Documentary and short-fiction filmmaker Nadya Bhimani Perera talks to Women Talk about making her documentary on Rizana Nafeek, the Sri Lankan migrant worker who was executed in Saudi. Nadya discusses issues relating to women migrant workers in Sri Lanka, film as a medium to express women’s narratives, and her short-fiction film, screening at Locarno Open Doors this year.
How did you get involved with the visual medium?
I hadn’t really planned to get into filmmaking. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do with life. I went to India to do a basic degree and that was in Economics, and that happened to be in Pune. At that time, I did not know that the National Film Archive of India and the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) were all located really close to where I was staying. I kind of got to know that, as time went on. Something that really got me excited about film was when a Bhagath Singh movie was shot in our college. Pune was often apparently used for film locations. Over night, the college premises were cordoned off for the students, for people to watch from the sidelines. It was turned into Lahore and we had gone back in time. It was amazing. It was a huge production, obviously a Bollywood production. There were so many extras in period costumes, and horses, and even the colour of the earth had been changed. Ajay Devgan was there. They were shooting and I remember I was just standing there, mesmerized. I don’t think I went for a single lecture although part of the college was still functioning. I was just standing there the whole day and staring.
About the second day, I was still standing there and I suddenly saw that one member of the crew was in a Sri Lanka cricket t-shirt. He was going on and off the set, as he pleased. I think he was one of the assistant directors. For a moment, I thought, ‘Oh my god, he is a Sri Lankan’. I went out to him and said, ‘Are you from Sri Lanka?’ He said, ‘No, why?’ I said, ‘I thought you were.’ He said, ‘What do you want?’ I said, ‘Is there any way to get closer to what’s happening? I can be very quiet.’ He said, ‘Seriously? I am sorry we have been given strict instructions. You can see, none of the Indians are even getting to go.’ On the third day, he caught me. They had put a fence. I was looking through it. A shooting scene was happening with Bhagath Singh. Suddenly, someone taps me on the back and it was [the assistant director]. He said, ‘Look, I might get into trouble. You can’t breathe, you can’t move, you can’t say a word, just follow me now. Get into the extras and just stand there. Don’t get noticed by anyone. If anyone asks, don’t say I let you in.’ So, he let me in. I found it really magical that so many grown-ups had come together and were working very seriously and professionally at make believe. There was something very magical about the process. That was a very raw initial feeling [about filmmaking]. But later, I started finding out about the film institute. They had a film appreciation course that I could follow while doing my degree. Before applying for it, I thought maybe I need more experience because I didn’t have any experience in the film medium at all.
You then get the opportunity to experience the script writing process of a film in Sri Lanka?
On a holiday, when I came back to Sri Lanka, I asked around, and at that time Prasanna Vithanage and Priyath Liyanage were translating the script and doing the pre-production work of Ira Mediyama. He said that I could shadow him and learn the ropes. While I was here, I did that. That turned out to be really an eye-opener for me, in terms of screen play or script part of it. The writing for screen, I realised was an art of its own and I started really falling in love with that process. Prasanna Vithanage happened to be a very good teacher in film. I was introduced to other films and books, which I did not know about. That I think got me more hungry.
Could you elaborate on the film appreciation course you took at FTII, Pune?
When I went back, I got into the film appreciation course. That was really exciting. That wasn’t a filmmaking course. That was a film appreciation course. It was just talking about films and different aspects of films. You also get to see a really amazing international masterpiece every night at the film archive for free. From Kurosawa to Kiarostami, I was exposed to watching those on the big screen. It makes a difference rather than finding a DVD and watching it. For me, I think it was an amazing way to be introduced to those films. Even after that, since I had the benefit of living in Pune for a couple of more years to do my degree, I made it a point to watch every film possible there. Even when I wasn’t allowed and the screenings were only meant for film institute students or alumni, I would sneak up to the projection operator’s room. I watched Bimal Roy’s Devdas that way. The time in Pune was helpful in that sense. And also at that time Danushka Gunathilake has just come to Pune to follow his course on cinematography. So, the two of us did our first short film there, together with friends. The first film is always memorable and it is a good way to just experiment.
Then you get a call to work for the Italian-Sri Lankan production Machan?
In the meantime, I had also done one more short film here; again with friends, while I was at Young Asia Television. I still lacked the confidence in myself or I thought I didn’t really know the process – the craft, that I didn’t really have a hang of it. Then again, out of the blue, I got a call saying that there is this film being made by an Italian director [Uberto Passolini]. And that he is looking out for a translator. That is not really a designation, or a credit, that you have heard of in a film. Translator, what do I have to do? I was told that he wanted to communicate through me to the cast because the cast was more comfortable in Sinhala. Those intricate details will be lost in translation if he spoke in English. He was willing to try me out. I went and they were doing rehearsals. I got selected. Later on in the process, I was asked to be his assistant. That is not assistant director but director’s assistant and translator.
What was it like to work on the set of Machan?
That turned out to be way more of a learning experience than I bargained for because I didn’t realise at the time that everything the director would tell the actors and the actors’ feedback, everything would be through me. Whenever the film was being shot, wherever the action was, I got to be right there, watching and learning. Also, when shooting started they had an issue because the main cinematographer had also come from Italy and the crew was all Sri Lankan. He needed to communicate. I was asked to do that, also. It was kind of a very unconventional role to play but it was really interesting. I got a really good vantage point from there. It was also a big set with crew members from India, Italy, Sri Lanka, everyone together, big cast and lots of travelling. In India, where I had to look from the sidelines of the film set, I was now on it. I saw how it all worked and what to do and what not to do. That was really memorable. That kind of sealed the deal. That was what I wanted to do if it worked out one day.
You hold an MA in Development Studies from the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague. How is your higher education background in development studies reflected in the work that you do?
I wouldn’t say that’s why I did it. But later, I did realise that there was a link that I was making. While I was there, I had no involvement in anything related to film. I just did a lot of travelling and this course. I was always interested in poverty alleviation work, social work, and social dynamics. My thesis was on migration. I did later end up doing documentaries on those themes. I found that even when I do certain documentaries and video work for other organisations related to development, where they would usually call for a videographer or a filmmaker and give them the brief, tell them what to ask, what to do, and guide them, I was allowed, because of my background in development studies, to do the research on my own. They would just see the final edit and, if they had, give feedback. They just trusted me with the research part of it as well. In retrospect, definitely, it has helped.
You have an interest in both fiction and documentary filmmaking. Tell our readers a bit about 4th of February, your documentary film, telling the stories of three Sri Lankan women migrant workers.
This film was funded by CEPA and Agenda14. It was a production pitch, a competitive one where you had to pitch your ideas and a few projects got selected. Long before that had come on to the scene, I found myself thinking a lot about the case of Rizana Nafeek who at that time was on death row. She was in Saudi, in a prison in Riyadh. She was accused of murdering an infant in her care but she had said that it was an accident. She was in prison for some seven or more years. And nothing had happened.
What moved you about this particular case?
I am not sure why but at one point I started thinking about what it must be like for her and also the fact that she was just a few years younger than I was. These few years of her life, the most crucial, which would shape anyone, she was in Riyadh; in a land where she probably did not know the language. She was on death row to add to all that. I had seen that her family was from Muttur of Trincomalee, a really poor village off Trinco. I got really curious. I was just thinking – of course, when I first start thinking about something I think in visual medium, maybe, like in film. I’ve just heard about this. First of all, I wanted to know what the situation was like then. And how her family was doing, how she was doing, and whether they were in touch. I was trying to find a way to find out more about her. But no one seemed to really know. The family was no longer in the news and no one had any links.
How did you connect with her family?
I happened to have a friend who had family living in Trinco. Through them, I found the address of their home in Muttur from a newspaper. They gave it to a three-wheel driver they knew well who spoke Tamil and he went there. They kind of got them on the phone for me. It was a family relation who could speak Sinhala who spoke to me. I said, ‘This is really an odd thing I am asking but I was just wondering if it was okay to come and speak to you?’ They asked me, ‘What paper are you from? What NGO are you from?’ I said, ‘No, I am not attached to anything.’ They were like, ‘You are not? You just want to come and ask how everything is?’ I said, ‘Yeah’. They said, ‘If you are not attached to anything you can come.’ And they gave me a day. I took a bus and went to Trinco. Then, from there, with that three-wheel driver, also, as my translator, I went to Muttur to Safi Nagar where they live. They were still in that tiny hut then. It was her mother, father, and two sisters who were there. I spoke to them. They told me that they still hadn’t really given up hope. They thought she was still coming back. They would manage to speak to her once in a while on the phone. They were angry. They were sad. They spoke a lot. Then, when I was trying to go the mother said, ‘Can you stay a bit longer? I’ll make lunch for you. Wait till the sisters come home from school.’ I ended up staying. I ate with them. The family was really warm and affectionate.
You seemed to have made a close connection with them …
The mother continued to call me. She still does. It’s odd because she doesn’t speak Sinhala. I don’t speak Tamil. But we still have a way of communicating. Even now, when she asks me to come visit her I do. I go with the film crew now. We stay there and come back. Just when I came back, I was still thinking of what to do with this and whether I could do maybe a short film of an imaginary day where she would come back and now what coming home would mean to her. Because after all these years let down by the country, her family, the people in her village would they still be suspicious of her? And she has grown up in a prison cell. The trauma and everything. Would it still be her coming back? What would it mean for her to now come home – because in my mind I thought she was going to be brought home still. I was just focusing on what that would mean, after such a long time. The newspapers suddenly had headlines going that the [Sri Lankan] President had spoken to the King [in Saudi] and gotten a pardon. She was going to be brought home. Rizana’s mother also called me and was really excited. She was like, ‘Are you seeing this?’ They were also getting the news as we were. We thought she was coming home and got really excited.
Then, I was in touch with people from the foreign ministry. I was kind of snooping around because I had my suspicions. It sounded too good to be true. I found out that it was actually kind of a publicity stunt. Because Saudi Arabia had told our government that her clemency period was running out. If nothing is done now, any day now she will be beheaded. Basically, the leaders wanted to show that they had taken action, just in case someone would accuse them of not doing enough.
What was it like when you heard the news of her execution?
Just before the SMS got around, I got news one morning that she had been beheaded. And I didn’t know how to even react. In a while, Rizana’s mother started calling me non-stop. I didn’t know even how to answer the phone. Then, to see that she also had got the news from the Ada Derana SMS alert. This is when people had taken them to Saudi several times. So, everyone had their contact details. No one had communicated anything specifically to the family. They had just prepared themselves that she was coming home. Now, they hear that she is beheaded. At that point, I just forgot about the film thing. It was too insensitive to even think of touching that subject again. I just went there immediately. It was kind of strange; almost a funeral without a body happening there. All the Muslim community had come together. Of course, the media again was trying to come. Rizana’s mother and everyone was not in a mood for that. There was a circus, again. I just went, sat with her, spoke to her, and came back.
You eventually go on to make a film about her?
Several months later when this production pitch was announced through CEPA and Agenda14 what they said was that we were to pick some theme related to development. It could be anything. And the genre could be anything – fiction, animation, documentary. For us to just pitch an idea. So, I did. Even there, I had made up mind. I knew I wanted to talk about the issue of migration, unskilled migration, especially Sri Lankan women to the Middle East as housemaids. But I wasn’t going to bother Rizana’s family at all.
At the presentation, everyone had very elaborate presentations, I just had one still photo I had taken on my way to her house. I just showed that picture and spoke on it. From Trinco when you go to Muttur you have to cross the Kinniya bridge, which is a brand new bridge. A huge bridge. I learnt that when Rizana left the country you had to still cross by ferry. That bridge wasn’t there. And now this huge bridge was there. On the sides of big plaques announced that it was from the Saudi Kingdom’s aid that it had been made. I Googled it. There had been big opening ceremonies. Leaders from both countries were there, pledging support in the future. All that happening minutes away from their house but this was the same time that we were being told that our government was doing everything in its power to try and negotiate with that government to get this girl home. But all this was happening and then she died. It [the bridge] was just so close to her house. I was using that as a symbol and I was talking about it in the end. There was [filmmaker] Asoka Handagama and lots of people on the panel. Everyone was like, you have been there and genuinely have a feeling about it, why are you leaving her out of the story? Why don’t you want to cover her also?
I told them that I don’t think any of us have a right to bother them anymore and put them through anything more than they already have. But they asked me, just ask them and see and if they are willing maybe you should because you made this contact with them anyway. Later, I did approach them. They surprisingly said that if it was me they would speak to me. I again made a decision not to make it a story about her death and the gory details, to kind of sensationalise it more than it has been.
What was it that you focused on in the film?
I focused on something her mother had said. Sri Lanka gave them compensation money. Lots of people had a lot to say about her accepting it also. I had seen how poor they were. And it was difficult to hear what everyone was saying. Also, I think the Sri Lankan Army or Navy had built them a house. They are in this really poor village. The lane comes down and the hut they used to live is there. At the end of the street, there is this big green house built of brick and cement. Very out of place. It’s standing out like a sore thumb. On it ‘Rizana Nafeek’s home’ kind of plaque … When the mother spoke to me, she said that she finds it too difficult to stay in that house, obviously because they associate that with her memory. The females of the family sleep there at night. But they still continue to keep that other hut they lived in when she went. In the morning at five, they take all their stuff and go, cook, say their prayers, and stay there. They come here to sleep. So, I was kind of focusing on that phase. Then I also didn’t want to make a story just about her because, even after her death, what the media did was to kind of focus on her issue and make it almost like an isolated incident when it’s not. She did get executed but there are lots of Sri Lankans in similar situations who are as vulnerable.
We also have a very gendered economy because we depend largely on the remittances of women migrant workers. What are your thoughts on this?
We as a country also continue to actually encourage it though we at another level kind of say that they really need to obey the rules, our duty is to protect them, and we want to discourage them. We are actually very much dependent on them. And if the foreign remittance they bring in were to stop tomorrow we would be in very big trouble. We have no substitute plan or we have no alternative to that kind of income; to breach the foreign exchange gap – the balance of payment deficit. Sri Lanka in the near future has no plan to match it. Number one export is migrant workers as domestic workers. It’s not garments, it’s not tea, rubber, or coconut. It’s them. There is kind of a two-pronged approach. We try to maintain this image that we don’t like sending our women abroad but we are very much dependent on them but we try not to highlight that fact. We make sure that if things continue a certain class of people will have no alternative but to go. I also wanted to touch on that in the film. Only focusing on her would be almost like highlighting the dangers of going. The reality for most of these women, not just there but also in Colombo, East, and everywhere in the country, increasingly is that they have no other choice. Sometimes women are trapped in abusive marriages where in that social class divorce or separation is not acceptable; it is too taboo. The only way to get out of a situation is then to migrate as domestic workers. It’s a very complex situation.
You picked two other cases of migration for your documentary. Could you elaborate on them?
One was a mother of three who had gone and come. She hadn’t had a really bad experience compared to most women. But her issue was that if she were to go again – she was pretty sure that in a few years she would have to because her husband was a three wheel driver and you can’t really match her salary here – her problem was that the laws that had been brought in to “safeguard” them worked against her. There is a law saying that mothers of children less than five years of age can’t migrate unless they have a proper system to look after them. But most women or authorities lie and they do go when they don’t have another choice. When her third child was less than five, she had gone to a travel agency. When they asked her to fill the details, she had filled in the details of the youngest child also. Then when they told her there is this law you can’t, gave her the Tipp-Ex, told her to blot it out, and just say that you have the older two children. And so she did that.
Sometimes women get caught by the authorities. What happened in her case was that everything was ready – the agency had spent on the health check, getting training certificate, all that. Just when she was about to go that young child who she blotted out fell badly ill. So, on the given day she couldn’t go. She tried to tell them that, but on the record that child is not existent. The agency’s problem was, look, we have spent for you. We’ve done all this. We are down on the deal if you don’t go. You have to go. She said she can’t. And this happens to other women also. I found out later through research. Even if they have a change of heart, after going through the 21-day training programme they can’t change their minds. Once they know what they are in for and have a change of heart the agencies kind of threaten them. And how they threaten them is that they say then we’ll keep your passport with us, when your child is older, after five, you have to go through us. Until then, we keep the passport.
When they ask for the passport back and plead with them they then ask for money, amounts that these women can’t give in the first place. So, that had happened to her and she had gone to the foreign employment bureau. They had not been very helpful. They had just asked her to take them to courts. She was in this fix and no one was helping her when everyone was supposed to be looking out for her. I touched on that [in the film].
What was the third case you spoke on?
The third woman I spoke to was someone who had had in Bahrain experienced really bad abuse, torture, and sexual harassment in the house she was staying in, in the Middle East. She tried to kill herself but she was stopped. Even that wasn’t allowed. She tried to escape through a window, managed, and she got on to the road. She didn’t know her way about, obviously. A cab driver said that I will take you to the Sri Lankan embassy, took her to some isolated beach, and raped her. And then from there, she was sold [to men from different countries]. And she ends up with a Sri Lankan lady who has been living there, who is running a brothel. There she pleads with her to let her go home. She has told her that I am not keeping you by force if you go out on to the streets you are an illegal migrant. You’ll be deported. But you are free to go. If you stay here this is what you have to do. I get half of the money, you get half. But I am not forcing you. So she begged to take a phone call. She managed to get to a phone and call her husband.
She says her husband was drunk when he answered. He had shouted at her in filth and said, ‘Why haven’t you been sending money home all these months?’ He has told, ‘I don’t care what you do with the Arab men there, do whatever it takes, send money or your children and your parents are out on the streets. I am going to throw them out of the house.’ And she said, ‘I kept the phone and took a decision then and I decided to work as a sex worker.’ She said that she earned a lot of money. And when she finally came she found her family was in disarray and usually, they fall into a vicious cycle where they again have to try and go abroad for money. She went and there at that health check she was told she was HIV positive. Now she is living here, struggling for work. I think, occasionally, also, still working as a sex worker. But she is using protection and she is trying to look after herself as well as she can but her family doesn’t know that it is HIV she has. She is living on her own somewhere near the city. She is struggling. Her story really showed how we use the money that they send back but really no one was responsible for them.
Do you think that the visual medium is a good way to capture some of these stories that are untold?
I think so. I guess it all depends on how you use it. But in the case of migrant workers and the horrible experiences they go through, we hear those horror stories, we’ve heard them for years now in print media. We always read about it. We know. Because of my development studies background, I have attended forums where all organisations working for migrants come together. Even in forums like that, the level of discussion is so far from the ground reality that if you can manage to show a short film like this … [At one occassion] it was not in the programme, I was just there as a report taker but when they heard this film was there they made a small slot for it and said why don’t you show it. The special ambassadors to the UN and several high profile people were shocked when they saw this. They said, we kind of got a reality check. We are there working on policy level papers for so long that we are very distanced from the real situation, basic little things that we don’t catch. You can strengthen the rules on one side to protect them but once a migrant worker/domestic worker goes into a house she is trapped behind the four walls. No one will get to know that she is in trouble even. And their passport is taken.
No matter what bi-lateral agreements our countries have signed or how many people we have in embassy or how well trained they are, they aren’t, but even if they were, for her to reach them when she is not allowed to use the phone, when she is beaten, when she is oppressed that doesn’t happen. It’s a good medium to highlight things in the words of the women themselves. In the documentary, there was no narration used at all. It’s just the three women talking and that has been edited in a certain way there. Because it’s them saying it, it becomes less hard to deny it. Rather than we keep hearing reports and third person stories. Whether it translates then into actual change on the ground I am cynical about that. But to reach people and to shake them up, definitely this medium is I think powerful.
What inspired to do your short fiction film While you slept?
I had to travel to Hambantota and stay about a week there. We were shooting a documentary there. During our stay, one day the crew and I, we didn’t have a place to have lunch, as it was about 3 o’clock. Somewhere near the salterns in Hambantota where you would least expect it, I saw these big red Chinese letters on it. It appeared to be a Chinese restaurant. We were all surprised. We went in. They had menus printed out. There was a Chinese man inside but he was watching TV and didn’t seem very interested in serving us. And then this girl came out, a Sri Lankan local girl, a village girl. When we said we wanted to order she went in and spoke to the Chinese guy in fluent Mandarin, what sounded like fluent Mandarin to me. And then came back and told us in Sinhala that the chef has gone home. Today, preparing food is a bit of a problem. We were all a bit put off because then only we realised that this is probably a front for something else and not a real restaurant.
I saw that the compound next to it also had a board but there was no entrance except through this premises – there was a hole in the wall kind of entrance to that side. I saw one dusty red Chinese lantern hanging near that doorway. I asked her what’s on the other side. Without thinking, she said that it’s a massage parlour. So, we left at that point. But what struck me and stayed with me about this girl when she came towards us was, it was a very uneasy feeling I got. She was a Sri Lankan local girl, a village girl. But she has done her face up to look Chinese. He has put her eyebrows up and the way that she was wearing her hair. It was a strange mix. It was a strange distorted kind of look. That kind of stuck in my head.
There is a theme about women and livelihoods in While you slept, too?
At that time, the port was being built [in Hambantota]. It was 2014. All over, there were Chinese prisoners who had been brought in. They were living and working there. You can’t see anyone but Chinese men, all over the vast landscape. For a minute, you didn’t know where you were. It was very strange and very surreal. We went to another house for an interview. I remember that a little school girl, a Sri Lankan girl, had on the cabinet – where you had your parents’ and grandparents’ wedding photo, all the pictures – a small picture of a Chinese woman, like from a pocket calendar. She had put it in a little plastic frame and kept it there. I was just thinking, on the roads you would see these Chinese men working and then there is no transport there. It was wilderness on the other side. You had school girls and school children walking for miles, after school. I was just thinking these people must be for the first time in their lives passing Chinese men, working all over. On TV also we started getting those Korean dramas. I was wondering whether that little girl’s concept of beauty was now this.
When this other grant opportunity again came, this was again Agenda14 and Care. So, they gave a theme saying co-existence. I still kind of wanted to tell this story. They gave me some time to prepare for the pitch. They said to go out and do research. I went to Hambantota, back to that place. This time they had some rice full of Ajinomoto that was served to us. It was like a functioning kitchen with Sri Lankan men in the kitchen. While the food was ordered, I kind of casually just walked on to the other side and tried to walk in. The receptionist table there was empty. As I was trying to walk in, in the hall I saw like five or six quite attractive Chinese women – actual Chinese women, wearing shorts. This was in the middle of Hambantota. They were obviously staying there. They kind of all panicked when they saw me. One girl just came to the doorway. She would manage a little bit of broken English. She was like,‘No, no, hotel that side.’ She thought I had come by mistake. She wouldn’t let me come in. She said, ‘Here massage only’. I said, ‘Massage for men only?’ She said yes. I asked, ‘Chinese men only?’ She said yes. And she said, ‘Go go, otherwise customer very angry.’ I just asked, ‘I want to speak to the Sri Lankan girl who works here.’ She looked at me with a blank expression and said, ‘No Sri Lankan girl working here.’ Then I realised that this was 2015. This could be my imagination also but if what I thought at that time was right and that girl had made herself up to look attractive to Chinese customers by now it had come to a stage where Chinese women directly could be brought. It’s a matter of time before that happens. That girl would have maybe become redundant and sent away because she wouldn’t be able to compete now with the real thing.
Any future projects to look out for?
Locarno Open Doors screening is the next screening of the While you slept film. I am excited to take this kind of story there because it’s not the kind of short film that I could easily screen all over Sri Lanka. I kind of didn’t get the backing for that. Whereas the Rizana Nafeek film, I got to show at universities and I could take it around more; it was easily acceptable. But here I even got an ‘adults only’ label. It’s always nice to show it to a new audience and get feedback. There is also this feature film project that I have been working for years now; something very close to my heart. The first and maybe the second draft of the script is done. Somewhere mid way I started working with a co-writer, which has been really helpful for me. While working on it simultaneously, I am also looking out for funding opportunities.
Date of interview: 12 July 2017
Interviewer: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage