Community is all around us. Wherever your journey in life takes you, there are other people in every corner of the world, walking a path just as rich in experiences, highs and lows as your own. It’s important to remember this and to reconnect, both to one’s fellows and to one’s surroundings - and to remember that for every person that you’ve met in the chapters of your story thus far, there are unimaginable lives being lived out, just as real, far far away.
One of the privileges of working as part of a community-centred non-profit is the ability to reach out and involve yourself with people who, by equal dint of living in your neighbourhood, yet originating in distant climes, manage to connect the above two dots together. There is something magical in realising what incredible tales of continent-spanning intrigue may await you just on your doorstep - and so it transpired that a little slice of magic alighted my Thursday afternoon in the middle of a cold and rather quiet March, in a most unexpected way.
The week prior, I had aired what was to be the last in a long run of broadcasts of my lunchtime Thursday radio slot, the season 4 finale of Soundtracks For Life - broadcast via Community Voices FM, 104.5, a major arm of the local BME (Black, Muslim and Ethnic) Network. The airing was to be followed by a well-earned break of 3 months, as much to let the format take a breath as to allow me to forward my broader career in professional voice acting and voice over work.
One may surmise that I would have no reason to visit the station over the following weeks - but CVFM is more than just a site of broadcast or a workplace. It is a busy community hub, a place for meetings and greetings, a creative space, and to those who join in and get to know its colourful cast of DJs, producers and regulars, one might even say a home from home. The message of interconnection and simple human support speaks loud through the structure and commitments of this charitable outlet.
I’m proud to list many of my fellows at the station as not only excellent colleagues, but as friends - and on Thursday afternoons, Baker Lillivick, a bright young talent who set up an interviewing Youtube channel at just 16 and within two years has many great names on his roster, happens to air his show after mine. I was in town that day on separate business, and after wrapping things up, there’s nothing better I’d like to do than crash his show, “Drivetimes with Baker” for a few hours of lively musical banter.
Affairs were enlivened further with the appearance of the BME Network’s chairman and manager at CVFM, Idrees Rashid - a man for whom, to many, no introduction is needed given the sheer energy of his involvement in the rich swathe of cultural networks and good projects in the Teesside area and beyond. I’ve lost track of the amount of times I’ve mentioned my work at the station, to be greeted by “Ahhhh, you must know Idrees!” with an interesting exchange of knowledge and connections ensuing.
The personal take of this journalist, interviewer and avid amateur character analyst is that Idrees is a lively, high-performance man who effortlessly balances a busy schedule with a relaxed demeanour, critical traits for the manager of affairs that reach as broadly as they invite warmly. He radiates a palpable kindness in a marvellously mercurial fashion, hard to follow yet easy to appreciate.
So could I have guessed, wrapping up our joint co-hosted show approaching 6pm, that Idrees would surprise me, with a ticket, to attend an intriguing screening at the Stockton ARC? Mayhaps that an unorthodox and considerate offer would arise, sure - but you never know exactly what that may be or how it’ll play out with the mysterious Mr. Rashid. As a lover of a cultural adventure myself, I cancelled my plans for a quiet Thursday evening post-haste and set out to see what the ARC had to offer.
On the way, I was introduced to Shemanara Haq, a Key Accounts Manager in pharmaceuticals with a lifetime involvement in local BME projects, including nearly 20 years via CVFM to date. In fact, this was a reintroduction, as Shema and I had met briefly among the whirl of guests at the BME awards last November - Shema was nominated for the vaunted Woman of the Year award, while I meeted-and-greeted the many guests, took videos and mini-interviews for social media and manned the laptop during the presentations. We reacquainted ourselves and chatted merrily as Idrees ferried us ARC-wards; it was here that I learned of Shema’s origins in Bangladesh, the very region to be examined in the movie itself. She would later talk avidly about her personal familiarity with the locale of Cox’s Bazar, and I must express my gratitude to her for her insights as I prepared this very article.
A little over 6 years earlier, I had moved into a small apartment just a hair west of the ARC, and lived in Stockton for 14 months before switching over to Middlesbrough, where I’ve dwelt since. In that time, my outlook has evolved and matured considerably, a change to which I attribute the meat of my involvement in great social causes and increased professional experiences. This growth in attitude manifests itself in an attention to brilliant places, peoples and events that my younger self simply strolled past everyday, too wrapped up in his own world to realise what wonders awaited him behind the doors of one fabulous little theatre…. The pearl of Stockton town.
Once inside, our party swiftly met Aman Dhillon, a film and presentation expert from Hertfordshire and the founder of ReeIN Ltd., providing diversity and inclusion via a dedicated filming network. Aman had travelled to our corner of England to become part of the Bigger Pictures project at the ARC, serving as its programme manager. Her colleague Patrick Hollifield also greeted us, and we talked about his work as the ARC’s marketing manager, and the many intriguing projects hosted at the centre over coffee and confections (which Idrees graciously and with amazing speed dashed out and grabbed for us before anyone realised he’d left!)
The dual themes of this precursory discussion set the stage for the night’s viewing with a subtle aplomb. First was the extent of the passion behind the projects and screenings put together by the team at the ARC - intense and moving social causes, real issues affecting real people, and lived experience reaching out and sharing insight into the lives of others who have been through unimaginable experiences, yet who, at their core, are just as human as we all are on the inside.
Second was the pragmatic side of running a high-quality theatre, community centre and major arts network - in the much-underfunded North-East no less, a region that has attracted a reputation for being underloved by the greater powers that be in England fair-and-green and thus starved of outlets for creativity and stimulus. In a town battling with ageing infrastructure, rickety Victorian terraces only just been torn out for replacement with modern homes, of lead piping, drugs and homeless hostels, it isn’t too surprising to learn of how generally distrustful, disdainful or even ignorant attitudes abound with regards to the arts. People with self-images as ordinary salt-of-the-earth Northerners may sometimes struggle to understand creativity and the need for intercultural exchange, and there are times when the battle against casual xenophobia and bigotry is real.
Sometimes though, the more toxic elements of culture are fortunately not the issue - it’s more a spirit of unfamiliarity that makes people timid. We discussed how some have a naive view of “The Arts” as an intimidating thing, fancy and official, an edifice that can make many close their eyes and turn away. Aman and Patrick spoke from the heart about the great projects and opportunities put together by the ARC in such lush surroundings, and how baffled and perplexed they were that with such low entry prices and so friendly and welcoming a set of staff, the nevertheless real-and-felt difficulties with simply getting the normal people of Stockton through the door.
Movies remain one of the giant entertainment industries in the world at large, having adapted itself well to a world of en-masse internet, smartphones, streaming services and rampant digital piracy. Local mainstream theatres like Cineworld in Middlesbrough and the Showcase in Teesside Park - my childhood haunt, and the site of many treasured memories - still turn over a solid profit many decades on from their first opening. Is fiction - made up stories, often set in fantasy worlds or with super-powered heroes flying about changing history - so much more attractive than recounted stories of real people, here and now?
One conjecture was a desire for fantasy as a method of escape, and that films about real people can’t compete with Batman or The Great Gatsby. But as we were about to experience for ourselves, no made-up tale can even hold a candle to the blazing sun of a real adventure. My theory was that the many have a simple attachment to familiar names - the “brands” of fiction as it were - and that it takes the wonderful efforts of volunteer organisations like Bigger Pictures and the ARC team to dispel the myths, clear the views of a confused public, and shine a light on wonderful and engaging stories happening right now, in our world, for real.
As we chatted and shared anecdotes and experiences, we were joined by two more parties - one a group of Indian students who had travelled to Teesside for a few years of study, for whom the cultural exchange worked in reverse to that of myself, and the other a pair of wise gentlemen, a Mr. Rashid (no relation to Idrees) and his assistant, who had a long history of involvement in projects concerning Asia and the Indian subcontinent within Teesside. My awareness of Vedic astrology proved a cultural touchstone with the students, and we merrily chatted about terminology, myths and meanings until the time was ripe for the filming to begin.
Running at just under an hour and a half, Bangla Surf Girls absorbed me into a vision that felt much longer - an intense, gripping and personal sojourn into the lives of four young girls in the humble coastal region of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, who are united by a common passion - and with it a common struggle. With beautiful sunshine, sprawling beaches and lively ocean waves, who wouldn’t take a crack at surfing the sea? But apparently, dabbling in this sport is the most that young girls are ever supposed to do - the community, and for one girl her staunch father, oppose prolonged involvement as childish, boyish, and irresponsible.
The stage is set for a sweeping three-year voyage as these girls pass through the early years of womanhood and grow up in a world full of promise and beauty, yet also many harsh realities. Native film-maker and IDFA alumnus Elizabeth D. Costa immersed herself in the community, taking her 12 years of experience with broad media skills - producing and editing for film and television with talent in camera operation and the sound department - and wedding them with a unique and touching perspective as Suma, Ayesha, Rifa and Shobe fight for their shared passions against the backdrop of rural subcontinental coming-of-age.
Poverty looms large over the story, as the cast of characters do not enjoy the fully-insulated brick-and-roof domestic lives that we in the west take for granted. Canvas and tarpaulin coverings, rusty tin-shacks, thin walls and noisy relatives mere inches away predominate the living situations of the central cast as they scrimp and scrape funding for basic essentials, barter and negotiate for eggs and cabbage leaves, and weather tropical rainstorms with quiet determination. The bread and butter of these girls' lives would floor the average modern suburbanite, yet the group has the energy and vigour to take that in their stride, and push the excess into surfing - their one outlet to experiment, to play, and to dream.
The alternative is to follow the typical family tradition - for most girls in the region make their scant living by scrawling the beachfront for ocean detritus, and then painstakingly sorting through the debris by-hand for small seashells, the odd colourful stone and other alluring pieces of pelagic bric-a-brac. Such tidbits are then pierced, strung as beads to form bracelets and necklaces, and carried in baskets by the youngest girls on bright days in the hopes of peddling them to tourists.
A tedious, gritty and bitter existence describes the first part of this operation - the state of one elder woman’s worn, veinous hands remained vivid in my mind’s eye - and a false, socially awkward and grifting game of pot luck identifies the latter. It’s not hard to see why these girls seek to throw the yoke their locale and culture attempts to impose on them, having watched their mothers, aunts, elder sisters and neighbours disappear down that well-worn path.
These young ladies are savvy, and they know that in more fortunate, privileged climes, it is possible for young people to escape the cycle of drudgery, and not only devote their time freely to such joys as surfing, but indeed to make a living out of it. Their ray of sunshine is Rashed Alam, the leader and manager of their local surf club, who works tirelessly to secure the funding needed to provide the equipment, space and time for quality action on the waves.
An excellent instructor and charismatic leader of the group, Rashed knows only too well how much the cultural deck is stacked in favour of the boys in the group, who like himself have much more freedom to pursue the sport as a living and a lifestyle. Rashed treats the girls as his own family, and fights alongside them to grant them the opportunities that their forebears in years gone-by had lacked.
Many exciting twists and turns evolve over the course of this engaging social slice-of-life extravaganza. Part of me would love to talk about the obstinate father character in more detail, or about the travails of the club’s management and funding - but such revelations are best left for the viewer to avidly discover for themselves.
I absolutely implore all readers to visit the ARC, for the experience of Bangla Surf Girls as much as the entire package available at this lovely local venue alike. For those among our audience further afield from Teesside, the awesome power of the modern internet is at our fingertips, and it’s never been easier to search for venues showing this wonderful film - venues that perform a wonderful service, and which need your support, just like the Stockton ARC. A fascinating and moving tale awaits you, and from there, with fresh eyes, a world of possibilities - for now you’ll know just what sorts of stories from far away, may not be so far away after all.
- Cinematography - 5/5
- Audio and Sound - 5/5
- Pacing - 4/5
- Narrative - 5/5
- Vision and Inspiration - 5/5
Overall Score: 24/25 - Superb! See it on the double!