Words by Éloïse Armary
Afra Nuarey is a student in media for development and social change at the University of Sussex. Before starting her Masters, she produced a short documentary called Heads Above Water, about the Hijra community in Bangladesh. Hijra refers to a category or culture of gender identity for the individuals who are consigned as male at birth but later identify themselves with feminine characteristics. In February, the documentary cinema club, Cinema Politica Sussex, screened a premiere on campus. Afra is now submitting her documentary to film festivals. I met with Afra to discuss making an independent film in a highly sensitive environment.
Why did you want to make a film about the Hijra community?
As a kid, I was always curious about the Hijra community before knowing what transgender, non-binary and intersex identities are. I was curious about their behaviour, because they seem very aggressive, especially to men. I carried that interest with me growing up. When I was in my undergraduate in Malaysia, I did a minor in gender studies, and that’s where I learned that other identities existed beyond the male/female binary. I started to understand the psychological implications of socio-economic trauma. I related that to the Hijra community in my home country, which is very different from the LGBTIQ+ allyship in the West. In Bangladesh, there is a lot of corruption and complex layers of hierarchy behind the face of conforming to the stereotypes that society has of the Hijra community.
How did you approach the participants in the first place after you had the idea of making this documentary?
My best friend’s dad is the co-founder of an NGO that works specifically with Hijras. I learned a lot from him. He connected me with an entrepreneur and philanthropist, Marja, who helped me with connecting with the right communities.
When I first started the documentary, my perception of the Hijra community was very sympathetic. Along the line, it changed. I became more objective. I saw the problems within the community that are I think are caused by trauma.
Do you think you managed to get trust from them?
I did for a time being with the two adolescent transgender I filmed, Mitza and Faranza. When they live under the guru’s house, they get brainwashed. (The guru is the figurehead of each Hijras household where they raise and give refuge to other members of the society. They are perceived as a leader.) They don’t want to trust people. Ever since they were born, they were rejected. It was hard to get their trust. When I gained it, but I didn’t contact them for a while, that trust diminished. It’s a constant effort to build a relationship and communicate with them.
Did you notice a variety of experiences within the community?
People who live under the guru have an inbuilt fear of what they can say to ‘media’. There are people who are constantly instructing them what to do, their level of freedom is almost non-existent. For example, towards the end of my documentary, I gave Mitza and Faranza a present. The gurus took it away and kept it to themselves. That level of tension was so present. When we are speaking, the gurus would be monitoring the conversation and verbally harassing me if I was saying something wrong.
I wanted to be a detached observer because this is a traumatising story that I am telling with complicated layers. I had to be conscious that whatever questions I ask are confidential and that I don’t break that confidentiality. I also needed to make sure that whatever I reveal in the documentary doesn’t affect them in the future.
I was working with another person, Muni, who sells clothes in the street. She is a person who got herself out of the routine and broke the barriers of staying in a guru’s place. She tried to become independent. That route requires a lot of hard work too; she became a sex worker. She is marginalised but she has a level of self-actualisation. She went out of her way to sell clothes besides doing sex work, working in an NGO. It was easier to talk to her.
What do you think the film shows in the end?
I initially wanted to tackle the concept of identity – do they know who they are? I realised that the film builds an introduction of what is going on in Bangladesh from a local perspective that is easier for a Westerner to understand that the Hijra community is very different from the LGBTQIA+ community in the West. It requires a different approach than giving donations etc. It’s very important for the West to understand that, and to give them a space to express their own culture rather than mixing them with the transgender perspective in the West. My film is an introduction. It’s meant for both Westerners and Bangladeshi because many people in Bangladesh don’t know the guru structure either.
Do you think that your film brought something to the women you worked with?
I don’t think so. I didn’t go with NGOs or anything. As an independent filmmaker who just began her career in filmmaking, my initial idea about making this film was to tell a message that people should know. I wish I could help them but it’s outside my capacity because it requires many financial capacities that I don’t have at that moment. If I could, I would. I paid Mani and she told me she managed to sell more clothes and that it helped her to survive the pandemic. The other two who lived under the guru, I didn’t want to pay them because I knew the money would go to the guru. I did want to enable that, I wanted to help those two girls.
Do you have an insight on how it was for them to have a camera following them?
I think they are very used to it. I think that they like any exposure by the media, as long as it doesn’t reveal anything controversial.
Do you think that your film managed to bring another representation than the traditional media?
Definitely. From a Bangladeshi perspective, many people don’t know how the guru system works, many people don’t know that Hijra is an umbrella term, it’s a culture, it’s not an identity. A lot of people think that they are just born to be aggressive. They are aggressive because of their trauma.
What was the aspect you were the proudest of in making this film?
A lot of people don’t have patience with them. I stuck to it for a year, I wanted to get what I wanted. Even though it became really hard for me at some point, mentally, physically, compassion fatigue wise, I stuck to it and completed it.
Because of the pandemic and the lockdowns, I couldn’t contact them regularly. They weren’t comfortable with me staying with them for safety reasons. I didn’t have enough funding to have a structure allowing me to stay with them. I had to go in between.
What was the hardest thing for you?
The hardest thing for me was to communicate with the gurus. I didn’t film the gurus,
I only kept the camera on my two subjects. Whenever a media approaches a Hijra community, they always approach the gurus. I wanted to see the people in the middle who are usually dismissed. I wanted to film Muni because I wanted to show that although they took two different approaches, they are still struggling.
You screened the film for Cinema Politica Sussex (a documentary cine club). How was it for you?
The response was amazing. I was very nervous. I am not comfortable claiming myself a filmmaker, and I think that many women go through that. Instead, I like to call myself a storyteller, I wanted to tell a story that I felt needed to be told. I told a story, people heard that story, the response was surreal because I didn’t expect it.
Is there any film that inspired you?
There is a documentary filmmaker who I really love. Jess Kohl made a documentary, Nirvana, about the transgender community in India at the festival. She made a documentary about two characters. That story was told beautifully, it was very authentic, it wasn’t poverty porn, the structure, the music, the visuals really inspired me.
There is a channel called Nowness, they publish very creative documentaries. They are told from a poetic style. Because of lack of funding, I couldn’t shoot much, so I had to approach a poetic style. This channel was an inspiration.
What is your next project?
I am making a photography project about divorcees in Bangladesh. I am travelling back home in April and will start then. It’s a mixture between contemporary photography and portrait photography, I want to photograph the conceptual concretely, a few portraits, collect their stories, and come back here and structure it. Hopefully, get it published!
Afra’s film is now in submission for festivals, including Sheffield Doc Festival. Unfortunately, part of the criteria of film festivals is that the film cannot be shown publically, but we wish her the best of luck and hope that Heads above water will be successful!
Follow Afra’s socials to stay tuned for when the film will be available for the public and follow her next storytelling ventures.