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Asia

The 'switch in the brain'

In "Distant Fortune," Bangladesh-born German documentary filmmaker Shaheen Dill-Riaz chronicles the exploits of several young German volunteers in Bangladesh while the country goes through turbulent times.

Eight young men and women from Germany travelled to Bangladesh to volunteer as development workers: Rosa, Felix, Anna, Denis, Carolin, Moritz, Michelle and Julian. They were given a couple of months to read up and gather material about the country of their destination before they boarded the plane.

Not all of them held out for the whole year for which they had volunteered. Others were forced to leave the country early because of surging social and political unrest. Others, again, made the best use of their sojourn by learning to speak a smattering of Bengali – with a strong rural accent.

"Distant Fortune" premiered in Berlin on March 7, being shown on German TV channel 3sat a week later. It is now being screened in 11 different German cities as part of a nationwide movie tour.

In a DW interview, Shaheen Dill-Riaz seemed fully aware that his film might have a certain relevance in view of the continuing debate in Germany regarding the integration of people with an immigrant background into German society.

Shaheen Dill Riaz

Shaheen Dill Riaz

DW: What was the program for these young German volunteers in Bangladesh?

Shaheen Dill-Riaz: The things that these young people got to do (in Bangladesh) were in effect little tasks in various development projects, mostly in the rural areas to the north of the country but also in the capital (Dhaka), with human rights organizations or in educational projects.

Their tasks were sometimes very specific, such as translating manuscripts from Bengali into English… or to participate in the day-to-day work of the various projects to which they had been assigned.

Naturally, they were not trained to do the work of an aid worker, but they could stay around and see things for themselves.

DW: Does your film have a special message for a German audience?

I have a feeling that people in this country (Germany) are calling for the integration of foreigners in a much stronger way. There seems to be a strong need to see fellow citizens with foreign roots more fully integrated into German society. Otherwise one can see the conflicts at various levels.

The immigrants, too, have their needs and demands, such as that the Germans or the Europeans should see and understand how people can live differently, and have done so for decades. This convergence is very important.

I became aware of the relevance of this film (Distant Fortune) when one of the (German) protagonists told me recently on the movie tour that she had understood for the first time in her life what integration meant and how difficult it was to integrate oneself in a strange and unknown society.

DW: Being an immigrant yourself, how do you cope with it?

Naturally, I have grown up with it. On the one hand, I spent the first 23 years of my life in Bangladesh, though already with certain European components such as the circle of (western oriented) intellectuals, people from films and film-making, the poets, all of whom had been influenced by European literature.

On the other hand, my daily life with my family was purely Bengali – the trusted and familiar world I grew up in.

And then I have been in Europe, in Berlin, for the past 22 years… my family life is also anchored here in Europe. In that sense, I have been raised in this European world as well – almost half and half, as the Germans would say. That is why I am not bothered; over the decades I have learnt how to deal with it, how to act differently in different situations.

For Example, when I fly to Bangladesh for filming or on a private visit, I have the feeling by now that I have a switch somewhere in my brain which functions automatically. And when I come back, it simply goes back to the other position.