KARACHI: It's never easy to document a natural disaster and its aftermath through a visual medium with artistic sincerity. More often than not what happens is that in order to capture the gravity of the tragedy the aesthetics associated with the medium either get partially lost or become weakened because of the over-emphasis on catching the situation as it is. Good documentary filmmakers try and strike the right balance.
It was a decent experience watching the premiere of The Living Amongst the Dead, a short documentary produced by the Goethe Institut Pakistan and directed by Nameera Ahmed at the Goethe Institut Karachi on Tuesday. The idea behind the film was to explore the situation of the flood-affected IDPs camped inside the historic necropolis of Makli.
The 10-minute (or so) documentary begins with a booming alap from Sufi music and different shots of flood-hit areas. In quick cuts people are seen leaving their land and setting up camp away from their homes. Blue tents indicating the temporary settlements of the displaced people are captured artfully. The reasonably effective opening leads to narration in Urdu (aided by English subtitles) telling the viewers about the floods that struck Thatta district in Sindh in August 2010, forcing people to step out of their homes and seeking refuge in a safer place.
Snippets of comments of some flood-hit people (men, women and children) on their plight are inter-cut with shots of them moving-out, having one of the women say, “Where do we take shelter?” Owing to proximity to their city Sajawal and the fact that the Makli Graveyard is on a high ground, some people opted to camp inside the graveyard, hence the title of the film The Living Amongst the Dead. (Nearly 150,000 IDPs were hosted by the necropolis for a little less than two months.)
Then the narration switches to research-based script informing the viewers on the historic worth of the centuries-old Makli and how the aristocracy and the commoners had different resting places, which is not the case anymore. It also touches upon the issue of the two versions of how the graveyard got its name, according to one of which, there's a woman by the name of Mai Makli whose gravesite is still there and people visit it to seek her blessings. Some experts dispute it.
The focus returns to the IDPs some of whom, including the protagonist woman, speak into the camera describing how it feels to be living among the dead. As days pass by a baby is also seen born into an IDP family, again cleverly grabbed by the camera, signifying the birth-and-death cycle of life. Then the camera travels back to Sajawal with the IDPs where a devastated landscape awaits them. This is complemented with some neat camerawork — handheld, moving, still. The film ends with an optimistic approach suggesting difficult times don't always carry on.
Throughout the film the haunting voice of Baba Bachayo Karo, used intermittently, singing Sufi verse proved to be an auditory delight. Given the basic humanitarian concept it was a bit frustrating that the documentary ended so early, for the very purpose of such efforts is to document events visually. Another 10 minutes and a bit of fleshing out of the protagonists would have taken care of the sense of innate incompleteness that the film carried. The visual side of it, though, was nicely done and must be commended.
Replying to a question after the short documentary, Nameera Ahmed said the response of NGOs working in the flood-ravaged areas after the calamity had struck was quicker than the government's.
She claimed one of the things about documentary filmmaking was that it had a surprise element and you didn't know what you're supposed to face, as it happened when a baby was born in the camp.
Talking about the rehabilitation work she said it's on and NGOs along with the government were working there.