At the 2017 installment of Hot Docs in Toronto, I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a documentary so devastating and essential that it made my top ten list of the year. Angelo Rallis’ “Shingal, Where Are You?” centers on a family of Yezidis who were displaced after their titular town was attacked by ISIS. I wrote in my festival dispatch published at RogerEbert.com that it should be “considered required viewing for every American citizen,” and the same could be said of Rallis’ latest spellbinding feature effort, “Mighty Afrin: in the time of floods,” which begins on a mud island off the Brahmaputra river in danger of being extinguished by an equally destructive force—the ravages of climate change. Amidst the volatile weather, we see the film’s indomitable 11-year-old subject, Afrin Khanom, holding her own, even while submerged in water.
Over a period of five years, Rallis’ camera follows the orphaned girl to Bangladesh as she searches for the father who left her, while befriending other children who are living on the streets. Rallis never exploits his young subjects, but rather, empowers them to go on the cathartic journey of sharing their stories. I was privileged to not only speak with Rallis via Zoom for Cinema Femme, but also submit questions via email to Khanom, who responded with the film’s assistant director, Hafiz Uddin Munna, serving as her translator. In the article below, I have edited together their answers to further illustrate the beauty of their collaboration. “Mighty Afrin” is easily among the very best films I have seen so far this year, and it is one to keep your eyes peeled for as it makes the festival rounds in the months ahead.
One of the through lines I see between “Shingal” and “Mighty Afrin” is that both films explore parts of our world that we rarely see onscreen and are in danger of being lost to the ages.
Angelos Rallis (AR): I have a background in photojournalism, and my work has enabled me to immerse myself in different communities around the globe. For example, I chronicled the ways in which the daily lives of Bengali migrants in the southeast of London were impacted by regeneration projects that were started in anticipation of the Olympic Games. I was commissioned for different newspapers and magazines, and a lot of my work has sought to bring visibility to people who lie beneath the surface. We don’t hear about these issues in the Western world, but they are important nonetheless. We need to be aware of what happens on the other side of the planet, and part of my reason for doing this work is to bring attention to all of these people who suffer from inattention.
In “Mighty Afrin,” I began working on a mud island off the Brahmaputra, where millions of people live. Every year, they suffer from severe typhoon cyclones and heavy rainfalls. The frequency and intensity of these extreme weather phenomenons are increasing day by day, forcing these people to live in flood water for months every year. Of course, it destroys the crops, families get separated, and people end up becoming displaced in the mainland, where they rush into the cities to start a new life. These people come from a place with no electricity, no TVs, no mobile phones, no hospitals, no doctors, no schools and no reference to the outside world. They depend on what they cultivate and fish around their home, and that is what they eat. It sounds a little bit romantic for us, so far away, but it is the reality for them, and their natural habitat is vanishing.
How did you initially met Afrin?
AR: I was very familiar with the Bengali communities due to my previous projects in the U.K. I started reading about the impact of climate change on the inhabitants of islands along the Brahmaputra because my wife and producer of the film, Maria Del Mar Rodriguez Yebra, had previously conducted research as a scientist on resilience shelters that offer protection from wind, water and heavy rainfall with locally available materials, such as bamboo. I decided to go on a long trip with her across the Brahmaputra, which allowed me to do my own research on location, identifying the key issues at stake and finding the right subjects to potentially tell a story of displacement there. On one of these visits, I had identified a family and I started to shoot footage on my own with them. During this twenty-day period on location, I came across Afrin, who became the main character of the film.
She’s a young orphan who lives in isolation and is very poor, but despite her bleak situation, she finds the capacity to dream, resist, fight back and adapt—which is a key word for how people survive in an environment that is constantly changing and flooding without any official sort of support from the state. The mud island is a no man’s land bereft of property, infrastructure, roads or cars. I was surprised by the strength of this young girl who was capable of rowing like a champion at 11 years old. It’s sort of like watching the birth of a heroine. She anticipates the floods by observing the changes in weather and the humidity in the air. During a big storm, she secures the foundation of her house with bamboo leaves so that the mud will not separate. These are very primitive ways to deal with a problem like that, but this is the only survival method that people have.
Afrin Khanom (AK): It was in 2018 when I first met Angelos Rallis when he visited our mud island. I was very excited to see foreigners in our locality; it was the first time in my life. Initially, I thought he must be crazy to want to spend so many months here in the mud lands in order to experience the floods the same way as we do. He said he wanted to make a film so that our mud island communities who suffer from the floods can gain visibility around the globe. Angelos kept stopping the shooting to take elders and sick people to the shore. He also paid for their treatment at the nearest doctor. Gradually, the other locals and I appreciated his motives. My cousin was already involved in the filming so I really wanted to be involved also.
Was it a cathartic experience for you to share your story on film?
AK: It was really a great experience for me to share my story. I am an orphan and there was no one close to me to listen to me. Everyone in the islands is unfortunately having to deal with their own problems. As a girl without parents, the villagers see me as a burden. A girl that spends most of her time outside the household engaging in men’s activities is not well seen by the conservative communities. Angelos told me that he had also recently lost his father, so he understood my situation. Angelos, as well as his assistant director Hafiz Uddin Munna and sound engineer Teemu Takatalo, showed so much care and attention. They didn’t judge me or force me on any issue like other people did. He just asked me to be myself and allow him to film my every day life.
AR: I must say that my father, to whom the film is dedicated, was an inspiration in the sense that he was a traveler himself. Due to his work, he lived in several different countries around the world, so throughout my childhood, we were constantly on the move. I was born in Sweden and lived there for the first six years of my life before my parents moved back to Greece with me. My skills as both a filmmaker and photojournalist are developed through traveling different places and meeting people who are very different from myself. My father was sick when I began making “Mighty Afrin” and he died during the filming of it. So I was losing my father while Afrin was searching for her father throughout Bangladesh and the Brahmaputra. Because of this, I felt very much connected to her. I found myself gazing at the sea, waiting for my father to come back, all the while knowing that it wasn’t possible. At the same time, I became a father—my son was born a few months after my father died—so this question of a parent’s role and the desire to create your own meaning were very important elements throughout the film.
How do you go about earning the trust of your subjects?
AR: Throughout my previous films and photography work, I developed a skill for being able to enter into a situation unfamiliar to me, which enables me to connect with people and stories that I otherwise wouldn’t get to know. In most cases, I don’t speak the local language. For example, on the mud island, there was no direct communication possible at the very start with the majority of the people there, so I underwent a process of losing oneself. I created a strategy for being in a place without interfering, without feeling that I’m dominating any situation with my presence and camera. It was an ongoing, continuous process where I had to build trust and confidentiality with my subjects by living with them. It was just my assistant director, who was from the mainland, and me creating this trust by staying there. I had to sleep in a boat, walk on the mud, wait for the rain, and eat what they ate.
Also, due to practicality reasons, the nearest room was a five hour trip from there, so it was not possible to stay anywhere other than the island itself. It enabled me to record the weather patterns while helping Afrin understand that I didn’t need her to do anything extraordinary for me, but rather, just continue doing what she would do without me, forgetting the presence of the camera as much as possible. Until she arrives in Dhaka, the film was shot run and gun, and it was quite dangerous at times. The island is on the border of India and Bangladesh, so during the flood, various reptiles would be washed onto the island. All of a sudden, you are in water up to your waist, and there is a snake next to you.
AK: There were a lot of challenging moments in the film, especially in the flood time when Angelos and I were under the water for a whole day and night. You know, during floods, there is no place to use a toilet and there is no drinking water. The mud causes so many skin and gynecological infections. Many people have died. I remember one time, we had fallen into a heavy storm in the middle of the river, which was really dangerous. Even the stronger men who paddle the boats thought we would die and kept crying. I was really afraid when a leech attacked me under the water and it was slowly entering inside me or when a giant python that had washed from India was circling us. Shooting in Dhaka was also a challenge, because it was totally a new experience for me to see cars and buildings, the slum areas, roads full of traffic and the railway station where I slept.
The colorful attire worn by Afrin when we first see her rowing in the film makes her stand out like a radiant beacon against the post apocalyptic landscape.
AR: Thank you very much, Matt, for bringing this up. It was a very important decision we took throughout the postproduction of the film. We wanted to keep the colors of Afrin’s clothes very energetic and lively, which contrasts with the post apocalyptic backdrop of a world that is slowly disappearing day by day. We also wanted to highlight the strength and fascination of Afrin—not only the individual herself, but also the impression that she stands for something bigger. Afrin represents a generation of children who fight against the floods, embark on the risky journey of a homeless climate refugee and upon their arrival in a city, receive the entry job of recycling plastic and burning rubbish. I assigned myself the roles of director, writer, cinematographer and co-editor because it’s important for me to be able to control the whole creative process from the beginning to the end, ensuring that we showcase not only the tragedy occurring in this region of the world, but also the ingenuity of these remarkable children.
To what extent is there a narrative component to the film?
AR: The first section of the film is a hundred percent observational, whereas in Dhaka, I decided to control more of the shooting so that I could get closer to Afrin. She was 11 when we started the film, and was 16 when the film was completed, so throughout this time, Afrin transformed from a little girl into a teenager. I wanted to have more close-ups and stable shots so that I could get more into her character and understand the contrast between her life on the island and in the big metropolis. Also, it would be much more difficult to maintain a run and gun approach to the film while in a big traffic jam. As a filmmaker, I have many choices at my disposal. In the scene where Afrin and the old man talk while sitting around the fire, it was important for me to have a script that allowed me to tell the story in the best possible way. Of course, the script would change all the time, but it was important that the story had a beginning, a middle and an end. That being said, there is no scripted dialogue in the film. I asked my subjects to improvise their own dialogue as they felt it could serve the story better.
Have you kept in touch with the boys Afrin befriends and to what extent were their scenes staged, particularly one in which they are running from impending danger?
AR: All of these children were picked up from the streets. The boy with the sunglasses was found with his younger brother at the train station in Dhaka when he was four years old. They had lost their parents and had already spent two weeks on their own. Part of the chase scene you mentioned was reenacted because I wanted to showcase the dangers that these children experience. A lot of these kids end up with respiratory diseases or are bitten by rats, yet the biggest danger they face comes from people who aim to take advantage of them. Bangladesh is the number one country in forced prostitution, so children like Afrin are in danger on the streets. They also deal with the racism of those who look down upon people who recycle and burn. So the chase scene was inspired by an incident that actually happened to them after they took something valuable while recycling. It was my goal to convey the feeling of alienation and the threats that these children encounter in the city.
How did you find the elderly gentlemen whom Afrin befriends toward the end of the film?
AR: We were searching for Afrin’s father throughout the film and he was changing locations all the time, as was everybody else due to the floods. In the place where we went to find him, we realized that he had just left, and this man we encountered was someone who knew him. He takes on the role of the dream father in our film, providing this mysticism of the East and other important elements of the local culture. The civilization around Brahmaputra goes a thousand years in the past, and was an important trade location for silk and spices. I wanted to showcase the strength of these nomads in the area. Afrin’s pursuit of her father is a little bit like Homer’s Odyssey. She ultimately finds that she doesn’t need her father in order to create her own meaning about the world.
Your film is a masterwork of visual poetry that puts so many overly talky films to shame.
AR: I’m a big fan of Eastern films from Iran and Southeast Asia, the Philippines and this part of the world. It’s important for me to show the context of where a story takes place. Though the film describes a difficult—almost impossible—life, it is important at the same time to find these moments of true magic and beauty, such as when this young girl utilizes her psychological weapons of laughter, hope and even sarcasm. I don’t want viewers to simply watch my films, I want them to feel as if they are there, and this can only be achieved with a combination of image and sound that forges a connection between you and the people onscreen.
AK: I enjoyed very much when we were shooting on the roof of the train in the night, seeing together the empty road full of colorful lights, dancing with the transgender community, performing Eastern mysticism and other rituals with the river gypsies. I was able to become close with other orphan children.
AR: We were cruising the city with Afrin and the other children while they were recycling valuables. We crossed a road, and all of a sudden, we’re in a little village full of lights that stretched into the side streets. Afrin jumped from the little car we had and began running in the direction of the lights, so I had to set up everything quickly. It was important to show this girl, who had just arrived from hell, seeing these beautiful lights that inspire her to dream. It felt a little like Cinderella to me. She arrives in the city with nothing, and suddenly, she’s faced with these shining carriages and horses. This, of course, is juxtaposed with the hostility of the place, with barking dogs and poverty all around you. I was interested in the meaning that the combination of these two images would create on its own without spelling it out in the dialogue.
Have you always been interested in storytelling, and did the process of making this film increase your interest in it?
AK: I had never watched a film before as there is no access to electricity, books and movies in the mud island. The only storytelling references I had were old men telling stories orally and the folk theatre performed by nomads and river communities. Day by day, my interest in storytelling was increased when I was involved completely in the filmmaking process. I felt that I found a new family which I never had. The filming influenced me, in the sense that today, I want to become a Jatra folk theatre actress.
AR: During these years of making the film, I had an ongoing discussion with Afrin about her situation, where she wanted to go and what she wanted to do in her life. It was important for me to be there for her and try to discuss her real options. In Bangladesh, children her age are either working or getting married or they go to school. Because of the absence of her parents, it was important for me to take on the role of a person who cares about Afrin. I made an agreement with her that at the end of the shooting, I would help her find a shelter where she could get basic needs and receive a full education, which was achieved in the end at a local NGO.
Throughout the process of filming, Afrin initially wanted to be a nurse before considering other jobs. I realized that she had a particular interest in Jatra folk theatre, which is what you see in the last scene of the film. They are nomads who travel in boats to different places and perform with snakes, monkeys and a bioscope. Though the children you see in this film have a very difficult life, the affection and empathy that they have created between them are very strong. Most of the kids in the film are now in the same shelter, and it’s nice to know that they are doing well. They also recently told me that Afrin and the boy with the glasses fell in love.
What were your thoughts on the film upon seeing it, and what impact do you hope it will have on audiences?
AK: I was wondering that myself after watching the teaser because it was the very first time I saw myself and my work in the film. Then I realized there could be thousands of orphan girls who have similar stories like me, affected by the floods and climate change. I experienced so much over this six-year journey and I have learned a lot. I hope people will like the film. They will realize that thousands of people like me are struggling in their life every day but they don’t lose their hope. Instead, they become more resilient.
“Mighty Afrin: in the time of floods” will have its international premiere on Tuesday, July 25th, at the Giffoni Film Festival in Italy. For more information, visit the official site of Angelos Rallis.