Peacekeepers Doc Director Follows Three Muslim Police Officers In Haiti

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A Journey Of A Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers is a documentary film that follows Farida Parveen, Mousumi Sultana and Rehana Parvin, three Muslim female police officers from Bangladesh, as they spend a year in Haiti as part of an all-female peacekeeping force sent from their country to support MINUSTAH (the United Nations Stabilization Mission In Haiti).

The women's job is dangerous. Haiti is still unsettled after the 2010 earthquake that killed at least 100,000. On top of that, distrust of U.N. peacekeepers remains high owing to a belief they were the cause of a massive cholera epidemic between 2010-12.

Amidst this, these women are tasked with patrolling Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps, responding to riots, demonstrations and high-risk situations, all with training that's sometimes dangerously inadequate. On top of it all, these women face enormous pressures — religious, cultural, financial —from back home. A Muslim woman doesn't abandon her family to go halfway around the world, after all.

Captured in honest and illuminating fashion by directors Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (the Academy Award-winning Saving Face) and Geeta Gandbhir (two-time Emmy Award winner), these women face powerful trials — Farida's husband distinctly doesn't want her to be there, Rehana's mother is gravely ill and her son is edging increasingly towards religious extremism — and yet they still pursue their duties. It's an incredibly difficult series of circumstances these women must navigate.

When A Journey Of A Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers showcased at this year's Toronto International Film Festival Samaritanmag spoke to director Geeta Gandbhir, executive producer Irfan Izhar and RCMP Sgt. J.J. Hainey about the film and what it was like for these three women to pursue this.

What was it that drew you to this story to want to make a documentary about it?

Geeta Gandbhir: I work in social justice films, it's my passion, and about four years ago I read a story in the New York Times about the FPUs (Formed Police Units) of Indian women who were deployed from India to Liberia. At that time it had been happening for about 10 years and I had never heard about that. It was fascinating to me. I'm originally from India, my family is from India, and it kind of shattered all the stereotypes I had about women in my country.

And then Sharmeen [Obaid-Chinoy] and I, we've always crossed paths in our work and we met again at the Oscars, we had two films that were both contending, we saw each other again, she was now based in Pakistan and I talked to her and we decided we should do the film and then we found out there were women going from Bangladesh, Muslim women, that was even more profound for us. That's how it got started.

Was there a "cause" aspect to this? To break down some stereotypes about Muslim women?

GG: Absolutely, we both really felt strongly Sharmeen and I, we're both South Asian women, and our team is essentially, we have Irfan [Izhar] at the helm, but it's women, we have a Pakistani woman, I'm from India, we're making a film about women from Bangladesh, and we had Bangladeshi film producers that were very integral to this, and we all felt very strongly that we needed to have something out there. Particularly because what you see out there in the media about Muslim women, we wanted something to counter that narrative. And to show that there is progress and this is true of Muslim men, too. In the film you see the men sort of having incredibly egalitarian relationships with their wives.

And the men you see, the scene we always talk about is when the women are sent off to war — well, it's not war — but to serve, and the men are left holding the children and in tears. And that to us was fascinating and important.

What was it actually like in Haiti during their tour?

J.J. Hainey: There was certainly a sense of stability, but it's difficult to talk about "stability" in the same sense you would here. Considering the social and economic state of the country it was fairly stable give or take a few demonstrations and at times even riots, but compared to what I've seen in the past it was fairly stable. But the UN is there for a reason and there are times when things would get pretty heated. And we also have to remember that it was only three and a half years after the earthquake that took about 300,000 people and complete destroyed a city. So the rebuild in a country like Haiti it's a long process and like any other anyone else people of Haiti were getting there was a sense of impatience and urgency to get things done so after three and a half years of living in IDP [Internally Displaced Persons] camps people were starting to feel like nothing was going to happened.

What were the day-to-day duties for the peacekeepers?

JJ: It depends on the duties. For instance, the FPU duties were specifically to assist in times of unrest. So whenever there's a demonstration or a riot or a high-risk operation where just a regular police officer wouldn't be able to handle the containment of a scene or an area to operate they would call the FPUs, so that's when the Bangladeshi unit would come to assist. Other police officers had for duties to do regular patrols with the Haitian National Police officers, so they would patrol just like any other police officer would patrol on our streets. That was the main duites. The main duties were to offer the Haitian National Police assistance and training.

These weren't soft duties, right? In the movie they're referred to as "muscle," does this mean they were often thrown into dangerous situations?

JJ: Generally speaking their duties were to patrol IDP camps at night or attend or intervene in demonstrations or high-risk situations, so yeah, the FPUs are only usually called to attend when things get out of hand. that's usually how it works.

In these situations were there things that made having all-female FPUs particularly useful?

GG: In the IDP camps in Haiti there was a hotbed of sexual violence, there was rape, and so the presence of these women, obviously the women in the camps felt much safer having women perform investigations. They also felt much more comfortable coming up to other women, if they were having a problem they felt safer coming to them.

JJ: There was a sense of trust. I've seen that myself. The ice is much easier broken when it's a female police office approaching a female victim than when it's a male police officer approaching a female victim, because generally speaking the female victim has been victim of a crime committed by a male suspect. So the rapport is quicker established and also much more comfortable than with the male.

When you mention the term "peacekeeping" it comes with some very misty-eyed, idealized visions of saving the world and such. That sort of thinking and message isn't really brought up in the film and seems far removed from their day-to-day reality.

GG: These women are police officers. It's not like working with Peace Corps or something where you are a student, these women are police officers who've seen terrible things in their country. One woman dealt with domestic violence cases and so I think they're very practical about what their duties are. One woman referred to herself as a soldier in that way, they understand that basically their job is to follow the duties they're given, that they're assigned, and to do them well. And that is their mandate.

Police see the worst of everything and only the worst, day-to-day, and have to remain sane. And also too they often feel you can only do so much when you're handling unnatural deaths or domestic violence cases, you handle it one case at a time and you understand that there is a big overarching hierarchy. They're not activists, they're soldiers.

There's a point about three-quarters of the way through the film where the women are walking through an IDP camp, encounter a group of women and children, and mention how important it is that these Haitian women and children see them in uniform. How important was it for them to project that image?

GG: For the Bangladeshi women it's important even in Bangladesh because in Bangladesh they feel that it's important there that they can uplift there, that they can be in a role and can serve in a role similar to men. And I think in Haiti for the women, similarly, to see them — women and children, girls, in particular — to see them said "you can be empowered, you can serve your country and do something for the good of the world."

JJ: The cultures, although thousands of miles apart, are similar. In Haiti the woman of the family is really the backbone, she does it all, even if she works she comes home and does it all. It's the same thing. But policing is traditionally male dominant job, even here. And in Haiti and in Bangladesh there are very few female police officers. So to see that, I guess what they meant is they saw that even with the Haitian National Police they have very few female police officers, so to see a full platoon who of female police officers is definitely a good inspiration for anybody who sees them.

When the three women return home from their year of duty there's a certain amount of "I'll never do that again." Was it worth it for them?

GG: We made the choice to be an observational film, we chose to make as little judgement as possible, and to not try to shape a positive outcome or a definitive outcome, positive or not. I would say that for two of the women, Farida and Mousumi, they absolutely think that it was important and that they learned things that they would not have learned had they stayed in their country. And they had opportunities to serve that they would not have had in Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, even though they're police officers often times they're not given weapons, they're not put in certain positions, not necessarily dealing with conflicts, they're kept from certain positions. And they felt that the exposure they had was incredible, working with different people from different countries, so I think for them they felt it was worth it.

JJ: I think a mission is, whatever the reason to go may be, once you get there it's extremely rewarding. It feels good to help, to feel like you've served a purpose, the sense of accomplishment, even if it's small, they feel like they've done something that was right, something that was good, that they had the experience of a lifetime that's given to very few people to experience. I'm sure for them it was the same, they all feel the same way we feel when we leave Haiti: we leave a mission, even though you may not have helped to the extent you wanted to help, but you feel you did something. And I'm sure they had the same feeling.

Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.