Directed by Pakistani’s first, and now two-time, Oscar-winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (Saving Face and A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, also screening at SFF16) and Geeta Gandbhir, A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers is an absorbing and enlightening document of the experiences of a group of Bangladeshi policewomen who join a year-long UN peacekeeping mission in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. While it serves as a challenge for these dedicated and strong-willed women, willing to leave behind their immediate families to honour other family members who had either died in the same line of work, or firmly believed in it, they do experience many psychologically affecting obstacles as they shatter commonly held Muslim traditions and gender stereotypes.
In the years to follow the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti civil unrest has gradually escalated – Government promises to re-house those displaced have not been followed through, and the volatile environment has been given further fuel when the locals perceive that the overstayed UN mission, made up of non-unified multinational soldiers who don’t share a common language, is responsible for a cholera outbreak. The film follows this group of courageous women – with close focus on three in particular – throughout their assignment and preparations in Dhaka, the specifics of their mission in Haiti, especially influential and emotionally taxing tasking, and their eventual return home.
While their inspiring efforts on the peacekeeping frontline posed endless challenges, they face fresh ones on return and reintegration. One’s mother, ailing before she left, passes away while she is there, and her son retreats into strict Islam and distances himself from her decision. Two of her closest family are not there to greet her when she touches down. Another returns home to a hostile environment; a son who doesn’t recognise her and a husband beset on kicking her out. The primary reason; her involvement in a fashion show in Haiti, which was viewed not as a celebration of her empowerment and a reward for her work, but an indecency. This emotional conflict is unsettling, and there is an undercurrent of suspense as their sacrifices and decisions have increasingly higher stakes.
This film offers an extraordinary insight, and a rare one, into the lives of modern Muslim women. It is an incisive study of the gender politics and the cultural oppression they face, as we are taken into their households to witness intimate discussions between the women and their husbands. While some of them are their family’s primary breadwinners, they still face opposition by their husbands and parents for leaving their family for work. Traditionally, for Muslim women their family is their work – and to leave the man in charge of the household can be perceived as an act of emasculation. We also get a sense of how the children feel about their absence, and what their mother’s are working for, and this also features a balance of admiration and rejection.
Despite their period of training in Bangladesh they find themselves ill-equipped for the situation in Haiti. When a weapon is misplaced on the unit’s watch, an emergency session is called and the women are given further training. Not only are they risking family harmony back in Bangladesh, but their lives were under threat, having not received the adequate training. Obaid-Chinoy and Gandbhir resolutely understand the sacrifices these women have made for their country, and it is an example of why we need vital documentaries like this so that their stories can be shared around the world.
By Andrew Buckle
Directors: Geeta Gandbhir, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
Producers: Geeta Gandbhir, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
Country: Pakistan, USA
Language: English, Greek, Bengali
Runtime: 95 minutes