(director/writer: Rubaiyat Hossain; screenwriter: Philippe Barrière; cinematographer: Sabine Lancelin; editors: Raphaëlle Martin-Hölger, Sujan Mahmud; music: Tin Soheili; cast: Rikita Nandini Shimu (Shimu Akhtar), Novera Rahman (Daliva), Parvin Paru (Maya), Deepanwita Martin (Reshma), Mayabe Rahman (Tania), Mita Rahman (Moyna’s mother), Mostafa Monwar (Sohel), Shatabdi Wadud (Reza), Shahana Goswami (Nasima Apa); Runtime: 91; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: François D’Artemare, Ashique Mostafa; Pyramide Films; 2019-Denmark/Bangladesh/France/Portugal-in Bengali with English subtitles)

“Earnest social activist film should remind you of Norma Rae.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It was screened in the Contemporary World Cinema section at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Rubaiyat Hossain (“Under Construction”/”Meherjaan”) is the woman writer-director of this social realism film, shot like a docudrama, of women garment workers trying to get a union started in a Bangladesh factory.

Ms. Hossain co-wrote the script with Philippe Barriere. The filmmaker was born in Dakha, Bangladesh, and holds a master’s degree in cinema studies from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Her earnest social activist film should remind you of Norma Rae (1979), as it follows in the same tract. The film chronicles the story of the 23-year-old Shimu (Rikita Nandini Shimu), who is married to the lazy, unemployed laborer (Shatabdi Wadud). She’s an exploited worker in a garment factory in Dakha, who works long hours for little wages, while the clothes she makes are either sold at discount prices or as big tab luxury items in venues all over the world that have big-name companies making enormous profits from what amounts to using slave labor in their sweatshops. 

We learn that the feisty Shimu fled her rural Bangladesh Rajpur village at 13 when her stepmother threatened to marry her off to a middle-aged man, and went to work in a shoe factory at the age of 14 in the capital and later switched to a garment factory.

When a fire damages Shimu’s Modern Apparels factory, taking one worker’s life, all the workers are sent home with no wages. After no pay for a week and the workers unable to pay their bills, the fed-up Shimu decides to become a union organizer and correct the callous ways the factory mistreats its workers. Facing a tough battle, Shimu tries to get her fellow workers to join her in getting a collective bargaining agreement and improvements in their working conditions. She is advised by Nasima Apa (Shahana Goswami), a Union advocate, and collects 305 signatures from her fellow workers to begin demanding their rights. But Shimu faces from the bosses physical threats, enormous red tape in airing her grievances and a system that gives the worker little chance to get a fair shake. Even her husband opposes her. But when the bosses see the workers are listening to her, they unsuccessfully try to bribe her with higher wages and a better job.

With Shimu and her followers clearly seen as the good guys, the narrative becomes suspenseful as they must fight hard for even their basic human rights and must overcome the obstacles continuously placed in their way by the bosses. It’s just as easy to root for the workers to win as it is to root for the film to give them a platform to air their grievances.