Bangladeshi-Italian director shines light on minority community

Phaim Bhuiyan's film 'Bangla', a romantic comedy, highlights second-generation challenges in navigating life in Rome.

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    Phaim Bhuiyan, right, was born in Italy to a Bangladeshi family and his debut film explores second-generation challenges [Courtesy: Christiana Nosel]
    Phaim Bhuiyan, right, was born in Italy to a Bangladeshi family and his debut film explores second-generation challenges [Courtesy: Christiana Nosel]

    Rome, Italy - A pizza guy in a yellow uniform rushes up a set of stairs, swearing in a thick Roman accent. For every delayed delivery, he stands to lose three euros.

    When his customer opens the door, she stares at him, surprised. He turns to the camera.

    "Even though I look darker, I am Italian," he tells the audience, "let's say 50 percent Bangladeshi, 50 percent Italian, and 100 percent from Tor Pignattara."

    The scene fades to black and the title sequence breaks onto the screen.

    "Bangla", a romantic comedy, follows the journey of a young Muslim Bangladeshi Italian.

    He's in a band that plays traditional music; at a gig, he meets Asia, the woman of his dreams.

    The film takes inspiration from Phaim Bhuiyan's own life.

    The 24-year-old wrote and directed the film, and plays the protagonist.

    "I hope this movie will spark interest in the life of the Bangladeshi community and the second generations here in Rome," he says walking through Tor Pignattara, a multicultural suburb.

    Behind him, a dozen Asian teenagers play cricket against a tall building of council flats.

    Bangla film in Italy
    Bangla depicts the story of a Bangladeshi Italian and his romance with an Italian woman [Courtesy: Christiana Nosel]

    According to the Ministry of Interior, almost 39,000 Bangladeshis live in Rome. Tor Pignattara, a working-class neighbourhood in the eastern outskirts, hosts the largest community.

    Bhuiyan grew up here, among Chinese restaurants, Italian pizzerias and Bangladeshi street sellers.

    In the film, he describes the borough as a frontier, where the aroma of lasagna fades seamlessly into the scent of curry.

    "The neighbourhood is home to three 'tribes' of people: elder Italians, migrants and hipsters.

    They live side by side, "without talking with each other," he says in the movie.

    The World Bank estimates that almost 8 million Bangladeshis are currently living abroad.

    In the city of Rome, the word Bangla is commonly associated with narrow grocery shops at the ground level, selling vegetables, shampoo, biscuits and beers at every hour of the day and night.

    "I came to Italy because working as an undocumented migrant was relatively safe," says shopkeeper Nazmul Habibur, standing in front of a wall crammed with fresh fruit.

    The 46-year-old left Bangladesh in 1997, heading for Turkey with a three-month visa. He had no intention of living in Italy but feared ending up in an Istanbul jail as an undocumented migrant.

    A trafficker offered him a journey to Rome.

    "At night, I set sail from Ankara with other 420 people," he says.

    Those who migrate here are busting their a**** for providing us with a better future. I felt that commitment and it gave me motivation.

    Phaim Bhuiyan, director

    The biggest wave of Bangladeshis arrived in Italy during the 1990s, after the Martelli law regulated immigration in the country for the first time.

    "For many, Italy was more of an intermediate step," says Francesco Pompeo, an anthropologist who led a study of Tor Pignattara for five years, "but then the restrictive policies of Northern European countries made remaining an easier choice."

    According to the Ministry of Interior, almost 140,000 Bangladeshis live in Italy today with a regular permit, the second largest Bangladeshi community in Europe after Britain.

    Pompeo estimates that they account for only two-thirds of the real population.

    "The permit is generally linked with a stable occupation," he says, "so falling back into irregularity for a period of time is fairly common."

    Sixty-five percent have a regular contract. There are more men than women and the percentage of active workers is as high as 86.2 percent.

    Trade and catering industries employ the largest majority, but a consistent group is involved in manufacturing and distribution for small industries too.

    "Sending their sons to Europe represents an investment for the whole family," says Siddique Nure Alam, also known as Bachcu, president of the charity Dhuumcatu.

    Bachcu arrived here almost 30 years ago from Dhaka, fleeing from the military regime of Hossain Mohammad Ershad. He has been campaigning for the rights of Asian migrants and providing welfare services to the community since then.

    "Migrants usually passed through Moscow, then Turkey," Bachcu says, "then they sail directly to Italy or to Africa, Libya. The whole journey might cost between 8,000 and 10,000 euros ($9,088 to $11,360)."

    Once they reach Europe, the financial burden weighs over their shoulders.

    According to a 2017 IOM survey, 36 percent of Bangladeshis coming from Libya incurred debt to finance their journey.

    Researchers Mario Ricca and Tommaso Sbriccoli said Bangladeshis take loans with illegal moneylenders of up to 500,000 takas (roughly 5,500 euros or $6,248), and monthly interest stands between two and five percent. Family houses and land are often given as a guarantee.

    Surviving on a third of earnings

    Bangladesh is the top destination of remittances from Italy, which in 2017 accounted for 532.6 million euros ($605m).

    "Migrants survive on a third of their earnings, maybe just 300 euros ($341) per month, because they send the rest back home," explains Pompeo.

    Such a limited income implies a rigid lifestyle, with up to 15 men or two families sharing the same apartment.

    Bhuiyan's father started as a flower seller, then worked as a paperboy, a dishwasher and a baker, until he finally managed to buy his own stall. Bhuiyan worked with him during every school break since he was 14. With the money earned, he bought his first compact camera.

    "Those who migrate here are busting their a**** for providing us with a better future," he says, "I felt that commitment and it gave me motivation."

    Bangla film in Italy
     Bhuiyan, left, says younger people should act as a bridge between the Italian and Bangladeshi cultures [Courtesy: Christiana Nosel]

    Bangla has grossed roughly 148,500 euros ($167,000), according to production company Fandango, with 25,000 people flocking to cinemas to watch the film.  

    When Asia breaks the ice with Phaim by asking whether he holds a regular residency permit or not, the audience burst into laughter at a cinema about 7km from Tor Pignattara.

    Barbara Pastore, 27, came to see the movie with her boyfriend. At the end of the screening, she says: "We just think of them as hard workers, typically behind the counter of groceries stores open 24 hours a day."

    Other movie-goers were surprised by finding out that arranged marriages are common in the community.

    "I thought they were more open-minded," says 36-year-old Maria Chiara Spiritigliozzi.

    Pietro Giovani, 39, an English literature teacher at a local high school, understands the younger generation better, but adds: "They are discreet people."

    Bhuiyan explains the differences between generations.

    "Working and sending money back home were the only priorities of our parents and older brothers," he says.

    Most speak Italian less proficiently and have few friendships beyond their fellow countrymen.

    "I believe that we, the second generation, have the duty of acting as a bridge between the Italian culture and the Bangladeshi community," he says.

    The misunderstanding about the two generations is mutual.

    When asked about his son, Habibur, the shopkeeper, shakes his head.

    "He is definitively Italian," he says, "no Islam, no Christianity, no Hindu: Computer games are his religion!"

    In real life, Bhuiyan considers himself lucky: while his cultural roots are important to his family, his parents are not interfering.

    "Some friends have suffered from an identity crisis," he says, "we got used to Western habits. Unfortunately, between adults and youngsters, there is often no real contact."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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