If you came to this website on October 10, you likely saw a large banner directing you to a “24-hour long live performance charting the final day of a death row prisoner”.
The dramatic image featured actor Sarmad Khoosat, as Prisoner Z, standing in front of a black backdrop.
A day after the performance ended, another story about an actual convicted prisoner appeared on Dawn.com’s homepage.
It announced that death warrants had been issued for Imran Ali, the man who was sentenced to death on four counts in the rape and murder case of seven-year-old Zainab.
It is one thing to talk about the human rights of a fictional Prisoner Z, based roughly on the life of Zulfiqar Ali Khan — a ‘model prisoner’ who spent 17 years on death row after shooting two robbers in self-defence — but what about a convicted rapist and murderer?
A large segment of society believes that criminals like Imran Ali should be hanged and ‘made an example out of.’ “The best news I’ve heard in a long time. No mercy for this man,” a Twitter user posted, celebrating the black warrants.
It is thus never easy talking about the death penalty in Pakistan. Any argument for abolishing capital punishment is quickly branded as ‘propaganda’ or seen as condoning crimes like rape and murder.
And yet, somehow, Sarmad Khoosat and Justice Project Pakistan got people to discuss the practice for 24 hours. As the project made its case, thousands watched. Of course, not everyone liked what they saw. But they were watching either way. Soon enough #NoTimeToSleep was trending on Twitter.
The premise of the performance was intriguing enough to have people join the live stream, but after the initial click, it was all up to Khoosat. And the artist delivered in a big way, captivating the audience.
As the hours mounted, some netizens couldn’t help but laud him. Soon enough, he was dubbed a “national treasure” on Twitter.
Khoosat became Prisoner Z so convincingly that the stream would almost constantly have people questioning if this is ‘real’ or not. Every once in a while, a new user would join the video and pat themselves on the back for figuring out ‘that this is fiction’.
Apparently the Dawn.com newsroom received phone calls from concerned fans ensuring that Khoosat was not, in fact, being hanged at the end of this.
Then there were those who were seemingly rooting for the performer to be hanged at the end of this, and wondering aloud if that portion will also be livestreamed.
These comments may have been attempts at humour or online trolling, but they were disturbing nonetheless. After all, public hangings are unfortunately a part of our country’s history. Perhaps for this reason, being part of this virtual audience, seeing a man in a cage was often distressing.
The day-long performance was packed with powerful moments. At one point, Prisoner Z’s family visited him. The raw emotion during that interaction was palpable.
In terms of the live stream, No Time To Sleep was no small feat. Unfortunately, this showed sometimes. There were minor audio issues, and some streaming problems.
One of the things that visually disturbed me was when the camera would switch to the birds-eye view. In this angle, you could clearly see that the prison set only had three walls instead of being an entirely closed space.
This took away from the sense of claustrophobia otherwise consistently maintained through out. Nonetheless, things were smooth sailing for the most part. In terms of production too this was definitely a first for Pakistan. Ultimately, Khoosat’s artistry made it easy to see past the minor technical flaws.
Live blog: No Time to Sleep
On one level, No Time To Sleep can be considered a piece of performance art. First reading about the project’s concept reminded me of famous performance artist Marina Abramovic’s 2010 piece, The Artist is Present.
For the performance, Abramovic sat at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for 700 hours. Visitors could sit on a chair facing her as she looked back at them silently. The New York Times had called that piece a silent opera.
Some of the most impactful moments of Khoosat’s performance too were punctuated by silence. When Prisoner Z tried to sleep, when the guard quietly sat on the stool, when they both simply waited for the 24 hours to end — and we waited with them, trying to make sense of it all.
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