Skip to main content

VIEW: Of Clarion Calls and Golden Statuettes / By Afrah Jamal

First Published in Daily Times /Saturday, March 17, 2012

Elegiac laments for a fading film industry are interrupted midway with news that could give the documentary film medium at least a new lease of life. It owes its resurrection to a young filmmaker, who mined troubling sound-bytes overheard in theatres where war, injustice or social disparity reigns supreme. Clips aired at the third Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) held earlier this year provided glimpses of her work, including the internationally acclaimed ‘Saving Face’. At the time, she had an Emmy stacked away for one documentary and was just weeks away from winning an Academy Award for another. At the time, she had been relentlessly crusading to rid societies of those anachronistic practices (among other ills) that weigh them down in the modern world. And — despite these glittering credentials — her work was largely unknown amongst Pakistanis.

The young Oscar nominee who took the stage that day would soon be the face of a burgeoning reform movement to challenge the recurring motif of gender-based persecution and perhaps, redress a terrible wrong. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, recently seen walking the red carpet in Los Angeles, found another one rolled out upon her return to Pakistan amid excited cries of Hilal-e-Imtiaz (the second highest civilian award), stronger legislation, and an awareness campaign against acid violence already underway. More importantly, she now gets a chance to witness the transformative power of media with this film’s ability to double as a clarion call to the authorities and propel a well-worn debate regarding some disturbing trends out of the shadows and firmly embedding it in the national psyche and global consciousness.

Like her memorable little speech that stayed on point, generously sharing the limelight with the featured/unsung heroes of her land — using the momentum to launch a dialogue that is hard-hitting, unapologetic and compelling at the same time is an effective counter against the existing social (dis)order. ‘Saving Face’ is lauded for its potential to change perceptions and with any luck, liberate a substantial section of society held hostage by tradition. But this will not be the first time this filmmaker helped steer the verdict in favour of the oppressed — though it might be the most widely publicized.

As the brainchild behind 16 films — all barring the acclaimed ‘Saving Face’, which was the US filmmaker/co-director Daniel Junge’s idea — Sharmeen has worked in over ten countries including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the Philippines (where she did a story about the Catholic Church). Though these films are unabashedly critical of governments, she revealed, to the surprise of many, that the Saudi Ambassador to the United States praised her objective portrayal of his nation’s emergent women’s movement and extended an invitation to return to the Kingdom. At the KLF, she recounted another story of a man her films testimony helped save — a man who threw himself between a suicide bomber and his quarry, got injured and lived in danger of his life after becoming the star witness in the 2005 Shia mosque bombing. Or he did, until the Pakistani government was successfully petitioned to get him out of the country.

There may be no dearth of talent or of stories waiting to be told, but this environment is designed to test a filmmaker’s fortitude. Interestingly enough, sentiments at both Sharmeen Obaid’s screening and the (comedy) session with the cast of “Baigharat Brigade”, Nadeem F. Paracha and Saad Haroon, during the Festival ran on parallel tracks. They were simultaneously lauded for taking a valiant stance and cautioned for living on the edge. It is a valid concern given those cruel statistics where some wonderful voices of reason have been silenced, and the hand that dealt the fatal blow - revered. Raising a voice is risky but as Sharmeen indicated in some post-Oscar interview, the Saraiki belt is a cakewalk compared to playing in the Taliban territory.

Ms. Chinoy, who also shared her filmmaking process at the literary event, admitted to using her level of anger as a barometer to determine her next topic. That anger has taken her to former Taliban strongholds, the oft-derided transgender community, inside an evolving Saudi women’s movement or as in the case of her Oscar-winning collaborative Documentary Short ‘Saving Face’, the victims of acid-related abuse.

Here, a microcosm of society finds itself in the unforgiving glare of her camera. But were the spotlight trained over the entire region, it would illuminate more than the savage streak that runs across the rural areas or the fearsome monsters (who shall not be named) waiting to pounce on over-curious journalists. It would expose the downward drift brought on by a sudden onset of religious righteousness.

And because religious persecution, or persecution based upon distorted versions of religion, at any rate, is a widespread phenomenon, it ends up as centrepiece in many of Sharmeen’s sets. In her representations, those shades of grey that cloud issues using honour as an alibi have no place in what is clearly a black and white palette. In present day Pakistan, loopholes based on that colour variation have been used to vindicate murderers like Qadri, if not in the eyes of the law then in the eyes of the masses, and justify minority persecution by banning consumer products (Shezan) on court premises.

This may be one of the many reasons an image makeover is so hard to sell and harder to accept. A jarring soundtrack often sanctioned by lawmakers or hysterical spiritual guides tends to eclipse the surrounding optimism: the wondrous acts of charity and the tremendous resilience of ordinary men and women quietly battling a perfect storm that threatens to capsize their carefully built illusion of security. Having survived on grants, the Oscar winner bluntly pointed out that the prevalent scene would not have been considered conducive to documentary filmmaking back in the day. Her global debut as a Pakistani filmmaker might spur the state to rectify this oversight.

All her subjects get to see the films that have yet to be aired in Pakistan. Sharmeen’s homecoming may be triumphant but it is also a reality check. A small but vociferous minority more worried about the subject matter that they felt somehow defaced Pakistan is inconsiderately taking up the space reserved for celebration. Cynics in a rabid display of what can be interpreted as blind prejudice have scorned the recognition that, in fact, has raised the stature of a beleaguered society.

For the rest, a moment of clarity permeates the layers of obfuscation. They generously credit her for a win that can help override the failed state mode long enough for Pakistan to cast off labels that gave it that sinister appearance. Can we convince sceptics (of the local variety) busy eyeing everything including a golden statuette with suspicion, to maybe embrace a less cynical outlook?

Also, given the fact that ‘Saving Face’ cannot be screened locally until the subjects have been guaranteed protection, highlights some of the issues these storytellers are up against. That the clips aired may have already revealed their identities might make that objection void. Still, scoring Oscar gold is a victory on several fronts. Its gruesome premise notwithstanding, the emerging face of Pakistan is represented by a compassionate new breed of warriors diligently working to craft a more humane narrative from a relentless pulsating, oozing mass of bigotry pushing against reason.

All Images Copyright of Moi


Popular posts from this blog

BOOK REVIEW: Pakistan: Beyond The ‘Crisis State’ / Author: Maleeha Lodhi

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, June 18, 2011

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Published under the title: 17 Reasons to Hope

“History will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, history will have its revenge and retribution”— from the movie, ‘Good Night, & Good Luck’

A region known for most “terrorist sightings”, a place feared for harbouring medieval mindsets next to progressive thinkers and a nation shunned for having an affinity for nuclear toys. By turns a cautionary tale, an indispensable ally and an international pariah, Pakistan does not fit into any mould — for long. But its name crops up whenever things go awry.

Pakistan: Beyond the ‘Crisis State’ is a compilation of articles put together by Maleeha Lodhi that countermands the grim prognosis. When Ms Lodhi, who has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US and UK, acknowledges that “resilience has been part of Pakistan’s story from its inception, obscured by the single issue lens…

FILM REVIEW: West Bank Story a live-action short film (2007)

Published in The POST May 17, 2007

Directed by:Ari Sandel
Written by: Kim Ray and Ari Sandel
Duration: 21 Minutes
(An official selection of the 2005 Sundance Film Festival)

The Middle East is better known for staging violent uprisings, certainly not for inspiring comedic masterpieces.

Since 1967, the West bank has spawned a surge in Arab hostility, frequent visits to the Middle East by Condoleezza Rice and lately, a small little inspirational musical comedy about competing falafel stands, directed, co-written and produced by Ari Sandel (part Israeli, part American Californian native). Since there is no easy way to represent both sides fairly, the very notion of West Bank Story is greeted with a justifiable mix of scepticism, wariness and resentment at first. No doubt, it is a precarious balancing act that mandates such a film to be witty without being offensive, show compassion without discrimination and entertain without losing substance. So does West Bank Story deliver?

West Bank Story

BOOK REVIEW: The Last Sunset — The Rise & Fall of the Lahore Durbar Author: Amarinder Singh

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times under the heading: Lahore Durbar in free fall

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

After the Mughals exited, but before the British arrived, the Lahore Durbar was presided over by Maharaja Ranjit Singh Bahadur, affectionately known as the ‘Lion of Lahore’, who makes a brief appearance in Amarinder Singh’s narrative, but leaves a lasting impression on his history.

Ranjit Singh, who has been described in the book as a great man and an outstanding military commander, was a mass of contradictions. For instance, he was against the death penalty but not averse to robbing widows, believed treaties were meant to be broken but treated the vanquished with kindness, and thought nothing of inviting guests only to divest them of their most prized possession — like the Kohinoor diamond. He may have spent the better part of the day leading military campaigns, yet he did not always harbour territorial designs and is said to have waged a war on hi…

BOOK REVIEW: How It Happened

Published in Daily Times / Sat 9 Feb 2013

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Author: Shazaf Fatima Haider

Thanks to Liberty Books for the (temp) review copy

Gwendolen: I am engaged to Mr. Worthing, mamma.

Lady Bracknell: Pardon me, you are not engaged to anyone. When you do become engaged to someone, I, or your father, should his health permit him, will inform you of the fact. An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be. It is hardly a matter that she could be allowed to arrange for herself . . .”
The Importance of being Earnest (Oscar Wilde)

Characters chasing ‘happily ever after’s’ are often pulled aside by enterprising elders who try to flag all but the most traditional road to the altar. A fiendishly funny narrative pounces on the retreating figure of Cupid and explores his cultural relevance in the sport they call match-making.

The saga of the Bandian clan comes with a perpetually scandalized, formidable old lady fiercely protective…

OP-ED: Fashion Week – More Than A Pretty Footnote

First Published in Economic Affairs June 2013 Issue

‘Artists are the gatekeeper of truth. We are civilizations radical voice’. Paul Robeson

There was a conference on counter-terrorism underway in Hyderabad as fashion week was winding down in Lahore. One of the presenters, a Dutch with a Phd and a thesis on the effects of fear on social behavior had indicated resilience as part of the counter-terrorism strategy. ‘We had a fashion show, does that count?’ I later asked Dr. Mark Dechesne who was in town recently. If he was startled, he did not show it.

Two things have been trending on twitter since April 2013. Fashion week finds itself in the same time slot as politics and as politicians perfect their strut on the political ramp, the fashionistas have taken to the red carpet and designer-wear floods the catwalk. Though fear overshadows both events, people refuse to let the claustrophobic environment dictate their social calendar.

The famed fashion week which started from Karachi and co…

OP-ED: Stargazing at the Awards

Published in Daily Times / 11 Apr 2014

So which one of them is Pakistani?
Some of us were having a hard time putting a name to the music.
All of them,’ said the person sitting next to us, a little reproachfully.
The musical performances? oh that, none of them, he said cheerfully.
He did not seem shocked.

We had gathered that day to witness the 2nd Servis HUM Awards, celebrate the showbiz industry with its requisite fashion parades and indulge in some star gazing at the EXPO Centre, Karachi.

The show had been designed to honour the best of Pakistani music, fashion, film, and of course television. Guests glided across the hall in awe of the décor (flawless) and set pieces (stunning) while keeping an eagle eye on the red carpet for a Fawad Khan or Hamza Ali Abbasi sighting (rare).

Timely adverts running on OSN ensured that a regional audience awaited the telecast with bated breath along-side the rest of HUM fans. The ceremony was not LIVE but Twitter would be abuzz with activity e…

STYLE: A ‘Haute’ Ticket Item

Published in Daily Times Pakistan (Entertainment Section) / 26 Oct 2013

Your talent will get you far, but your passion will get you further” – Tabassaum

Bath island - turns out, not really an island; it is a place where one can find, among other things Tabassum Mughal’s outlet and her shiny new salon. Her signature piece was featured in Bridal Couture 2013 (BCW) earlier this year. Her collection was later seen on London’s runway. And a bewitched crowd now circles her new line for Eid, drawn by a certainty that behind the closed doors lay the proverbial ‘one’.

They are not wrong. As she unveils a new vision of silk & satin to the world, there will be a constant embedded in that impeccable fashion statement. She has achieved a wonderful hybrid harvested from the rich heritage and decadent flavors that define our poorly misunderstood region.

The person in-charge of these creative coups can be seen flitting in and out of the situation room – otherwise known as the exhibit…