“Day After…”: A slice of life on the Rocket in the rivers of Bangladesh

For about 100 years, paddle steamers have been an important method of river travel in Bangladesh. In the early 20th century, they were one of the fastest vessels sailing the Ganges Delta and were nicknamed Rocket steamers. Today, they are anything but.

The film Day After chronicles a two-day lively trip on Rocket, the local century-old paddle steamer | Photo courtesy of VIFF

Mike MacEacheran, reporting for BBC Travel in 2015 wrote, “Bangladesh has some of the most dangerous waterways on Earth, but locals still swear by the historic paddlewheel steamers built nearly a century ago.”

Director Kamar Ahmad Simon’s movie Day After…, playing at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF), chronicles a slice-of-life snapshot of a two-day trip on the century-old Rocket paddle steamer on its trip from the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka to the southern city of Khulna. Featuring a mix of both real and staged elements, the film touches on the trials and tribulations of the vessel, its crew and passengers with wit and charm.

The film starts in Dhaka onboard the vessel, with a crew member complaining that they’re late for sailing, the first of many problems the film will show. From there, the movie jumps around showing us a cross-section of the various passengers – locals and tourists, cabin-class and deck-class, vloggers and musicians, the impoverished and the well-off – each with their own take on the country, the world and outlook on life. The passengers serve as a reflection of the country as a whole, with different groups all agreeing there is a problem with the country’s social-political order but offering different solutions on how to fix it.

A comedy of errors occur throughout the movie, such as passengers missing travel connections, near-collisions with other ships, a dropped camera into the river and hitting docking bays, but are dismissed as everyday occurrences for all involved. The film intersperses scenes of beautiful visuals and cinematography capturing everyday life from the river waterways of Bangladesh. Various cities and towns along the river flourish or decay along the shore. Rowboats, barges and other transport and commercial vessels show how vital the rivers are for the country to ferry goods and passengers.

The film does poke fun at its non-traditional approach to cinematic storytelling at times. On one occasion, one of the passengers remarks, “Who will watch this cinema? Don’t know what they are making. Cinema doesn’t work without a hero or heroine.” While there are actors posing as politicians and student journalists that do provide some commentary of the precarious state of the riverways, the movie allows its subjects to muse, sing, argue and digress on their problems and struggles, with amusing anecdotes and wry jokes. In one scene, commenting on how cabin and deck passengers have different areas for toilets, a passenger sarcastically asks, “is their poop different too?”

Perhaps the “hero” may be the paddle steamer ship itself. Given its age and rickety appearance, the Rocket steamers are workhorses doing a job it should have been long retired for. But, until just recently, the vessels continued to work, ferrying passengers from all social classes and walks of life. The film gives us the opportunity to observe them all, and to join them on the journey, if only for a short time, and in so doing, gives us a moment to reflect on our own social divisions.

“We are so divided. Not just in Bangladesh, but all over the world,” director Simon told Variety magazine in 2021. “What we don’t realize, however, is that we share the same destiny – just look at the climate crisis. We are literally in the same boat, regardless of our class.”

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