On Thursday 20 April, Third Culture Film Festival kicks off with The Young & The Restless! One of the highlights will surely be Mark Olexa and Francesca Scalisi‘s short documentary Moriom, an unflinchingly intimate portrait of trauma. Reserving outside judgment, the directors remain separate from their subject matter – this film is not outwardly pedagogic nor does it make any neat attempt at summarising, explaining or analysing. Rather, its beauty lies in its startlingly direct portrayal of its enigmatic protagonist and the tragic humanity behind a woman trapped in her own home.
Moriom is a young survivor of sexual violence in rural Bangladesh. Although the exact details are unclear, we are told that she was abducted near her home, raped and tortured. According to her parents, upon her return her behaviour turned immediately hostile, forcing them to shackle her feet and keep her indoors.
The film’s 12 minutes put the audience in a proximity to Moriom that is almost uncomfortable. She stares down the lens self-consciously, bringing us into her world through the mesmerising sounds that reverberate through the camera, almost voyeuristic in their intimacy – the clank of her shackles that mirror her jingling jewellery, the scrape of her toothbrush as she strangely uses it to brush her skin, the echo of the inscrutable clapping that her parents take as a sign of her madness.
In her trauma, her parents become the torturers, and Moriom is a defiant prisoner intent on revenge. “I came to destroy all the bad things in the world. I’m a police officer. I’m a flower angel. I’m an angel of heaven and I got a job at the police station. I will punish them. I will put them in jail.” For co-director Francesca Scalisi, her condition leads to a kind of perverse freedom as she is able to transcend a culture of female submission through refusing to conform to socially acceptable behaviour. Speaking to Third Culture, she explains that “Moriom, with no ties to the daily life, symbolically became the “executioner” who could destroy all the criminals and, at the same time a beautiful flower who symbolically breaks the chains that often subjugate Bangladeshi women.”
Violence against women in Bangladesh is not an unknown epidemic. Dowry-related dispute remains the most pervasive form of violence, followed by rape, especially within marriage. In a 2015 survey, the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics found that a staggering 50 percent of women who were either currently or had previously been married claimed they had at some point in their lives been physically abused, 27 percent citing sexual violence. 27 percent of non-partnered women had at some point experienced physical violence, with three percent suffering sexual violence.
Human rights group Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) reported that in 2016 724 women were raped, 37 of whom were killed as a result. However, actual numbers are likely to be higher as women become discouraged from filing official reports with the police. The stigma that persists mean that women have a fear of further violence, of losing family honour, or of being shamed within the community. This is especially poignant considering that in the majority of cases, the perpetrator is a close family member. A lengthy and complex legal process, as well as high legal fees, are a further disincentive, particularly for the poorer, often illiterate women in rural areas.
As a result, NGOs and private organisations become the main actors in legal cases, but accessibility is still an issue – as was the case with Moriom, according to Scalisi – as well as the lack of awareness of the kind of aid that is available. Victim support centres have in recent years become more common, yet remain relatively scarce, in addition to lacking fully trained councillors.
Although the government has taken considerable steps in combating violence against women (VAW), particularly through the implementation of the Prevention of Oppression Against Women and Children Act in 2000, and more recently the Domestic Violence Prevention and Protection Act of 2010; this legislation does not do enough in changing societal attitudes that normalise VAW, especially within marriage. Although rape is illegal, marital rape in Bangladesh has still not been de-criminalised.
A UN study in 2013, which investigated why men across the Asia Pacific region use violence against women, found that although 97 percent of men surveyed from rural Bangladeshi areas and 95 percent from urban areas claimed they believed that men and women should be treated equally, 62 percent and 60 percent respectively thought that women deserved to be beaten at times. Out of the 10 percent of men from urban areas and 14 percent from rural areas that admitted to perpetrating some form of rape in their lives, 82 percent and 79 percent claimed that they did so because they believed they are in fact entitled to do so, that they have a right to sex, irrespective of consent.
These deeply rooted patriarchal values mean that women are forced into a violent submission and become defined by harmful gender stereotypes. Violence against women, especially domestic violence, becomes a way of reinforcing this ingrained inequality because the perpetrators often face little to no legal action. The same UN study found that 88 percent of the rural Bangladeshi men who admitted to rape and 95 percent of the urban men did in fact not experience any legal consequences.
Policy reform, campaigning and advocacy go a long way in bringing awareness of these issues into the public sphere, helping to eradicate stigma and the culture of silence. One incident in March of last year that was brought noticeably to the public’s attention was the rape and murder of 19-year-old university student Sohagi Jahan Tonu. The case sparked mass protests and social media campaigns demanding justice, ASK in particular expressing frustration at the law proceedings that followed the incident. They accused the law enforcement agency of harassing the victim’s family and encouraging them to fabricate their official statement to say that Tonu had had relations with someone from her college. The case is ongoing, and the killers have yet to be identified. This kind of public outcry is important in creating widespread social movements that demand government accountability, so that impunity for the perpetrators will no longer be the norm.
Police harassment and a general failure of effective investigation is common according to the Bangladeshi National Woman Lawyers Association, who cite that after humiliating interrogations that aim to judge the victim’s character, they are often held responsible for the crime. In Moriom’s case, the parents apparently did not pursue legal action because she herself was blamed for the incident – she had willingly left her home with the man that eventually raped her with a group of friends.
Beyond the numbers, this film turns the victims of violence into something more than a statistic – like Tanu’s, this is a story of an individual that deserves and demands public attention. The piercing emotion felt through the lens of the camera speaks for itself in a way that hard data never can. Moriom resists easy interpretation and in doing so transcends the cultural boundaries that would have made this film less universally human. Scalisi says, “I believe that films and art in general have the potential to connect humans and raise awareness regarding certain issues. Still, in order to be an effective means of communication, art should be freed from any social preoccupation while focusing on its boundless realisation.” The camera becomes a mirror through which Moriom can reveal herself to us. “This is where the power of the film lies”, declares Scalisi. A young woman with profound psychological trauma challenges us to listen to her story, to meet her sharp gaze, and to not look away.