of approval for the script right, you were able to just work on the film — and then the censor board comes after. Correct?

Yes, true. While making this film there was no pressure from any authority or anything. The process is we make the film, then we submit for censorship, and we hope for the best -- that we get it out uncut. For my first film there wasn't any cut so my experience so far has been okay. I mean, I didn't feel any pressure… or any obstacles.

How did you cast your leading lady?

About Azmeri Haque Badhon I think I was really lucky to find her. Because, you know, when I first met her, I didn't give her the screenplay, I just talked to her a bit about the character and I really felt that she wanted to do this — it means a lot to her to do this projects. So from day one, she wanted to do this. And she put everything else aside, you know, and she didn't do any other projects, while doing this film. She rehearsed for nine months. It's very rare to find an actor who will give so much time, and so much dedication. For some reason she trusted me. I think that was the key. I truly feel lucky that I found her, at the right time at the right place. Otherwise, I couldn't have made this film. I couldn't do this without her.

And your supporting cast. Are they all professional actors?

Not really. My little princess, who plays Emu [Afia Jahin Jaima], it’s her first film, it's her first time acting. It's a funny story, my executive producer found her in a park, he was in there with his son. He noticed her and he talked to her mother and father and she came in and this is one of a couple of occasions where I felt really lucky. And the other characters like the man who played Prof Arefin, Kazi Sami Hassan, it's his first film, too. And the actress who plays Annie, she had some modeling experiences but it’s her first film too. I tried to cast my actors by finding out how enthusiastic they were about playing their character and how dedicated, and how passionate they are. That's what is most important to me. I didn't try to find the most obvious choices in my country, for me it was important to have those actors who will give their best and who will take this project seriously and passionately and for whom it is really important. I tried to find those people and I'm really glad and I'm really lucky to have found them. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have worked.

How important is telling the truth in your own life?

I share and I present what I observe in my life. I don't try to get answers or give solutions because I don't have any — I don't know. What I can do is present the story, present the people, present the person who can make people really think about very important and interesting questions regarding our modern world. About everything that's happening around, and decide for themselves how we should choose to live our life.

What is it like showing your film in Cannes and in this very specific year — this very special year. What has it been like for you?

What happened at our premiere was truly something, I could not hope for more. It was really something, the response was overwhelming. I mean, I was so nervous, so anxious how people would react and what we got was such an emotional experience. I feel so lucky, so honoured that we are here and our audiences responded so graciously. And even more, because it’s in these difficult times, with everything that is happening around the world. At times I feel guilty that I am having pleasure, while the whole world is suffering. It's a very complex feeling, because the present situation in our country isn’t great and people are dying. People are suffering. So yeah, it's a very complex emotion. I think, I can’t experience all this glory, everything, without thinking about what's happening around the world -- I cannot truly enjoy this moment...

Do you ever feel like you are an ambassador for your country with your work?

Ah, no, not really. I mean, I try to do my job as best as I can. There are so many more talented filmmakers in Bangladesh. I think I just got lucky that I get to be the first person to represent my country in Cannes’ official selection but it's not like I'm the best filmmaker, or I have the best film. There are so many other filmmakers who make so many  interesting films and so it happened that I got lucky and I just hope for the next time we will be more and we will be regulars in Cannes.



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