From “Show Boat” through “Ship of Fools” to “Titanic,” if a certain strain of Hollywood melodrama has taught us anything, it’s that all of human life is to be found on a passenger boat — our dreams and desires and social differences somehow made clearer at some distance from dry land. Bangladeshi filmmaker Kamar Ahmad Simon applies much the same philosophy to his delightful documentary “Day After …,” albeit with the accompanying glamour removed. Boarding a creaky, century-old paddle steamer for a two-day river commute from the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka to the country’s Khulna region, Simon documents the journey with both geographical and sociopolitical fascination, drinking in the scenery while wryly observing the tangle of classes, castes and character types on deck.
The loose, entertaining result is equal parts leisurely travelogue, observational social study and droll real-life comedy of errors, and premiered in competition at IDFA to an enthusiastic audience reception. Arriving nine years after Simon’s last theatrical documentary, “Are You Listening!” — a study of a community recovering from ruinous flooding that won top honors at Cinéma du Réel — “Day After …” is the second part of a loosely defined “water trilogy,” and should gather considerable steam on the festival circuit. Distribution potential is also strong, though most likely in streaming formats that won’t do complete justice to the film’s rough-edged widescreen spectacle.
Which isn’t to say this is touristic National Geographic fare, however pleasing the Ganges Delta views we take in along the way. Though the veteran boat (named the Rocket, a moniker we soon gather does not refer to its speed) contains a handful of European and American travelers on board, Simon’s mobile, inquisitive camera pays them no more particular mind than it does the rest of the passengers. From a local perspective, the real-life ensemble of “Day After …” is a social cross-section of contemporary Bangladesh, running the gamut from influential politicians to the impoverished and disabled — divided, of course, by ticket class across the Rocket’s multiple decks and compartments.
With filming having taken place shortly before the country’s 2018 national elections — regular radio news snippets clue us in to the mood of a population bristling over economic strife and governmental corruption — there’s tension in that diversity. Passengers restricted to the cheap seats vocally bristle over the segregation: “Is my poop different from that of the cabin passengers?” one of them asks to camera as he breaks rank to use the “better” bathroom. Class politics surface in every aspect of The Rocket’s daily operations, whether it’s staff tasting the special menu devised for the politician and his entourage or the cranky captain using “servant-born” slurs to admonish the skippers of another vessel blocking the river.
That’s one of numerous obstacles and mishaps that the Rocket encounters on its way, as everything from heavy fog to stifling mud conspires to delay its planned two-day journey. (The film’s somewhat vague, awkwardly punctuated title alludes to this inexact timeline.) The captain takes any holdup in stride: “The first-class passengers can enjoy the city tour,” he says with a shrug, “while the third class suffers everywhere.” Both groups make the best of the situation in different ways, as Simon’s gaze roves from wealthy girls in colorful hijabs taking selfies on the deck to a destitute, blind busker filling the time with improvised song.
The filmmaker’s camera isn’t the only one on board, as “Day After …” inclusively expands its view to incorporate the reportage of others — whether it’s a group of gutsy Bangladeshi journalism students securing an interview in the politician’s private cabin (and eviscerating his responses once out of earshot) or a resourceful young YouTuber shooting his own video diary of the journey, his footage sometimes woven into the film’s busy fabric. (His attempt to launch a drone provides one blissfully pure moment of slapstick amid more serious goings-on.) Meanwhile, the Western tourists also make attempts to document the trip, snapping away at their fellow travelers with a blithe condescension never present in this good-humored but conscientious film. One local passenger is bemused by what she sees as Simon’s “random filming,” noting the absence of the hero and heroine that, in her view, any real movie needs. On the Rocket, really, she could take her pick.