Documentary speaks for silenced refugees

Law student Jawaid Stationwala made a documentary about a poor but vibrant culture in Bangladesh, which he began filming as a 2008 Fulbright scholar. Photo courtesty Jawaid Stationwala.

The subjects in Jawaid Stationwala’s documentary are unimaginably poor. But the film isn’t about their poverty, says the third-year Northeastern University law student.

“That may be the backdrop of this film, but it’s not the focus,” Stationwala explains. 

Instead, the documentary “Ma Ki Zaban” — or “Mother Tongue” — highlights the art, language and cultural identity of some 250,000 Urdu-speaking refugees who were stranded in camps the size of prison cells in Dhaka, Bangladesh shortly after the 1971 Bangladeshi Liberation War. 

The broader goal of the film, Stationwala said, was to raise awareness of a population with a distinct, but unheard, voice.

“The people I’m working with are indigent, poor and — in the most extreme sense — have no access to even the most basic rights,” Stationwala says, adding that the Dhaka refugees have only recently been granted citizenship in their own country. 

“The idea was to produce a documentary that was something near and dear to their hearts — their language and the beauty that comes out of it — and draw some attention to their culture as a whole.”

The seeds of the documentary were planted more than three years ago. As a 2008 Fulbright scholar, Stationwala visited Bangladesh to collect data on the Urdu-speaking refugees in order to build a community-health profile. 

One of the filmmaker’s subjects is a young Bihari poet named Hasan, whose plight helped tell a story of poverty, rife with health and educational disparities. “He had every excuse in the world to not turn out well, and somehow he came out to be this phenomenal person,” Stationwala says.

Stationwala, a Public Interest Law Scholar, will graduate with his degree in the spring. He plans to apply to become a public defender, with the goal of helping indigent people charged in criminal cases.

The Northeastern Law Forum, which sponsors events and discussions on contemporary legal issues, will screen “Ma Ki Zaban” on Monday, Feb. 13 at noon in 240 Dockser Hall.