One of the dictionary definitions of the term ‘swipe’ is, “Move (one’s finger) across a touch screen in order to activate a function”. ‘Swipe left’ and ‘swipe right’ are also featured phrases in the dictionary now. The former is described as, “(on the online dating app Tinder) indicate that one finds someone unattractive by moving one’s finger to the left across an image of them on a touchscreen.”

Pakistan is no place for such immoral swiping though. In September 2019, five dating apps including Tinder were banned in the country. Our impressionable youth is now safe from the indecent content on the said apps, and all this objectionable swiping.

Arafat Mazhar’s Swipe, a hand-painted animated short film, presents a different kind of swiping left and right. One that, at least in this fictional depiction of Pakistan, is more acceptable than the immoral apps that have been banned.

The film tells the story of Jugnu, a young boy who is addicted to swiping on iFatwa, an app that crowdsources religious death sentences. Mazhar and his team paint some familiar scenes. Jugnu is on his phone, swiping away, even while at the dinner table. His mother slaps him on his head. “Get off your phone you useless brat or I’ll gouge your eyes out,” she screams at him, while preparing the meal. “Tick tick tick... Always on your phone... Even when you’re on the dining table.”

Arafat Mazhar’s Swipe, a hand-painted animated short film, forces us to look at our blasphemy industry in a different light

Jugnu can still barely get his eyes off his screen. But in this fictionalised world, he is not playing a game or spending time chatting with his friend, he is deciding the fate of people who have been brought for trial in the court of public opinion on iFatwa.

Those familiar with Mazhar’s other work — his previous animated short Shehr-e-Tabassum,or his engagement with questions related to the blasphemy law — may start watching Swipe with certain expectations. The short film matches those expectations, and then some.

As expected, the film is well-executed and leaves the viewer with a lot to ponder over. It also features moments of dark humour — one case that appears on Jugnu’s screen says, ‘Iss shakhs ne shaitaan ki baaton mein aakar WhatsApp forward message aagay nahin bheja [This person listened to the devil and did not forward a religious WhatsApp message].’

The film is expectedly immersive, with a beautiful sound design and powerful moments of silence. While the viewers witness many horrific things on screen, they are prepared for them all. They know what to expect from this kind of a fictionalised depiction, showing an exaggerated reality for effect.

But, thanks to the crafty storytelling, the audience gets a rude awakening, and is reminded that the reality they are living in is not that far from what they see on screen.

In the animated documentary Waltz with Bashir (2008), filmmaker Ari Folman, retells the story of the Lebanon War from his own memories of the war and the perspective of his fellow veterans. The Oscar-nominated film gets the audience fully immersed in the animated recreations of these events. And then, at the end of the film, the filmmaker leaves viewers with some real footage from the war. Footage that would usually be innocuous to most audiences, accustomed to seeing similar — and, indeed, much worse — visuals. Folman’s storytelling forces us to look again.

Mazhar’s Swipe does the same. Expectedly, it exceeds expectations.

Published in Dawn, ICON, November 15th, 2020