For teenagers like Shobe, Suma and Ayesha, there is nothing quite like the thrill of catching a big wave. On their surfboards, for a few brief minutes at least, the weight of the world gets pulled away by the undertow. As members of the Bangladesh Surf Girls and Boys Club, the girls have not only found something they are passionate about but also something they are extremely good at. The club serves as a sanctuary from the stresses of their daily lives which, as is evident in Elizabeth D. Costa’s Bangla Surf Girls, are many.
Ranging in age from 13 to 15, these girls all have big dreams of a surfing career. Unfortunately, living in the town of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, their goals are met with numerous roadblocks. The biggest being their gender. Stuck within a patriarchal society, they are viewed solely as objects who can bring money to their families. As 13-year-old Shobe notes early on, while passing another young girl who is married with two kids, the societal expectation is to already be matched with a suitable husband at 13. When she refused to comply, her aunt and uncle pressured her mother to send her off to work—a decision that involved falsifying a passport to make Shobe seem 25-years-old.
If the surf club’s devoted coach Rashed had not pulled her from this potentially dangerous predicament, Shobe’s life would have travelled a very different path. That’s not to say her life has been any easier at home. If there is one thing Costa’s film makes clear, it’s that all of the girls are enduring less than desirable domestic situations. The girls are faced with poverty and, in some cases, with being the lone breadwinner, forced to scrounge for items to sell. There is also the evident toxic masculinity—be it their fathers or the lecherous males on the street—that attempts to police every aspect of their lives. Acting as an unshakable cloud determined to block even the slimmest ray of hope from shinning through, the men in their lives use emotional and physical abuse to keep the girls submissive.
As the film progresses, it is impossible to not feel for the girls when observing how they are treated by the adults in their lives. The only truly decent male figure is their coach, who understands both the girls’ potential and the beneficial structure that the club provides. Providing monthly bags of food to each member—the only food some of their families will receive—and teaching them English, the club has instilled within each girl a sense of confidence and hope. But as Costa’s documentary makes clear when the coach leaves for America and puts others in charge, even these good things are built on a very fragile house of cards.
While one is always aware of Shobe, Suma and Ayesha’s heartrending predicament, Bangla Surf Girls manages to offer slices of hope to each amongst the bleakness. As one would expect, the film is at its most vivid when observing the girls in their element on the water. In placing cameras on their boards and using sweeping aerial shots during their surfing competitions, the film reminds viewers that, despite the adult situations they frequently endure, the girls are still kids. They are teens trying to stay afloat just long enough to find a wave that will carry them to a better life.
Bangla Surf Girls screens virtually at Hot Docs from April 29 to May 9. Head here for more coverage of this year’s festival.