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Illustration by Liene Magdalēna

A Voice to the Voiceless: The Rohingya Genoicde Through Film

Screened at the Arts Center, the docu-fiction Apocalypse is a representation of universal issues of displacement, and a distressing reminder of the inhumane reality of the world we live in.

Oct 5, 2019

Nearly 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar since August 2017, escaping the atrocities of the Rohingya genocide, including mass killings and sexual violence — all of which amount to crimes against humanity, according to a report from the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, established under the United Nations.
This is what award-winning director and producer, Samah Safi, sought to capture in her 30 minute docu-fiction, Apocalypse, co-directed by her husband, Muhammad Bayazid. They dedicated seven days to filming in Malaysia, where a large population of displaced Rohingyan refugees are staying. Prior to this, they spent six months interviewing the refugees there, gaining first-hand insight on the conflict. Safi and Bayazid co-own Light Art productions, personally funding their films, which center around various humanitarian crises.
NYU Abu Dhabi was privileged to screen the film at the Arts Center on Oct. 2, as it will be officially released at the end of October. The Film and New Media Department organized for the Washington based filmmaker to fly out for the screening from her visit to her home country, Jordan.
A struggle for survival in the remains of destruction, Apocalypse illustrates the realities of displaced refugees from the perspective of a child.
“We hope that Apocalypse will be able to carry out the voice of the Rohingya to the whole world and direct a spotlight on a tragic humanitarian crisis rarely talked about or addressed in the mainstream media in the United States,” Safi said.
The plot follows the journey of a young girl running on foot, attempting to stay alive in a forest, where she has been displaced as a result of the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
The film is fully in black and white, with no dialogue, forcing its viewers to reflect on the details of the crisis — the raw, realistic version of events. The unnamed protagonist is played by a Rohingya refugee named Mimi, who encapsulates the audience’s attention to the cruel nature of displacement. Her character grapples with troubles we tend to gloss over in our daily lives, privileges we take for granted — hunting food for dinner, finding fresh water to drink and shelter for the night. The youthfulness of the character, a child’s pure sense of happiness, is evident as she plays hopscotch, runs in the rain and sits atop tree branches with monkeys. Her youthfulness is, however, also shattered as she shivers in the cold, famished and hiding from soldiers.
Safi reflected on the role of film as a medium to convey these significant, difficult topics.
“Muhammad and I both share this great passion for telling humanitarian stories, hoping that our work and films will be the voice for the voiceless and bring justice to those who need it the most,” Safi stated. “We believe that the first step to create change is to spread awareness. We believe we can change the world, only one film at a time.”
The Q&A session, similar to others that the Film and New Media Department host, created a space for discussion on the impact of art forms and the ethics of representation in media, bringing about productive conversation.
Many expressed concern regarding the actress’ trauma and the impact of filming on her.
“I questioned the ethics of [recreating the crisis] — the actress is a real survivor, which connects her to the story … [but] where do you draw the line between what is real and what is not in order to ethically portrary [the crisis],” commented Pamela Martinez, Class of 2023.
Jude Elziq, Class of 2022 and majoring in Film and New Media, who aided in the organization of the event by reaching out to the filmmaker, emphasized the importance of such films in generating awareness and change for crises. “Humanitarian narratives such as Samah Safi’s film Apocalypse gives life to the human experience; the human emotion which we all relate to,” Elziq said. “Once we extract the humanity in any political crisis, we break down the walls that have divided us.”
The painfully realistic ending — the young girl left on a shore, presumably dead until the screen goes black and only her coughing is heard — is heart-wrenching yet powerful in reminding the audience of the universality of the crisis.
Assistant Film and New Media Professor Surabhi Sharma draws parallels between Safi’s work and the image of the Syrian child on the beach, “which became the conscious of our world today,” she said. “[It is] a very important moment to connect it to the larger crisis that we as the world are facing, of very cruel governments — both who are pushing people out of their lands but equally people who are not letting refugees come to their lands.”
The realities of migration and the struggle of communities in crisis around the world are all drawn attention to as a result of the meaningful docu-fiction. Apocalypse is a representation of universal issues of displacement, and a distressing reminder of the inhumane reality of the world we live in.
Sarah Afaneh is Deputy Features Editor. Email her at
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