When Michael Kranz saw footage of a girl forced to work in a Bangladeshi brothel, he decided to do something about it, as evidenced in the Munich selection Was Tun.
The whole thing began with the late Austrian filmmaker Michael Glawogger who, in 2011, made a film called Whore’s Glory, about the lives of prostitutes in Mexico, Thailand and Bangladesh.
For young actor/filmmaker Michael Kranz, one scene in that film really stood out, in which a young teenage girl, wearing make-up and a beautiful red sari, tearfully asks: “Why do we have to live with so much suffering? Isn’t there any other way for us women? Who can answer this question?”
Her plight was difficult to watch, and just as difficult to forget, and made him question how he, and we, should react when we are asked to assess images of such barbarism from the comfort of a western auditorium or our tasteful living rooms.
The answer came to him, Kranz says, after he received a visit from Jehovah’s Witnesses (which we see on film) who, when asked how God could tolerate such injustice, replied that there was nothing that could be done about this. These are things that happen “in the realm of Satan.”
So the filmmaker set off in search of the girl, with no knowledge of who she was or where she could be found, or even what to do when he found her.
By the end of his odyssey Kranz proved to be a vehicle for social change among some of Bangladesh’s poorest and most disadvantaged inhabitants.
“When I started the journey I had in mind maybe finding that girl, but I didn’t have in mind to become an activist, and also my conclusion about the movie is not that you have to be an activist, but that it’s good to listen to your inner voice,’ say Kranz. “But then also to be very critical of it and really doubt it and readjust it.”
To act on impulse, but with a degree of reflection, I suggest? “Yes, but just don’t get lost in too much reflection,” he answers.
The search for the girl is a long and complex one, and I won’t reveal here if it was successful or not. But en route he intercedes positively in the cases of two young girls who are forced into prostitution, helping them to return to their families, and he orchestrates the funding of a shelter for stray boys.
He also meets activists Shyamad and Chanchala, a couple who have dedicated their lives to liberating girls from prostitution, and who see the benefits of having a “white man with a camera” to aid them in their work. He also meets the engaging and cheeky youngster Redoy, whose hair is dyed red, and whose life story is what initially inspires the founding of the boys home (even though Redoy refuses to leave his sister who, herself, has been forced into prostitution).
The film is highly cinematic as the camera roams through brothels, along bustling streets and, in one joyous sequence, right into a festival of colours where everybody is daubed in bright paint. The extraordinary generosity of the Bangladeshi communities is also evident.
One shocking scene brings us back to earth, however, as a masked trafficker explains in grotesque detail his modus operandi in abducting, stripping, torturing and raping the girl victims before installing them in the brothels.
Did director Kranz gain more satisfaction from delivering an excellent film or in helping to change the lives of the people he encountered? He answers obliquely.
“Firstly, I had a problem from the filmmaking perspective… I said I really want to have the freedom that this project can totally crash, you know, when I fly to Bangladesh and when I understand that it was a stupid idea to take a camera into the brothel for example,” he says.
“I had an assumption of what might happen, which was with my naivety I will encounter a lot of problems, and those problems will create conflicts for me as a character in the movie, that I have to doubt my own world view…”
“But when I went there, there happened to be some kind of synergy happening, like that my being there really helped Shyamad and Chanchala, and that it was very easy for me to enter this world and to get in touch with these people. As a filmmaker I really had the problem that I thought ok, this was not supposed to look like a “vanity” project. It was dangerous that so many good things happened.”
Yes, many good things happen in the film, but these silver linings serve to emphasis the dark clouds that remain within the middle of the characters’ lives. One example is Hafeza who is beaten badly by her madam for not showing pleasure during sex with her clients. Shyamad and Chanchala get involved and make sure that Kranz and his camera are present at the hospital to make sure that Hameza is given the best treatment. She is eventually reunited with her family.
The director takes up the story.
“At one point I understood that Hafeza really liked me to film her, and I didn’t understand why, but the year after when I came back I met with her and she asked me if it could be possible to show the material that I filmed to the village community, because they did not believe that she was really forced [into prostitution]. So we went to the village which was really far into the countryside, an area which for half a year you can only get to by boat, and I showed the material to the village community and Hefeza was sitting there, and she had some kind of proof that she was forced, that she really worked on getting away.
“It helped, but it didn’t leave everything in harmony, because she was even then still considered to have lost her honour, and the situation was more complex because the guy who sold her was also in the village, so there was a lot of tension there. But still she had a proof that it was against her will and I think very good for her. So media has power, and bearing witness has a lot of power as well.”
Kranz became friends with Glawogger before his untimely death from malaria when shooting in Africa, and he remains an avowed fan of the late director’s work. During an interview with him he explained his proposition to find the girl in his film from 2011.
“Glawogger was very critical of the idea to mix activism – or wanting to help – and making movies,” explains Kranz. “He said art is for the sake of art and not for the sake of ideology, even if the ideology is humanistic. He was critical of mixing the two. He said if you want to help somebody, then to let go of the camera.”
“I really respect him, but I don’t share this narrow view of what art it is,” concludes Kranz.