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14Jul/060

The return of Hollywood

Cinema going in Dhaka seems set to change forever. In the past month, Dhaka’s Star Cineplex has opened its curtains to three of the latest summer blockbusters to come out of Hollywood. No sooner had the city’s cine-going public recoiled from the joy of watching Mission Impossible III on the big screen, now they are advertising the latest sequel of The Pirates of Carribean and Superman. Are we witnessing a new trend in Dhaka’s cinema experience?

‘Back in our time movies were meant to be watched at the theatres with friends, family or loved ones, but with the advent of DVDs, VCDs and also very few or almost no theatres showing the latest releases, the era of true movie-going experience seemed to be gone forever’, says 28-year-old Dhaka resident Anindita, who was at the Star Cineplex last week to catch Mi:III with her two daughters.

‘Now with the release of recent movies like King Kong and Mission Impossible III, it seems like the movie going trend is here to stay for a long while at least,’ Anindita says. ‘The experience was simply exciting! The big screen plays an important part in the true movie experience: the sound effects, acting skills and yes the charm of actors like Tom Cruise!’ she adds.

The reaction of Dhakaites to the release of these movies on mega theatres is evident when you see the endless queues before theatres across the city. Movie theatres which were once empty and making a loss are now are experiencing the greatest hike in years. From teenagers to middle aged, everyone is up for the taste of this enthralling movie going experience.

The picture wasn’t of course the same even a year ago. The movie culture of Bangladesh has been extremely droll and part of the reason for a sharp decline in movie goers have been the advent of DVDs, VCDs, a great factor has been inevitably the absence of good movies and good halls.

However two years back when Cineplex, one of the largest movie theatres in Bangladesh came to town, many expected a new trend of entertainment to set in. Indeed the opening ceremony of this larger than life cineplex gave rise to a lot of excitement and expectations to the movie goers.

‘We really expected a brand new entertainment experience to come about. But the hall only offered the same old movies over and over again. But just when we were losing hope and settling with the same old in-house DVD experience, the latest block buster movies are coming in a row!’ says ecstatic twenty year Razia, ‘I just can’t wait to watch DOOM and Alexander coming next month.’

Indeed the era of big screen movies was long lost. Where as once seeing movies on big screen was an integral part of Bengali cultural life, with the passage of time and owing to the absence of proper halls suitable for all classes of people and release of good movies, most people adapted to the practice of watching movies on VCDs, DVDs or satelite channels,‘ says Dhaka-resident Mahbub Sarker.

It was perhaps on very special occasions like movie festivals that movies were screened in halls .One can remember the first boom in movie going was perhaps the screening of Titanic at Dhaka’s Modhumita Cinema Hall years ago. That year the city saw the greatest rise in the number of movie goers. Back then Modhumita had come about as the happening hall expected to bring in such movies for a long time. Many cinema viewers felt it had come to set a changing trend in the movie watching experience as a whole. Unfortunately, that era was gone and so was the expectation of new movies being screened in larger than life halls.

With such changing trend in cinema going and increasing hike in the cinema-goers one can’t stop wondering as to why such steps of screening block buster movies not only in Cineplex but also across the nation was not taken before.

According to Cineplex officials it was always expensive to screen such movies and often even screening old movies does not help them cover the costs. The trend didn’t therefore change until Classic Billboard; a Malaysian based advertising company came into the picture. With the authorisation from United International Pictures, Classic Billboards has been able to buy up local screening rights of the recent blockbuster movies like Mi-III, Superman Returns, Doom, Legend of Zorro and many more and screen these movies in not only Dhaka but also in districts like Bogra, Khulna, Chittagong etc.

According to the company’s marketing manager, Rebecca Sultana, ‘the motive of screening these movies in such a large-scale is to revive the long-lost cinema going culture in Bangladesh’. Indeed the result of this motive has been effective ‘where once halls in Chittagong where even the air conditioner was not turned on for over a year owing to the huge loss, the hall is now filled with viewers. Although screening these movies in small subdivisions has been not been as profitable for the cheap tickets, our motive is being served, building the section of viewers who are going to continue to watch movies in these halls,’ she added. Classic Billboards is screening is also responsible for bringing movies like War of the Worlds, World Trade Center, and The Myth, which are indeed made to be watched on big screen.

In many ways this trend has added to the limited medium of entertainment available in Bangladesh. ‘Its not only the movies but also the quality of movie going experience, the state of the halls that need to be taken into account,’ points out Shamshad Islam, father of a fourteen year old restless daughter. ‘The number of decent theaters is very low, with such changed trends and increased demand it is important to have more decent halls for a complete movie going experience,’ he adds. While Classic Billboard itself plans to launch such halls in the future it is expected that many entrepreneurs are likely to come up with such ideas.

While movies are being screened in a row, there has been a great deal of change in the convention of watching movies at home, now increasing number of viewers feel it’s an essential form of entertainment. ‘We go to the movies to escape our world for a few precious hours, nothing more. But how can we do that if the movies come to us instead of us going to them? It simply is not the same viewing experience or pay-off for the audience. Take the example of the biggest of the big movies like King Kong. Watching that back at home in TV screen isn’t really a movie experience at all,’ points out 25-year-old Atif.

Be it the release of King Kong or MollaBarir Bou, its been truly in decades that Dhaka has seen such a great movie-going experience. The movie theatre owners will be hoping it stays this way.

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7Jul/060

And if it was your daughter?

For as long as Aklima (not her real name) can recall into her childhood, she had grown up on the streets of Dhaka selling flowers and chocolates at intersections. She had been abandoned by her parents and slept at the Farmgate intersection in Dhaka, one of a group of vagrant children who were homeless like her.

Two years ago, when she was about thirteen, a young man — five or six years older than her — asked her if she would like to go with him to his house. He told her that he would marry her and that he could change her life so that she would never scrounge for money ever again.

Foolishly Aklima agreed.

The very next day they set out towards his home in Dhaka’s Purana Paltan. He suggested they stop by a hotel to freshen up. As soon as she entered the dingy room of the four storey hotel, she realised there was something wrong. She was received by another man who seemed to know what was going on, and soon after she was forced into a room and locked up. The two men forced her to strip her clothes and pose before a camera. She refused and pleaded for mercy.

When she tried to escape, she was molested and beaten up by the two men. What happened for the next few hours is lost for her in a jumble of fragmented memories; she just remembers being forced to drink something and lying naked on a bed. The next morning Aklima realised what had happened, when she found herself lying on the sidewalk near a bus stop. Two years on, the trauma of what happened to her that fateful night still haunts her, and she is constantly afraid that it will happen again.

Some months later, she met the young man again and this time he offered her to do the same work again, as ‘there was a demand for her in the market’. Aklima had no idea what he meant by ‘demand in the market,’ and when she asked, he told her that her video had become very popular in the numerous street CD stores in Nilkhet and Stadium Market.

Luckily Aklima was rescued by a Dhaka-based NGO and is undergoing counselling to help her deal with the trauma. But reports are now emerging that Aklima’s experience is by no means rare in Dhaka. According a recent report published in Egypt, Bangladesh is fast becoming a country that supplies high demand of the lucrative global child pornography industry. Countless numbers of young girls like Aklima are falling victims of the illicit trade, as touts are abduct street children, often in the knowledge of the police and law enforcers.

Although pornography is a crime in itself, the issue of child pornography is an area that has not been delved into or given much importance in Bangladesh. While for countries like the US, it seen as a direct violation on the rights of the children and there are strong laws that crack down on such crimes, Bangladesh’s penal code does not include any detailed or strong law that targets child pornographers.

‘At various times we have not been able to prosecute these people who have destroyed the lives of so many young girls, and it was only because we do not have strong laws against child pornography,’ says a lawyer who works with child protection and has dealt with a number of such cases.

In a global environment where traditional countries of origin for such material such as Thailand are seeing strong laws legislated to protect children from such crimes, the trade is moving to countries where governments are less aware. Street children are most vulnerable in these circumstances. ‘We cannot possibly protect these children unless the police who are often bribed and in some cases involved in the brutal act of taping these images of children and young girls become more aware and more cooperative,’ says the lawyer. According to her, the material that results is being sold openly at street-side CD stores in Dhaka, without any fear of the law.

A recent study by INCIDIN Bangladesh — a Dhaka-based NGO that works with vulnerable children — has observed that along with adult pornography, child pornography specially featuring girls is widely available at Dhaka’s Stadium Market, Patuatuli, New market and its surrounding areas. Furthermore, owing to the advantage of modern information technology, it has crossed borders and reaching out globally. It is difficult to trace out the geographic mapping of this business as most of them need little more than just a video camera and one or two staff.

“Mostly young girls are fooled by the hope of getting jobs as models and actresses. They slowly get trapped within this vicious cycle. After undergoing such trauma most girls commit suicide after realising the irrecoverable loss. At other times girls are mentally affected and the trauma they undergo is often difficult to cure and to be removed from their memories,” says one counselor who has worked closely with young girls abused in this way.

“At various times we see cases where the girls lose their sense of identity. When these videos are released almost everywhere around the city, they feel such a sense of violation that they see no point in even seeking a normal existence and instead enter the trade,’ she says.

Most of the victims come from working class families and are easily fooled by the attraction of modeling. Eighteen year old Shoma’s (not her real name) story is such an example. She was told by some film makers she got to know through a modeling agency to do a dance which would be sent to the top producers and help her become an actress. When she agreed, she was taken to a hotel in Fakirapul. According to her account of the incident, a man called Mamun Shah Roki and three other people named Babu, Munir Hossain Manik and Al Amin (apparently the hotel manager himself) were present in the room. While Manik started taping Mamun started dancing with her and stripping her clothes. When she realised what their intention was she refused to shoot and asked to leave. But it was too late for her. When she refused she was locked up in the hotel room and threatened with harm if she did not pose nude for several different kinds of videos. Her screams and desperate pleas didn’t work as the hotel manager himself was involved in the malicious act. After their work was finished they handed her Tk 1500 in exchange for the work she had done. A few months later her videos were released in the market. When she tried to expose the culprits, these videos were also sent to her husband which led to her divorce. She fought for justice and continued her fight against these criminals. After several complaints and charges made by her family at the Paltan Police Station, these four men were arrested.

Of the arrested, Babu admitted that he had been fooling young girls like Shoma and releasing videos in the market. Furthermore he also informed the police that such videos were sent abroad through courier.

According to social workers, Bangladesh’s thriving pornographic market is closely associated with those in India and England which are major destinations or conduits for such videos. The market moves very fast from one country to another as laws and police crackdown on this illicit trade.

Experts relate pornography to trafficking, and point out that the numbers of girls and children trafficked every year is a pretty good indication of the size of the market.

According to recent surveys nearly two million children are abused and trafficked globally every year in what has become a lucrative $5 billion international business and South Asia is the leading supply centre. The most lucrative child trafficking routes within South Asia are to India. Other major routes are to the Middle East and further abroad from supply centres in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan for destination countries such as Japan and Hawaii via Hong Kong, China and further abroad from suppliers in Southeast Asia.

‘A large number of girls trafficked every year are victims of pornographic market. In most cases the ‘missing’ figures of young children indicate the high possibility of involvement with the giant pornographic market. Most of these images are released starting from South Asia to Middle East and all around the world via the internet. Owing to the new technology, it is no longer difficult to tape or sell these images” adds Nasim Ahsan, chief of advocacy for INCIDIN Bangladesh.

Not so many years ago, the production of child pornography required a network of confederates for production and distribution. With the advent of do-it-yourself devices such as digital camcorder, anyone can produce a ‘quality’ product. Moreover digital devices like CDs and DVDs are very much widespread and a major source of these productions.

The industry of child pornography has evolved along with the internet. It’s now possible to access live online sex shows using webcams and other real-time technology. It is indeed a sordid playground for people who are interested in accessing, sharing and selling pornography; it’s estimated that there are more than 100,000 such porn web sites that also include child pornography, say insiders.

Sadly behind each and every image of child porn is a child who has been sexually abused. ‘I was shocked when I watched the CD that my friend lent to me. Instead of images of women, I saw girls as young as 10 years of age involved in awful acts being abused!’ says a student who bought one of these CDs from Dhaka’s Nilkhet.

Mass circulation of these through internet has added significantly to the failure of regulating this growing industry. In the pre-internet days, adult bookstores and CD shops offered the only outlet for pornography, ‘They’d have to buy the magazine and stand there, where everybody could see them. That’s not the case today. Nobody is going to know what you are doing when you are out there surfing the web,’ says one social worker.

Pornography, be it of women or children remains a hidden crime. It is clearly associated with dangerous factors such as trafficking, abuse and corruption. Weak legal protection is indeed increasing the extent of the trade. It is not only important to reform and implement laws to prevent production, export, import, distribution of such videos or images, say experts, but also important to increase the community awareness which would ensure the protection of these victims.

‘Strengthening supervision, surveillance and monitoring including cyber policing is an important as well. Furthermore there are aspects such as rescue, recovery, integration support including legal services should be extended to the survivors of child pornography,’ says Nasim Ahsan.

INCIDIN Bangladesh recently held a press conference concerning this issue and set out recommendations for the protection of these victims.

As one social worker points out, the pleasures enjoyed by those who watch young children abused comes at a cost of a great loss to these victims. Once these victims experience such trauma, their loss is irrecoverable. Not only do they suffer the abuse and those moments of loss of identity and innocence but also the continuing trauma of having to know that they have been recorded and that those images are now available all around them.

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