The Clay Bird, produced by Catherine Masud ’85, directed by Tareque Masud (Milestone Films; see milestonefilms.com for local play dates).

“I often feel like I’m standing on a fault line,” said filmmaker Catherine Masud in a recent phone interview, describing the divide between east and west that permeates her personal life and art. A Chicago native, Masud lives and makes documentaries in Bangladesh with her husband, Tareque Masud, a Muslim who grew up in Faridpur, Bangladesh. The couple’s first feature film, The Clay Bird, won the Cannes International Film Critics’ prize in 2002, and made its U.S. premiere this spring. An autobiographical account of Tareque Masud’s childhood years in a madrasa (an Islamic seminary), the film combines Catherine Masud’s perspective as an outsider with her husband’s personal experiences. The result offers western audiences something that’s in short supply these days—a portrait of Islamic society rendered in shades of gray.

 

Set during the late 1960s, when Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) fought for its independence, the film focuses on one family’s reactions to the changes around it. The father, Kasi, subscribes to the strictest form of Islam, while his brother, Milon, campaigns for a secular state. Their opposite values quietly pit the brothers against each other. When Kasi withholds medical treatment from his sick daughter, insisting that homeopathy and prayer are the only way, Milon sneaks antibiotics to the girl’s mother. But after Milon takes Kasi’s son, Anu, to Hindu festivals, Kasi packs Anu off to a madrasa.

 

Anu becomes the emotional center of the film as he struggles to adjust to madrasa life. He endures early calls to prayer and teachers who rap their pupils on the head with long sticks. But he also finds some escapes. Ibrahim, a moderate teacher with genuine affection for his pupils, becomes a mentor, and Rokon, the school’s outcast—and the film’s most striking character—becomes Anu’s best friend. Forbidden to play except when practicing martial arts, Rokon engages Anu in a game of catch with an imaginary ball. It’s hard to picture either of these curious, sensitive boys as a little terrorist-in-the-making, as Western media portrayals of madrasas as Taliban breeding grounds would have us believe.

 

The film was initially banned in Bangladesh, where the censors deemed it too religiously sensitive. It broke box-office records when it opened there last October. It’s hard to imagine what could possibly offend in this textured homage to tolerance. When Milon chides a Sufi boatman for his religiosity, the boatman replies: “No true religion—be it Hinduism, Islam, or Christianity—will ever make people blind. True religion opens people’s eyes.” The same could be said for true art, and The Clay Bird is as true as it comes.

 

Michelle Walson is studying film and television at Boston University.