Culture  I Am a Witness to Genocide

The Quebec Premiere of "I Am Rohingya: A Genocide in Four Acts"


I Am Rohingya: A Genocide in Four Acts premiered in Quebec on October 29. The screening took place at Cinema Politica, a nonprofit venue at Concordia University dedicated to providing a platform for independent consciousness-raising cinema. The film, directed by Yusuf Zine, is a documentary rooted in the story of 14 Rohingya youth, many of whom are either refugees or children of refugees.

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority in Burma who are Indigenous to the land, but have experienced generations of persecution and violence. For this reason, hundreds of thousands have fled to many countries including Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Canada.

In I Am Rohingya, the protagonists create a play based on their own and their families’ experiences fleeing Burma within the past decade. These experiences range from a three-year-old seeing her best friend get shot, to a family travelling by foot to the Bangladesh border. The screening was followed by a live Q&A with the director, one of the Rohingya actors, Ahmed Ullah, and a student of Buddhism who uses interfaith work as a tool for activism, Michelle McDonald.

Western news outlets have only recently started to cover the oppression of Rohingya people, even though the issue has been ongoing for over a century.

The film opens with the first rehearsal for the play and spans the following eight months, leading up to the opening night. The documentary mixes scenes of play rehearsals with historical information about the settlement of the Rohingya in Burma and their conditions in 2017. At the end, the film showcases the play itself. Switching between history and the process of putting the play together created a dialogue between the past and the present. In this sense, the oppression of the Rohingya is shown as both a historical fact and an emotional portrayal of human suffering.

The beginning sequence shows what information a Google search of ‘Rohingya’ gives. In .65 seconds, 21,300,000 results pop up, primarily recent news sources with horrific images and various think-pieces from Canadian and American journalists. Western news outlets have only recently started to cover the oppression of Rohingya people, even though the issue has been ongoing for over a century, and when it comes to reporting the situation, there is much misinformation and doubt concerning the validity of the coverage. Many countries, international organizations, and media sources are still hesitant to refer to the situation as a “genocide,” and those that do are labelled as false and untrustworthy by extremist Buddhist nationalists. Rarely does one learn about the Rohingya from an actual Rohingya person, and therefore most sources lack the full story. This theme is present throughout the film and sets up the importance of the play as an opportunity for some Rohingya people to reclaim their own narrative. The play’s script was written entirely from the accounts of the 14 Rohingya people, making them the tellers of their own stories.

Sympathy and solidarity with the Rohingya is minimal and the Western world’s Islamophobia has made world leaders complicit in this genocide.

Zine is not himself Rohingya, and described his experience of directing the film and play as an outsider, saying that he felt he had no place dictating how Rohingya people should tell their own stories. The documentary showed the careful balancing act between a theatre professional guiding a project featuring inexperienced actors, and his ensuring that the play remains the creation and the perspective of the Rohingya youth. During the Q&A session, Zine explained that, due to the nature of the project and his place in the conversation, he had to veer away from traditional Western theatre practices such as the idea that “the director is the boss and the script is untouchable.” Indeed, the play script changed from day to day, which Zine described as unthinkable to many in the theatre community. Yet, that was inevitable here, as the show was not the vision of a director but the telling of the story of the Rohingya people.

Although the documentary does not delve deeply into the religious strife between Muslims and Buddhists in Burma, it touched on how stereotypes about these religions affect the global perspective of the genocide. Sympathy and solidarity with the Rohingya is minimal and the Western world’s Islamophobia has made world leaders complicit in this genocide. In contrast, Buddhists are generally depicted as peaceful and nonviolent, and so are most in the film. It was very important to Zine, Ullah, and the rest of the crew to not paint an anti-Buddhist picture. Zine revealed that an effort to find Buddhist supporters of the Rohingya was made, but ultimately with no luck. One of the interviews for the documentary showed a Toronto-based Buddhist leader claiming that “Rohingya do not exist.”

Many countries, international organizations, and media sources are still hesitant to refer to the situation as a “genocide.”

The end of the film presents a duality between relief and tragedy. The actors perform their play to a sold out venue, finding confidence and solidarity with one another in the process. However, these sequences of hugging teenagers and proud parents is juxtaposed with footage of massacre, looting, and the burning down of Rohingya villages in Burma. These conflicting sentiments fuel the film’s overall call to action: to act in solidarity with the Rohingya against genocide. Before the screening, Zine told the audience, “once you watch this film, you will become a witness to genocide, and there comes a duty with that.” Many of the Rohingya youth are now activists, speaking at the United Nations and meeting with politicians. The documentary highlights its hopes that the next generation will be the leaders of change and tells the audience that they must act.

I Am Rohingya’s website provides the following information on how to get involved: “some of the organizations [that you can donate to or volunteer at] include: the UNHCR, Doctors Without Borders, World Food Program, BRAC, Action Against Hunger, UNICEF, and Islamic Relief. You can also call or message your local member of parliament, senator, or representative to question them on what your government is doing to condemn violence and support the Rohingya refugees.”

I Am Rohingya is available to stream on iamrohingyafilm.com.