“I do not prematurely judge the characters in my film. I choose to humanise them with their flaws and concerns”
A film to watch out for at the forthcoming International Film Festival of India in Goa will be London-based young Pakistani director Hammad Khan's Slackistan, which follows the lives of a group of highly Americanised upper middle class Pakistani youth as they try to make sense of their homeland they barely know beyond Islamabad's fashionable restaurants and discotheques. Mr. Khan describes it as a “countercultural film” that rejects both the “stereotypical” western view of Pakistan and the outmoded values of Pakistan's own cultural establishment. Already shown at the Cannes and, more recently, at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, the film is to be screened at the South Asian International Film Festival in New York this week before heading for Goa.
After a special screening in London, Mr. Khan spoke to Hasan Suroor about what motivated him to make the film and his hopes and fears for Pakistan.
It is a very refreshing film and offers a slice of modern Pakistan largely unknown to most outsiders who tend to see it only as a country of terrorists and mad mullahs. Did you consciously set out to challenge the stereotypes about your country?
I didn't consciously set out to challenge stereotypes at all. It was actually an idea born out of a nostalgic love of Islamabad and youthful days and nights spent there. Discussions about representation and stereotypes only started to come to the fore after the film was actually completed, when I started to think about how people might respond to the story.
At another level the film also offers some quite unflattering images. It shows deep poverty and there are references to corruption, religious fundamentalism and, of course, the whole story revolves around a decadent noveau riche elite that lives in a bubble totally cut off from the life around it. How representative is it of urban Pakistani society and the new generation?
It focusses on a small group of upper middle class youth in Islamabad, so it somewhat represents that kind of subsection of society across urban areas in Pakistan. It is only a small minority but a very prominent one as they are articulate, educated, connected and prominently visible in the print and broadcast media in Pakistan. The bubble is exactly right, but I think many of us live in our own bubbles of existence, often cut off from what is happening in the world. In terms of unflattering images, I feel it is not the job of the artist to flatter through images, but to create some kind of meaning and impression that might connect with the viewer.
Also, I do not prematurely judge the characters in my film. I choose to humanise them with their flaws and concerns. It is actually an affectionate portrait of a group of friends. Hopefully you can understand a little more about what makes them tick or not tick by watching the film.
Do you fear it might actually feed into the negative perceptions about Pakistan that worries many Pakistanis?
Personally, I don't see how it feeds into any preconceived perceptions about Pakistan right now. It shows the normal everyday life of a group of friends. They sleep, they talk about mundane issues like weddings, friends and movies. Then they start to question their own choices in life. If people watch it like any other movie from any part of the world, they will see that it is simply a human story which is drawn from real life experiences and characters.
Everyone asks me about representation issues and how much of Pakistan this represents. I simply say that this minority of Pakistan is far greater than the number of terrorists that have become poster boys for the country in the rest of the world. That's worth thinking about. If I made a film about a bearded militant, perhaps nobody would ask me how representative he was of the entire population. They would accept that as an easily digestible image of Pakistan and that worries me greatly. In truth, there is no single human story that represents an entire country or the entire world for that matter.
The film has not been shown in Pakistan yet. Do you think it will be allowed to be shown there? What has been the reaction of Pakistanis who have seen it? You said that some objected to scenes that show young people drinking?
We are hoping to secure distribution in Pakistan after our festival screenings. To be honest, the reaction of Pakistanis is likely to be as diverse as Pakistanis are themselves.
Younger viewers will warm to the film, I think. It speaks to them more than the older generation. In terms of the depiction of drinking in the film, it takes up about 30 seconds of screen time in this 90-minute film, so I hope it isn't a big issue. They're not lynching innocents in the streets, after all.
Did you have any problems shooting the film in Pakistan?
Yes, I encountered problems, some of which may be typical of a film being shot anywhere in the world. Others perhaps more specific to the environment of Islamabad. We shot without permission or the knowledge of the authorities as there were targeted bombings in Lahore and Islamabad in the weeks that we shot the film in. They wouldn't have allowed us to shoot with a proper crew and permission. That was a little tough, to do it in such a clandestine way and shoot around town quite a lot.
Why did you choose to set it in Islamabad rather than, say, Lahore or Karachi which have traditionally inspired Pakistani writers and film-makers?
I consider Islamabad my hometown in Pakistan. I lived there and went to college there. So, the idea started with Islamabad as the inspiration. Martin Scorsese always said you should make films about what you know and that's what he did with Mean Streets (which is paid homage to through references in the film). I know Islamabad like the back of my hand, so I knew I could show sides of the town that haven't been seen before on film.
Most of the young Pakistani writers and filmmakers who are being talked out are those who live and work abroad. Is it just a coincidence? How much creative work is coming out of Pakistan itself?
I think being positioned outside of Pakistan and to look back into it is a great luxury for an artist. The perspective and distance are important in being able to articulate. When I was living the life of an Islamabad “slacker” in my twenties, I kind of knew what I was experiencing but had no way of articulating what I was living. So, time and space are important to train your eye on to an environment. I think maybe that is why the best work is coming from internationally located Pakistani writers and filmmakers. However, I can only speak for myself with any conviction.
In terms of work coming out of Pakistan, the situation for film is woeful. Although technology has become cheap and highly effective, young filmmakers have not really taken hold of their own stories. I hope that Slackistan can set an example for other young filmmakers to just go out and make films. It is also important to be able to immerse yourself in cinema. Learn from the masters, get on to Youtube and watch interviews, read about filmmakers and their vision.
This is how I learnt cinema and I still love nothing more than to delve into the works of filmmakers from around the world and understand their vision and processes. In Pakistan, perhaps there isn't that level of passion or understanding of this medium as yet as people are now used to instant gratification with TV and the internet. Maybe examples like my film should open things up for those that want to make films. I really, really hope I am right.
As a young Pakistani where do you think it is headed?
It would be an understatement to say that Pakistan is in a difficult corner at the moment, partly due to the broad lack of response by its population to the problems they are suffering and partly due to problems that generate outside of Pakistan.
But, as much as we need to take a long hard look at ourselves, so must the world. Pakistan will see through this phase, as it has done so before. I think its greatest asset is its youth. Even the elite youth shown in my film start to change. Towards the end of the film, there is a caption that reads ‘Resolution' and the ‘s' dissolves into a ‘v'. Maybe young people making their own resolution to change could ultimately become like a revolution in Pakistan's future. There have been positive signs of this very reality in the selfless and collective action of young people after the devastating floods in Pakistan.