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Censoring cinematic culture through the Bangladesh Film Club Act [bonus en ligne - article]
Lotte Hoek


Le Bangladesh Film Club Act de 1980 a eu pour objectif, pendant la dictature militaire, de réguler et contrôler l’essor florissant des ciné-clubs. Cette ordonnance est la réponse de l’État à des formations sociales qui suivaient les canons des films d’art nationaux et internationaux. J’examine dans cet article la paperasserie bureaucratique générée par cette ordonnance. Je propose de reconsidérer la censure filmique qui n’agit pas ici sur un texte, mais qui intervient pour répondre aux inquiétudes suscitées par l’efflorescence de certaines cultures filmiques. L’examen des images et logos qui accompagnaient les dossiers d’autorisation soumis par les ciné-clubs à la Commission de censure filmique illustre une idée centrale pour les sociétés cinéphiles : celle qu’un « bon » film ou un film d’art est porteur de transformations sociales et politiques. C’est précisément cette menace que le Film Club Act visait à contenir, illustrant par là-même l’efficacité mobilisatrice du registre visuel manié par les sociétés cinéphiles.

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Fig. 1. Cover of the folder containing the constitution of the Argenta International Film Society

Fig. 1. Cover of the folder containing the constitution of the Argenta International Film Society

Credit: Courtesy of the Bangladesh Film Censor Board

Camera images

1The logo of the Argenta International Film Society is a highly abstracted form (fig. 1). Two circles sit atop a rectangle, with smaller V-shaped and I-shaped forms on its right side. Despite this abstraction, the sign is unmistakably that of a film camera. I came across the image at the offices of the Bangladesh Film Censor Board in a standard government folder. Across the front of the file someone had written batil, or void, annulled. The film society appeared to have ceased to function sometime in the 1990s but the folder contained detailed accounts of its activities and membership over the course of the late 1970s and through the 1980s. Dotted across the requests for screenings at the USSR Embassy or Goethe Institute, on financial audits and membership lists, sat the small icon of the camera. Sometimes in red, sometimes in blue, printed on letterheads and part of the society’s stamp, the camera’s simple lines punctuated the many pages of handwritten and printed text inside the government folder. It recurred a total of forty-five times in the folder dedicated to the Argenta International Film Society.

2More still than its distinct form, I was struck by the extensive recurrence of this image. Not only the file kept by the Censor Board about the Argenta International Film Society but many of the files dedicated to monitoring film societies were similarly punctuated by abstract images of the film camera and its attributes. In this article, I want to consider the place of this image in film censorship bureaucracies. The continuously repeated image of the camera is a part of the materials of film censorship in Bangladesh. The image features on the paperwork through which the Censor Board executes its censorship but this image itself is not a target of that censorship. Instead, this image dwells within the domain of film censorship, adjacent to, and implicated in, the larger exercise of policing the image.

3In line with the scholarship on censorship and the cinema in South Asia (Mehta 2011; Mazzarella 2013), I have studied practices of film censorship that are concerned with regulating and calibrating the public availability of different forms and types of moving image material (Hoek 2014). The target of this type of censorship is the film text (shots, characters, narratives, etc.) and its material carrier (celluloid, digital images), while the legal bases for this censorship activity are the 1918 Cinematograph Act, inherited in Bangladesh (and in other South Asian nation-states) from the colonial British government, and the Censorship of Films Act, introduced by the Pakistan government in 1963. In 1980, however, the then Bangladesh government, a military regime headed by Ziaur Rahman, expanded the responsibilities and capabilities of the Censor Board by introducing the Film Club (Registration and Regulation) Act. On the basis of this Act, the Censor Board was now also empowered to regulate the activities of the many film clubs in the country. These clubs, mostly called film societies, screened films for fee-paying members, often in libraries and universities, as well as in the auditoriums of international cultural organizations and diplomatic missions, such as the Alliance Française, the Goethe Institute, the Russian Cultural Centre, and the Indian embassy. The films screened through such clubs were, and continue to be, mostly national and international ‘art’ films, and were often already certified for public exhibition on the basis of the Censorship of Films Act and repeatedly shown (the Soviet film The Cranes Are Flying [1957] directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, for example, being a regular favourite with the societies and screened repeatedly over the years, comparable to Battleship Potemkin’s continued screening in Bangladesh as, see Ghosh 2018, in India). Additionally, films were often shown in ways that fell along the edges of the Cinematograph Act (such as in foreign embassies). Special censor certificates were granted for such screenings (Fig. 2). Through the Film Club Act, the government was able to extend the powers of the Film Censor Board to include the surveillance and regulation of the membership and activities of film societies across the country.

Fig. 2. Special Censor Certificate for screenings in foreign missions

Fig. 2. Special Censor Certificate for screenings in foreign missions

Credit: Courtesy of the Bangladesh Film Censor Board

4The Film Club Act allowed intervention by the Censor Board in the social world around particular film texts, rather than acting upon those texts themselves. This regulation proceeded through bureaucratic paperwork that film societies had to supply to, and procure from, the Film Censor Board. It opened up a different mode of film censorship that is more akin to other forms of bureaucratic oversight and regulation than it is to the film censorship that engages the film text. Over the years, the Act produced a huge archive of paper files from which can be read the ways in which the Bangladesh government has tried to control film society activism. In this article, I analyse these paper files archived at the Censor Board in Dhaka and explore the place of the film society logos within this bureaucratic paperwork. These logos are the signs by which different film societies can be identified and mostly consist of highly abstract images. They feature on letterheads and other film society paperwork sent in to the Board under this Act. They are not dissimilar to the monograms that feature on the state documents that the Censor Board would in return send to the film societies, such as the certificate in Figure 2, on which a bureaucrat of the Board has handwritten that the monogram on the certificate should be updated to reflect its current form (bortoman monogram hobe). In both cases, these small emblems, combining text and image in a compact form, make concretely present the larger social formations to which they correspond. I argue it is these formations that are the target of the Film Club Act and that they are made present in its paperwork through the logos that dwell adjacent to the business of control and regulation enacted on the page.

The Film Club Act of 1980: controlling film society activity

5The basis for the Bangladesh Film Censor Board’s responsibility for examining and deciding upon the certification of films for public exhibition was, and is, the Censorship of Films Act of 1963. The introduction of the Film Club (Registration and Regulation) Act in 1980 aimed, evidently, “to provide for the registration and regulation of film clubs and matters ancillary thereto”. The Act empowered the Board to oversee the form and activities of “any club, society, or organization … established for the purpose of exhibiting films to its members” (Bangladesh Parliament 1980: 2643). Film societies are clubs in which members come together to watch, debate, and learn about films, particularly a canon of films by significant auteurs, and, more recently, to promote the making of ‘good’ cinema (see Raju 2015: 179–180). Until well into the 1990s, screenings for society members were organized at hosting institutions that were able to screen films on celluloid. As in West Bengal, film societies in Bangladesh have long formed part of a “cosmopolitan film culture” (Dass 2016: 152), in which connoisseurs debate local, regional, and international cinema, considered a proper art form, and which has historically participated in a more or less radical politics associated with left-wing cultural formations (Majumdar 2012). The 1980 Film Club Act in Bangladesh was an attempt to control this field through audits and the requirement of written permission for every screening and activity. The Act quickly became known as the kalo kanun, or ‘black law’, among members of film clubs, more commonly known as film society activists. A Cold War survival, the law was replaced by the 2011 Cholocchitro Shongshod (Nibondhon) Ain (Film Club [Registration] Act), which updated and expanded its terms but largely functions in the same way. These laws have remained a major thorn in the side of those associated with film societies.

6“It was ridiculous,” said a seasoned film society activist to me in Dhaka in 2014, “we barely had money to run the screenings or publish our journals, and now we needed to present an audit?!” Laughing, he added that he had to radically reduce his smoking to be able just to fund the publication of their journal. I asked him why he thought the government was so concerned with the film societies. He answered that they were concerned about young people visiting foreign cultural houses and being related to their cultural missions. And he added that, in Bangladesh, cultural activities had always been part of the progressive struggle. Indicating the longstanding association in eastern Bengal of cultural activity with revolutionary, left, and progressive politics, dating back to colonial and Pakistani times, he pointed to the inevitable air of insurrection that surrounded young people who organized around certain art forms, such as group theatre, dance, or art film. Alongside this, he identified a deep concern with the fact that much of the access to copies of films (then almost exclusively on celluloid) and screening facilities came through foreign diplomatic and cultural missions, such as the embassies of the USSR and India, the Goethe Institute, and the Alliance Française. Combined, my interlocutor thought, these congregations of young men and women exposed to ‘art’ in the context of foreign ‘soft power’ were sufficient for Ziaur Rahman’s military regime to want to control film societies.

7The new Act had demanded each film society or club to be registered with the Board. Once registered, all activities and screenings had to be announced at least seven days in advance. Finally, according to article 7.2 of the 1980 Film Club Act, “a registered film club may exhibit a film supplied by any foreign diplomatic mission in Bangladesh only if the request for supplying such film has been made to the mission with the prior approval of the authority”. In this way, the Martial Law Administration of General Ziaur Rahman created additional ‘censorship’ legislation to regulate the activities of the film societies without engaging directly with the evaluation of the content of particular films. Film society activists had little choice but to comply with its bureaucratic demands.

8During ethnographic fieldwork in the offices of the Bangladesh Film Censor Board in 2013–14, I was given access to the files generated out of this ‘black law’: government files collating the paper-based exchanges between the Board and the film societies, as well as records of the Board’s actions with regard to the societies’ activities. The massive expansion of personal screens and fast mobile internet in Bangladesh in the 2010s had diminished the significance of film society activities as films were now easily available to anyone with a smartphone, and the numbers of film societies had steadily dwindled. Perhaps this contributed to my ease of access to these documents, alongside my longstanding engagement with the Board and some of its officials over the years working as a white, foreign and female anthropologist in the field of Bangladeshi film culture.

9The files related to the Film Club Act as held at the Board were each dedicated to a single film society. Within them there were the, undoubtedly incomplete, forms relating to the work of the film societies, enumerated according to the forms associated with the Act. Writing about audit cultures in education, Cris Shore and Susan Wright note that “a major feature of audit is the extent to which it reshapes in its own image those organizations that are monitored. What is required is auditee compliance with the norms and procedures demanded by inspectors” (2000: 72). This is evident in the files of the Film Club Act. The Act required each film society to register through submitting an application that included a written ‘constitution’ that included a number of details, such as the address of the club, its objects, conditions of membership, conditions of film exhibition, sources of income and the custody of that income. The files therefore contain the constitutions of all film societies, all ordered in the manner set out by the Act. The Act also demanded that clubs submit annual financial audits and reports on their activities and that they request permission for all their screenings seven days in advance. In the files, therefore, there are the, mostly handwritten, notes of the staff of the Censor Board, indicating their response to the paperwork received; a copy of the official registration certificates (which visually resemble the censorship certificates made for films cleared for public exhibition: Fig. 3); audits of its finances executed by chartered accountants; letters from the film societies requesting permission to screen particular films, letters of support from the organizations that would host the screenings, as well as reports of the events once concluded.

[Image non convertie]Fig. 3. Registration Certificate of the Argenta International Film Society (1985)

[Image non convertie]Fig. 3. Registration Certificate of the Argenta International Film Society (1985)

Credit: Courtesy of the Bangladesh Film Censor Board

10[Image non convertie]

11The anthropology of bureaucracy and documents provides a helpful starting point to approach this paperwork as a site from which to study film censorship (Riles 2006). The anthropology of the state and its bureaucracies has taken the type of material that has been produced through the Film Club Act as its focus to study the everyday material and embodied practices through which the state and its workings are enacted (see Hull 2012; Mathur 2015). Rather than incidental to the ‘real’ activities of the state and its bureaucrats, Mathur “highlights the centrality of … paper … to the composition, maintenance, and assemblage of the Indian state” (2015: 5). The Film Club Act, too, enacts its film censorship through the prolific production of, demand for, and archiving of, paperwork. The space that the Film Club Act opened up between the bureaucrats of the Censor Board and film society activists was tightly orchestrated by the compulsory formats of official letter writing, the requisite forms and chalans (official documents), as well as the strict hierarchies of who addresses whom which formed the core of the ‘regulation’ of the film society movement. This paperwork is the body and the enactment of the censorship of the Bangladesh film societies.

12Annelise Riles (2006) notes the complex “responsiveness” that documents, especially forms, can elicit. She describes the ‘aesthetic’ qualities of this type of bureaucratic material as a ‘genre’ or ‘form’ that “distinguish documents from other genres of texts” (2006: 19) and plays a key part in “how documents themselves elicit particular kinds of responses” (2006: 22). She foregrounds these qualities to decentre the document as a transparent and ‘readable’ artefact that operates only as a textual object. She instead highlights how a particular form of responsiveness is encouraged through the layout and aesthetic form of a document: boxes encourage ticking, forms require filling. The Film Club Act similarly created paperwork and forms that were intended to elicit a particular response. But, as both Riles (2006) and Adam Reed (2006) point out, the disciplinary force of the document is hardly complete and encourages a range of excesses, unexpected aesthetic involvements and appreciation of its concrete material forms.

13Within the domain of supplication and compliance between the Board and the film societies, enacted through paper documents, the image bursts forth: the recurrent, often abstracted, image of the film camera and its attributes. This image is a different sort of aesthetic object: not ‘called for’ by the demands of the Film Club Act and its forms but not incidental to it either. These images are the logos of the film societies, and in that guise accompany the letters, brochures, audit reports, programme flyers, membership lists, and ticket stubs that are collected in the Censor Board files. This image is not quite of the document through which censorship proceeds but is not quite separate from it either.

14The place of the image within the paper practices of the state in South Asia can be addressed through Matthew Hull’s suggestion of expanding our conception of paperwork as a constellation of “graphic artifacts” (2012: 14) that come to signify and be used in particular ways. He includes certain types of visuals, such as maps or stamps, within this domain. But in relation to both of these forms of bureaucratic images, Hull highlights the extensive overwriting that is part of the bureaucratic practice in which these images act. “In recognition that the stamps can be reproduced or removed from their rightful place in an office, stamp images are supplemented by autographic writing” (Hull 2012: 131). It is as if the image, once entangled in the writerly world of documents and the institutions that produce them, must remain boxed in and overwritten by the word to be able to act in that world. The writing attempts to cancel the image’s polysemy, its capacity for mimicry and duplication, its potency, so as to participate in bureaucracy. But in the case of the Film Club Act files, the camera image that sits on the documents by which the state attempts to control the activities of the film society movement does not participate in this exercise of control. This image is not ‘overwritten’ by the state’s practice of control and appears incidental to the enactments on the page. Instead, at this site of the film society’s regulation, the image introduces the ideals and aspirations of the film society movement.

The film society movement as aesthetic formation

15The images that punctuate the pages of the Film Club Act files are logos and letterheads associated with and identifying the different film societies ‘controlled’ under this Act. The logos of the societies are overwhelmingly variations on the basic theme of the camera and celluloid reels (Figs 4, 5, and 6).

Fig. 4. Montage Film Society membership registration form

Fig. 4. Montage Film Society membership registration form

Credit: Courtesy of the Bangladesh Film Censor Board

Fig. 5. Receipt book for membership of the Alamgir Kabir Film Society

Fig. 5. Receipt book for membership of the Alamgir Kabir Film Society

Credit: Courtesy of the Bangladesh Film Censor Board

Fig. 6. Letterhead of the Shuvechha Film Society

Fig. 6. Letterhead of the Shuvechha Film Society

Credit: Courtesy of the Bangladesh Film Censor Board

16The logos in the archive were probably not designed with a great sense of urgency or creative autonomy. The reels and cameras are straightforward, conventional, an obvious choice to put on top of your organization’s letterhead and across its banners. But just because it is conventional does not mean that the image misses its mark. These ‘obvious’ images contain well-worn associations.

Fig. 7. Letterhead of the Chittagong Film Society (1982)

Fig. 7. Letterhead of the Chittagong Film Society (1982)

Credit: Courtesy of the Bangladesh Film Censor Board

17In one more elaborate logo these associations are alluded to visually. In the logo of the Chittagong Film Society (Fig. 7) we see a spool with in its sprockets the very abstracted image of a bird. Each sprocket presents a slightly different view of the bird. Each sprocket is also a frame that, if the spool were set into motion, would produce the image of a bird breaking free into flight. And in some sense, this is what each of these logos carries within it as an association: the moving image and the art film as sites for transformative movement.

18The implied association of the moving image and freedom arrives in the Chittagong Film Society logo from the history of the film societies and their overwhelming association with a loosely understood progressive and leftist politics (as in West Bengal, see Majumadar 2011, with which the connections across film culture have always been strong). The societies in the 1970s and 1980s were a part of a broader ‘cultural front’ that had historically been a battle-line in the fight against repressive politics, during the years of British and Pakistani colonial regimes (in poetry, N. Ahmed 2012, and fine art, Hore 2009) as well as subsequently in independent Bangladesh (in theatre, S. J. Ahmed 2015; Guhathakurta 1997). The film society movement was oriented around explicitly leftist key organizers over the decades, such as Muhammad Khasru, who had been there at the very start in the 1960s; Alamgir Kabir, who had institutionalized the movement in the 1970s and 1980s; and Tanveer Mokammel, who had been among those coming of age within the movement at the time of the Film Club Act’s introduction. The links between their film activism and a broadly left politics can still be felt in the journals that the film societies published throughout the 1960s to 1990s. For example, the April 1977 issue of the highly significant journal Dhrupadi, edited by Khasru, carried a translation of Georg Lukács’s writing on film, essays on Joris Ivens, Bertold Brecht, and Mrinal Sen, as well as an interview with Ritwik Ghatak by Khasru himself. All these key inspirational figures for the film society movement in Bangladesh were, in varying forms, associated with a progressive, leftist, sometimes radical, political agenda in cultural or artistic forms and part of an internationally oriented film culture. In his own writings on the cinema, Khasru would repeatedly invoke these and allied film auteurs and theorists, as well as significant political figures. His article “Film Societies as the Second Front in the Cultural Movement” (reprinted in Khasru 2004) opens with a quote from Salvador Allende about the place of culture in society.

19The film society movement in Bangladesh has thus been located within a much broader field of cultural and intellectual activity that was animated variously by the debates and practices of progressive and transnational cultural forms and activities in the historical context of the Cold War. Its references came from Third Cinema, the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association, and the Theatre of the Oppressed, it had strong links to the film society movement in India, and it was concerned broadly with socialist cultural practitioners and theorists around the world. Within the movement, then, cinema was not merely an important aesthetic object, it was also a significant political one. The Film Club Act was in part a response to this countercultural movement within Bangladesh during the years of military dictatorship.

20I would suggest that the anxieties that drive film censorship, the concern about the intensity and direction of cinema’s “palpable potentials” (Mazzarella 2013: 3) and how these may stir viewers, are no different in the context of popular films in public screenings or for ‘art film’ screened in the context of film clubs. But the evaluation of the audience and the ways it is open to being stirred are considered differently in the different bits of legislation around cinema. Where violence, crime, and sex are the central concerns in the Code for Censorship of Films that directs the censorship of films for public exhibition (explicitly prohibiting crime, immorality, and obscenity), the foreign ‘art’ films screened for self-selecting, mostly young, often highly educated and urban members raise a different type of concern that is not only about a film’s content. This is expressed through the Film Club Act’s emphasis on exposing financial and logistical supporters, detailed lists of members’ names and advance notice of what films will be screened where and for whom. The spectators in the film society are clearly considered to be viewers equipped with the resources and ‘education’ to withstand the wayward pull of the erotic or violent image (and therefore stand in distinct contrast to a public consisting of what Mazzarella calls the “pissing man”, who can’t resist these images: 2013: 184). The questions of law and order, morality, or obscenity that pepper the Code for Censorship of Films are nowhere to be found in the Film Club Act. These film society spectators were instead seen to be susceptible to the pull of undesirable forms of collectivity that the military regime tried to curb: the gathering of like-minded young men and women in the privacy of members-only clubs and on the premises of foreign missions with unclear intentions. These undesirable affective relations were stimulated both by the text and by the context of the screening of foreign and domestic art films in educational and public institutions such as colleges and libraries, as well as at foreign missions and centres. Film activists, too, understood such films to contain this affective pull or potential. The intellectual landscape mapped in the journals indicates this belief in cinema as capable of contributing to ideological and social transformation. The film society movement was aimed at channelling this potential of the art film in ‘progressive’ directions. The Film Club Act aimed to contain or regulate exactly what the activists aimed to set free: the potential at the heart of cinema to gather, entice, and bind its discerning viewers in particular ways.

21The constellation of film texts, screening venues, cinephile members, discussions and events, as well as personal styles and embodiments, combine to form a relatively coherent “aesthetic formation” (Meyer 2009: 6), a recursive collectivity brought together by, oriented around and enacted through a set of aesthetic forms and styles to which individuals are sensorily attuned. The state’s anxiety as expressed in the Film Club Act is focused on this aesthetic formation around cinema rather than the films shown by the societies themselves. The key imaginary at the heart of this aesthetic formation is the idea of cinema, and particularly the ‘art’ film, as a mode of political liberation and social transformation. The bird set into flight through the movement of the spool sums up this idea. It is this imagery, and its associations, that catches the eye in the government files. Alongside the standardized forms and lists, the ‘bycatch’ of the Film Club Act is the arrival of the visual register of the film society movement into the everyday paperwork through which film censorship is enacted by its bureaucracy.

Expansive abstraction

22The logos of the film society movement stand out in the paperwork of the Film Club Act not only because of their frequent repetition but also because of their distinct aesthetic form. It is in its style that something of the movement’s content comes to be articulated and communicated. Figure 8, the logo of the film journal Dhrupadi, shows how this works.

Fig. 8. First page of an article in Dhrupadi by Md. Khasru

Fig. 8. First page of an article in Dhrupadi by Md. Khasru

23Dhrupadi’s logo is an abstracted image of a film camera. This image graced the covers of the journal as well as punctuating the title of each of the articles carried in its pages. Dhrupadi was the journal of the Bangladesh Film Society, set up in Dhaka in 1963 as the Pakistan Film Society (Raju 2015), and one of the key sites through which the aims and ideals of the wider movement were articulated. The word dhrupadi means ‘classical’ and is contrasted with the word adhunik, or modern, which can be attached to all sorts of public cultural forms, from popular music to dress or food. Dhrupadi, on the other hand, is classical not just in terms of ‘time-worn’ but is associated with high cultural forms, and indexes elevated and sophisticated aesthetic forms and social formations. The simple logo’s association with the journal, with its editor Muhammad Khasru, with the larger cultural formation it operated within, and with the expansive notion of dhrupadi would have been obvious to anyone even tangentially associated with the film society movement, say a bureaucrat tasked with receiving an endless stream of letters requesting permission to screen films from society secretaries and the international institutions that hosted them.

24Dhrupadi’s logo was executed in ways that resonates with other, adjacent images of the camera, for example the image in Figure 4 of the Montage Film Society. These images participate in a wider aesthetic field in which abstraction means, first, a set of simplified lines, which make the camera images comparable, shunning specificity in favour of the bare outlines of a film camera (see also Figs 1 and 10). This abstraction works along the axis of resemblance, the mode of visual signification that Foucault distinguishes from similitude:

Resemblance has a model, an original element that orders and hierarchizes the increasingly less faithful copies that can be struck from it. … The similar develops in series that have neither beginning or end, that can be followed in one direction as easily as in another, that obey no hierarchy, but propagate themselves from small differences among small differences. (Foucault 1983: 44)

25The abstract figures of the simplified camera form such a series that repeats itself across the pages of the Film Club Act files. This abstraction is an “abbreviation [that] expands, rather than narrows [the] field of expression (Reed 2006: 175). This abstraction is also, and second, a particular aesthetic form, associated with the lino- and woodcuts that were familiar to many from illustrations in the broader domain of print culture, in particular recurring in the illustrations of books and little magazines. An example of this style features in the December 1989 issue of the Montage Film Society journal. The issue was a special memorial issue, commemorating the then recent death of one of the movement’s most prominent and important figures: Alamgir Kabir. A portrait of the filmmaker and activist is reproduced on the first page of the issue and at the start of each of the articles (Fig. 9).

Fig. 9. Portrait of Alamgir Kabir in the memorial issue of Montage, December 1989

Fig. 9. Portrait of Alamgir Kabir in the memorial issue of Montage, December 1989

26Aesthetically, this image has an immediately obvious connection to the everyday aesthetic domain of book illustration, which had also been an important domain for the (financially rewarding) activities of significant artists, not only in Bangladesh but across South Asia. The image also resonates with artistic works in linocut, wood engraving, and charcoal by artists such as Safiuddin Ahmed and Quamrul Hassan. Strong, simple lines in black and white had been used to powerful aesthetic and political effect, such as in Abedin’s famous famine sketches and subsequent works (Sunderason 2017). The inheritance of a progressive, or left-oriented, aesthetic vocabulary is palpable within this image world (Sunderason 2011: 247) and forms a background, a context of resonance, for the image of Alamgir Kabir reproduced in the wake of his death. The images in the film society movement are intervisually connected to this larger domain of visual culture and resonate intermedially with the titles of the societies and journals, such as ‘montage’ or ‘dhrupadi’.

27Evidently, the background against which this abstract image of one of the key figures of the movement operated was wider than the immediate context of Bengal or even South Asia but took on global contours. There was a great awareness of left-wing, communist, or broadly “progressive” film culture that ran through the societies, such as evidenced by the sort of articles that were translated and published in the journals, the filmmakers who were revered, as well as the types of events that were put on by the societies, including, for example, the ‘Socialist Countries Film Sessions’ that Argenta organized annually in the late 1970s. The proximity of really existing socialism as an aesthetic project was palpable in the film society movement and can also be read off the censorship files, where you encounter the repetition of the camera image alongside the list of locations, sponsors and films-to-be-screened: the GDR film retrospective, the USSR embassy, the films of Ghatak, Eisenstein, et cetera.

28The iconography of the national and international artistic and political contexts seeped into the aesthetic environment of the cultural movements in Bangladesh. It is not abstraction merely as simplification but a particular form of abstraction that enables the film society imagery to achieve an equivalence, and enter into a conversation, with other, similar, images, and allows it to speak at a level of much greater universality. In this way, the image of Alamgir Kabir (Fig. 9) embodies a recognition of him not only as an auteur within the movement for ‘good’ film that spanned the globe, but also as a symbol of that movement and its political persuasions.

29Into the simple, much-repeated and quotidian images of the film societies’ paperwork are poured the associations and connotations of the camera in the hands of the film auteurs, their films screened to receptive audiences of committed and critical cinephiles, in the context of an international aesthetic movement in which new political ideas, new aesthetic forms, and new modes of solidarity coalesce. The logos presuppose the gathering of like-minded cinephiles and the possibilities for them to take up the camera themselves in the future. The sheer repetition of the logos, within the movement and within the government files aiming to contain (‘regulate’) the movement, allows the echoing of this wider domain of activities and ideas across that paperwork. It summarizes the ideals of the film society movement and makes it resonant within the context of the Censor’s archives. Against the idea, commonly shared among film activists, that popular cinema produces unproductive or repressive modes of titillation, the images of the film society movement contain within them the suggestion that their films bring a positive, artistic, and empowering mode of cinematic excitement to its discerning audiences.

30It is the figure that is most suited to doing this not only because of the limiting format of the audit-style records produced out the Film Club Act but also because of the ways in which visual representation makes present its absent object. The abstract camera image makes the film society movement present within the paperwork of the Board. Additionally, there is something particular to the image as a figure that heightens its presence. Relying on Kant’s notion of the Ding-an-sich, William Mazzarella (2004) highlights the concrete or plastic quality of the image that cannot be entirely effaced. Accounting for the work of the image under conditions of consumer capitalism, he notes that both the “life-world of the worker and the image-as-object always necessarily retain concrete elements that exceed the abstracting requirements of exchange value” (2004: 43). In the case of the images in the government files, the material quality of the image that is part of the film society logos, letterheads, and stamps cannot be entirely undone by the bureaucratic logic of the paperwork on which it features. The concrete quality of the image rubs the eye as it glides across the page that intends to ‘regulate and control’ the film clubs through a series of standardized boxes and questions. In the study of South Asian visual and public culture, this “unpredictable concretion of images” (Mazzarella 2004: 45), has been theorized as a significant driver of social and political conflict and change and a resource to reconsider the ways in which historical transformation occurs (Jain 2007; Pinney 2004; Ramaswamy 2003). It is for that reason that the image is also the site of significant policing, as “the underlying anxiety is that the performative force of images might leak out beyond the containment of a moralized symbolic order” (Mazzarella 2013: 104). The small, abstract, simplified image of the camera in the paperwork of the Censor Board instantiates in this concrete and forceful manner the entire aesthetic formation around the art film.

Image and text

Fig. 10. Letterhead of the Sundarbon Film Society (1988)

Fig. 10. Letterhead of the Sundarbon Film Society (1988)

Credit: Courtesy of the Bangladesh Film Censor Board

31Some film societies underwrite (rather than overwrite) the image in the logos and letterheads that frame their requests for permission from the Film Censor Board. While subsequent pages in these applications might have only the image or logo, on some of these letterheads a slogan is added that expresses the core message of the film society in the textual domain. The Sunderbon Film Society, based in the southern city of Khulna, has a complex logo combining a very abstracted camera (two circles, one square, one triangle) and a film reel but adds to this the following text in all capital letters: “Enjoy fair, social & realistic films” (Fig. 10). It sums up very tidily the central concerns and context of the film society movement, in both aesthetic and political terms. This may be glossed, as did the Royal Bengal Film Society, based in Bagerhat, as ‘good’ film, a terminology familiar from art film circles across South Asia, and explicitly counterposed to the popular film industries (Dass 2016). Its logo of a reel is accompanied by the slogan “We want a social movement for good film” (bhalo chobir jonno chai samajik andolon; Fig. 11). In case there was any doubt what the film reel in its letterhead signifies on its own (which might generate the association of, say, commercial cinema), the Royal Bengal Film Society spells out what the camera as abstracted image makes explicit without words: that this is about a social movement for ‘good’ film. Finally, the Bagerhat Film Society explicitly states the causality that remains implied in the logos of the other societies: “Better Film Better Society” (Fig. 12).

Fig. 11. Letterhead of the Royal Bengal Film Society (1996)

Fig. 11. Letterhead of the Royal Bengal Film Society (1996)

Credit: Courtesy of the Bangladesh Film Censor Board

Fig. 12. Letterhead of the Bagerhat Film Society (2009)

Fig. 12. Letterhead of the Bagerhat Film Society (2009)

Credit: Courtesy of the Bangladesh Film Censor Board

32In these letterheads, text and image combine in two ways. First, the text and image amplify and incorporate one another. The slogans and the icons are condensed emblems of the larger movement that are imbricated with one another in the way that Foucault discerns in the calligram, the poem that is written spatially, in which “signs invoke the very thing of which they speak … [while] visible form is excavated, furrowed by words that work at it from within” (1983: 22). The abstract camera image announces the movement while the slogan condenses within its words a set of images of that movement and its priorities. Second, these letterheads indicate the geographical spread of the film society movement across the country. The names of the societies incorporate their locations (Khulna, Bagerhat, Chittagong) and the arrival there of the camera, the reel, the projector, all the material objects that instantiate ‘good’ film in these sites.

33Through the images and slogans, the argument is made for film as a positive, productive, and progressive force at the very site of the censorship of this particular film culture. This is in line with the way in which filmmakers worked within the boundaries of film censorship and political censure at the time. Scholars of cinema in Bangladesh have highlighted the particular pressure of censorship and censure during the successive military regimes of Ziaur Rahman (1975–1981) and H.M. Ershad (1982–1990). In this period “the mediascape went through rigorous censorship in the first few years of Ziaur Rahman’s rule” (Awwal 2018: 34), marking the start to “a period of silence as war memories became embroiled in a post-1975 … politics of compromise and forgetting. This amnesia extended through the military junta of the 1980s and early 1990s” (Mohaiemen 2016: 33). Filmmakers, both in the field of popular cinema and in the realm of art film made within the film society movement, responded by working on symbolic and metaphorical levels to articulate their critiques and political narratives. The films of the period negotiate the silence imposed during the dictatorships through various figural means, including symbolism, metaphor, allegory, and other forms of “encryption” (Awwal 2018: 41; see also Akhter 2019). The political pressures on what can be expressed publicly and the strategies to circumvent these not only mark cinema in the 1970s and 1980s but are a persistent feature of the political dispensation, in Bangladesh as elsewhere. Nusrat Chowdhury (2016) identifies a “semiotic culture” of protest in her analysis of the Phulbari movement and political Emergency in Bangladesh in 2007. She describes this semiotic culture as “the culturally determined and persistently creative ways in which people made, read, and resisted signs, often though not always in written, documentary form” (Chowdhury 2016: 89). Into the silence enacted by political repression and censorship come signs in which metaphorical, allegorical, and figural slippage is constant (Bhabha 2004 [1997]; Mbembe 2001). In the case of the film society movement’s logos, it is through their style and their abstraction that something of the movement’s content comes to be articulated and communicated exactly at the site of its repression.

34The film society logos in the film censorship paperwork in Bangladesh signify through forms of abstraction, repetition, intervisuality, and intermediality, and in this way articulate the presence and purpose of the film society movement across the country within the very domain created to regulate and control its activities. In the limited dialogical space between the Board and the societies, these images, logos, and letterheads are let loose, working through expansive abstraction to gesture to other worlds and ideas made possible by cinema understood as an intellectual or artistic practice. The logos bring into the presence of the Board, and remain residing in the archive, the film society movement’s ideal of a liberatory potential attached to cinematic art.

Uncontained iconography

35The 1980 Film Club Act and its paperwork point to the layered operations of film censorship in South Asia. The subjection of a film, as a coherent and discrete object, to the censor’s metaphorical scalpel, cutting segments and even entire films from the public gaze and domain, is not the only way in which film censorship occurs. The Film Club Act operates under an entirely different premise (‘registration and regulation’) to the Film Censor Code but is equally significant in shaping the contours of visibility within the Bangladeshi public domain. The Film Club Act forced Bangladeshi film societies and their activists into a particular type of bureaucratic submission. While the films they screened and discussed were not the target of this Act, the legal requirement to make themselves visible and accountable to the Censor Board was an attempt to surveil and regulate the social formations around those film texts. The Film Club Act rendered legally visible the state’s concerns about the efficacy of politically significant, self-ascribed ‘art’ film to create particular social formations. And this is exactly the belief that the film societies intended to spread and is contained in their logos and slogans: that the art film could be the ground for new social forms and produce real social and political transformation.

36While the official forms of the Board did not permit a dialogue between film activists and bureaucrats, it is through the image, incorporated into logos and bolstered by slogans, that film activists released their worldview into the domain of the bureaucratic practice that sets out to regulate their activities. By setting the iconography of the film society movement afloat in the domain of film censorship, its imagery articulates and makes present the very aesthetic and social formation that is the ultimate target of the Film Club Act. Christiane Kruse, writing about the power of “offending images”, suggests that to “have a strong enough effect to make us look at them” (2018: 29), the image has to disrupt or affirm the “cultural values” a viewer holds (2018: 24). It is at the intersection of the intentions of the image-maker and the image-viewer that “pictures … that cause offense or appeal … emerge from the flood of imagery” (2018: 30). The tense relations between those regulated by the ‘black law’ and those forced to uphold it form such an “intersection of intentions” where imagery can take on heightened significance and bursts forth from the quotidian materials in which it resides. The concrete material quality of the image resists its smooth and unobtrusive incorporation into the logic of the bureaucratic operation that is demanded by the Film Club Act and executed through its paperwork.

37The bureaucratic domain of regulation that aimed to control a specific form of cinematic culture was itself used by film society activists to make themselves and their ideals present within the domain of censorship. They articulated their ideas and aspirations obtrusively in the iconography that features heavily in the paperwork called into being by the Act that set out to control it. As image-based exchanges expand rapidly with new digital technologies and social media get further entangled in encounters between bureaucracies and social movements of all kinds, the potency and efficacy of the image within such domains will be increasingly apparent (e.g. Mathur 2019). To understand how and where the image acts will require close attention to its forms and contexts of reproduction.


38I’d like to thank the Bangladesh Film Censor Board for allowing access to their archive and providing me with the opportunity to discuss my work with them. This article was written during a period as guest researcher at Utrecht University and I’m very grateful to Birgit Meyer and her colleagues for the stimulating and convivial intellectual environment of the project ‘Religious Matters in an Entangled World’. The research on which this article is based was funded by an ESRC Future Research Leaders grant.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1. Cover of the folder containing the constitution of the Argenta International Film Society
Crédits Credit: Courtesy of the Bangladesh Film Censor Board
Fichier image/jpeg, 452k
Titre Fig. 2. Special Censor Certificate for screenings in foreign missions
Crédits Credit: Courtesy of the Bangladesh Film Censor Board
Fichier image/jpeg, 711k
Titre [Image non convertie]Fig. 3. Registration Certificate of the Argenta International Film Society (1985)
Crédits Credit: Courtesy of the Bangladesh Film Censor Board
Fichier image/jpeg, 687k
Titre Fig. 4. Montage Film Society membership registration form
Crédits Credit: Courtesy of the Bangladesh Film Censor Board
Fichier image/jpeg, 496k
Titre Fig. 5. Receipt book for membership of the Alamgir Kabir Film Society
Crédits Credit: Courtesy of the Bangladesh Film Censor Board
Fichier image/jpeg, 394k
Titre Fig. 6. Letterhead of the Shuvechha Film Society
Crédits Credit: Courtesy of the Bangladesh Film Censor Board
Fichier image/jpeg, 536k
Titre Fig. 7. Letterhead of the Chittagong Film Society (1982)
Crédits Credit: Courtesy of the Bangladesh Film Censor Board
Fichier image/jpeg, 725k
Titre Fig. 8. First page of an article in Dhrupadi by Md. Khasru
Fichier image/jpeg, 313k
Titre Fig. 9. Portrait of Alamgir Kabir in the memorial issue of Montage, December 1989
Fichier image/jpeg, 405k
Titre Fig. 10. Letterhead of the Sundarbon Film Society (1988)
Crédits Credit: Courtesy of the Bangladesh Film Censor Board
Fichier image/jpeg, 608k
Titre Fig. 11. Letterhead of the Royal Bengal Film Society (1996)
Crédits Credit: Courtesy of the Bangladesh Film Censor Board
Fichier image/jpeg, 204k
Titre Fig. 12. Letterhead of the Bagerhat Film Society (2009)
Crédits Credit: Courtesy of the Bangladesh Film Censor Board
Fichier image/jpeg, 720k
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Lotte Hoek, « Pictures on paper »Terrain [En ligne], 72 | 2019, mis en ligne le 21 novembre 2019, consulté le 10 décembre 2023. URL :

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Lotte Hoek

University of Edinburgh

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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