By Danny Peary

After sold-out screenings at the Toronto and Mumbai Film Festivals and the Doc NYC and Pan African Film Festivals in New York City, the eye-opening A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers will be playing at the Sydney Film Festival on. We can attest that the big screen adds to the epic quality of this ambitious work by esteemed co-directors Geeta Gandbhir and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, the latter of whom will be a special guest at the festival.

A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers follows a unit of one hundred and sixty women who, between June 2013 and July 2014, travel from their families, friends, and all that is familiar at home in Bangladesh to join the United Nations Stabilising Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). They form one of the world’s first all female, predominantly Muslim peacekeeping units; shattering every stereotype the world holds about the capabilities of Muslim women. The film dramatically shows how this journey alters the lives of three courageous women and their families.

Recently, over lunch at a Vietnam restaurant in the village, we had this conversation with Geeta Gandbhir about her unique film, in anticipation of its screenings at Doc NYC.

You live in Brooklyn and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy lives in Pakistan, but were you two looking to codirect a project together when you decided to make A Journey of a Thousand Miles?  

We had worked together years before at Granada Television and we met again at the Oscars in 2013.  Her film Saving Face [about two women who survived acid attacks), would win in the Best Documentary Short category, and I was there for God Is the Bigger Elvis [about Dolores Hart, the two-time costar of Elvis Presley who became a Benedictine nun], a nominated film I had worked on as an editor for HBO.  We bonded and thought we should do something together.

You’re known primarily for your editing of such notable documentaries as Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown, When the Levees Broke, Budrus, Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley, and God Is Bigger Than Elvis.  I know you co-directed with Perri Peltz the short Remembering the Artist, Robert De Niro, Sr., but is this your first feature as a director?

I have co-directed another film with Perri Peltz with the working title Redemption Dogs, but A Journey of a Thousand Miles is really my first feature as a director. Perri is served as executive producer.  It is Sharmeen’s second feature, after Song of Lahore. [Co-directed by Andy Schocken, it will soon be playing in NYC.]   I was working as the editor on If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise, Spike Lee’s his second iteration of When the Levees Broke, when I read an article in the paper about women peacekeepers from India being sent by the United Nations to help in Liberia. I thought that would be a great subject for a film and I reached out to Sharmeen, and she thought it was fascinating, too. Then we spent about a year banging on the UN’s door, saying we wanted to showcase these women by showing what they are doing and what it is like for them to do it. The UN was very amenable, but it’s a large bureaucracy.

Your movie is about women from Bangladesh going to Haiti. But did you originally hope to go with Indian women to Liberia and plans changed?

We did hope to go to Liberia, but the Indian women are deployed only once a year and the timing of their next trip didn’t work for us, or in regard to getting funding.  So we were asking ourselves, “What do we do now?” Then we found out from the UN about the all-female unit of women being sent to Haiti from Bangladesh.  Sharmeen and I thought this was actually far more interesting.  That’s because India is much more progressive country and the women going to Liberia would be Hindu primarily and perhaps Christian and every other religion. However, the women deployed from Bangladesh were going to be Muslim, so they would really be defying stereotypes.

I’m curious if before reading that newspaper article you knew anything about women from either India or Bangladesh working as UN peacekeepers, and if the audience at the Mumbai Film Festival knew about this. 

I was born in America and grew up mostly in Newton, Massachusetts, but my parents moved back and forth to India, so I lived there part of my life and still have a lot of family there and am very connected, so it was surprising that I didn’t know about these peacekeeping missions by women.  Especially since India was the first country to send out all-female units. In fact India has been sending all-female units to Liberia for the last thirteen or fourteen years, but since nobody hears about it was very eye-opening to me and to all the very engaged young people at the Mumbai Film Festival. They had no idea that women were doing this kind of work. And the same was true with audiences at the Toronto Film Festival.  People from different parts of the world have no clue this is happening, which is kind of astonishing.

With audiences at the two festivals, one fairly close to Bangladesh and the other fairly close to Haiti, was the surprise that women from anywhere are serving as United Nations peacekeepers in Haiti? Or was the surprise that it is Muslim women?

That the UN is specifically sending out all-female units to do this kind of work was a surprise. That they are Muslim women was the bigger surprise. People were fascinated with the movie because they hadn’t seen Muslim women in anything like a peacekeeper capacity. We don’t see women from the South Asian Diaspora doing this type of work. Usually Muslim women are cloistered and you don’t see them at all or they are portrayed as victims. Because, as we know, the rules of Islam dictate that women don’t leave the house.

So eventually the UN became interested in your project and gave you the green light?

Yes. The UN Department of Peacekeeping was very supportive. We learned that they have an actual mandate to try to get more women into the peacekeeping forces because there has been a lot of scandal involving male peacekeepers behaving very badly.

from "XXX" poses for a portrait during the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on September 11, 2015 in Toronto, Canada.
Co-directors Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Geeta Gandbhir.

Sharmeen is Pakistani and you’re Indian, so were you able to connect to the women of Bangladesh?

GG: We would joke about how a Pakistani and Indian had come together to make a film about Bangladeshis.  It all used to be India, one country, so though the languages are different, the customs and culture are the same.  If we were Caucasian or from the Western world completely, I think it would have been different and the women wouldn’t have felt so at ease with us and we wouldn’t have had such access.  They saw that we understood their world and were familiar with all the struggles they might have to deal with.  And we always had a Bangladeshi field producer with us, an associate producer, and that helped a lot, because they spoke the language.  Even though Sharmeen and I could understand a little bit of Bengali, there would have been a communication gap.

There were 160 women on this mission, from which you concentrated on three.  Did you pick out others as well and found their stories less compelling?

We actually selected five women that we followed till the end. However, one of them was given a job doing paperwork in Haiti and was never outside, so her story didn’t have an arc. The fifth had a story that was less dynamic than the other three, so we didn’t use her, either.

How did you approach your candidates?

We put out a call to all the women and said we would be making a documentary of them and their journey and whoever was interested in participating and being followed by cameras to let us know. Because obviously they had to be willing. About ten women came forward.  We did a preliminary interview with all of them and then chose the five who had the most diverse stories and personalities, and also were the most comfortable on camera and would allow us access. It’s really challenging to have a camera in your face for a whole year.

Farida, who is probably your main character, has an interesting background. She had been married once before.

When we started filming, she told us that her father was a policeman who was killed doing his duty. She was the oldest child and ended up filling the role of breadwinner, taking care of her widowed mother and all her brothers and sisters. She had gone into the police against her father’s wishes but that was what saved her family. I love her mother.  She is super tough and told her husband, “No, my daughter will work.”  True, Farida would marry and become a mother but she’d also work and be independent. Having that job shaped Farida. So that’s the story she told us. We did know she had a son and had remarried, but we didn’t know what happened to her first husband, which was very painful to her. But halfway through our filming in Haiti, as we got closer to her, she finally revealed that her first husband was also killed. Then her in-laws, because of foolish tradition, decided she was a demon and her child was a demon and abandoned her. She felt her job with the police saved her life. She was able to take care of herself and her first child. I’d think someone who has been through so much would just lie down and give up, but she’s so resilient and brave.

She’s a feminist without knowing it.

Yes. I don’t think she’d understand that. She wouldn’t understand her desire to be independent and be able to take care of her family, despite being remarried, as feminism; she would understand it as being practical.

Mousumi is equally impressive.

She’s the one who would understand if you called her a feminist. She knows what that word means. She has my heart—well, they all do—but she has a real concern for women and women’s issues.  That’s what drove her to being on the force—she had experienced abuse and wants to help other females who go through that. She has a real desire to build a better future for women and girls in her country, and even outside. Mousumi has a great relationship with her husband, who believes they both should work. I think she had the strongest commitment of the three women to the job in Haiti. She’s a very thoughtful and bright woman.

Your third main character is Rehana, who sings, makes jokes, and is into fashion. She is the one I’d least expect to be a police woman.

We loved her because she was funny and bodacious and laughed a lot.  At the beginning, I did think she would fit doing the work because she was so outgoing and friendly.

Since they would be away from their families for a year, I imagine that the five women you picked had to negotiate with their husbands, to get them to agree to stay behind and take care of their families on their own.

Absolutely.  Some of them obviously weren’t comfortable about their wives leaving them with their kids.

I’d say all of them, with the exception of Mousumi’s husband.

Right, he’s a lovely guy and they have a very egalitarian relationship. Obviously it was a good thing for their wives to be showcased and there was pride that these women were serving their country but the men had an internal dynamic that made them doubt their wives should be in front of the camera rather than spending time with the family. Rehana’s son believed she should stay home.


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