It was a diverse crowd, from older Pakistani expats to young Washington professionals, in attendance at Looking at the other, the first in a series at Goethe Institut, Washington, that aims to extend cultural understanding through film. This first event on September 12 focused on five short films from Pakistan, thoughtfully selected by Karachi filmmaker Nameera Ahmed in collaboration with the Goethe Institut in her city, and William Gilcher, who heads media projects in North America for Goethe Institut, Washington. Most of the 92 seats in the screening room were occupied.
For nearly two hours, the audience lost itself in the sights, sounds and stories of Pakistan, witnessing the country in its schizophrenic, often self-destructive, splendour. The careful order in which the films were screened added to the emotional impact of the evening and made the event greater than the sum of its parts.
Beginning with Ahmed’s own 11-minute film, The living amongst the dead, which tells the story of flood-displaced villagers who sought refuge at an ancient necropolis in Sindh, the films spanned the length of Pakistan, from the flooded plains of southern Sindh to the soaring peaks of the Karakoram.
By far the highlight of the evening was the screening of Maheen Zia’s Match factor, the only work of fiction among the five films and a sensitive, wonderful telling of an encounter in Berlin between a reticent Iraqi soccer player and a conscientious German policewoman. Written and directed by Zia, the 18-minute Match factor lets its silences, gestures and sounds speak louder than its words. It’s extraordinarily suspenseful, and its end simply moving. If there were more people like that German policewoman in the world, Zia indicates, we would not be caught in this terrible cycle of violence between Islamic activists and western armed forces.
Director Namra Fareed brought a burst of nostalgia into the room with Fading strokes, a documentary about the declining art of hand-painted cinema billboards. At 25 minutes long, the film could use some editing, and its script, narrated in a terrible approximation of an American accent, could use a makeover. But it amply demonstrates the incredible skill of the billboard painters, and carves its most entertaining moments from an abundant use of classic film songs to illustrate the indignities meted out to the artists: a grainy Zeba limping across a wide-open field, begging Akeley na jana humain chorr kay, as she falls over her crutches, or a mournful Waheed Murad singing, Mujhe tum nazar se giraa to rahay ho, from behind a piano.
The fourth film of the evening, Ali Kapadia’s Voices from Pakistan: Pakistani perspectives on a blasphemous situation, which focuses on interviews with four Pakistanis about the public protests and ban on Facebook in 2010, provided an important return to a quintessential national Pakistani pastime: expounding on political and religious views that one believes very, very strongly.
The 19-minute film contains some shocking statements but also some hilarious ones, particularly from marketing strategist Salman Abedin and a Jamaat-i-Islami local chief, Meraj-ul-Huda Siddiqui, and some sly clips that are as side-splitting as they are unexpected: Siddiqui, staring at his uncooperative computer screen and saying apologetically, “The problem is that the internet is not working.”
A Garden in Shigar, by Mahera Omar, the evening’s final film, told the story of five young women in Baltistan who interned with a Pakistani-American expert to design a community garden for their local school. The film shows them slowly blooming from shy students into confident women who want to work outside the home on community development.
As I exited the theatre, unable to stay for the discussion, I felt both exhilarated and exhausted: in a couple of hours, I felt I’d travelled back to the Pakistan of my childhood, relived the Pakistan of today—power breakdowns, bad traffic, lunatic Islamists et al.—and seen a glimpse, through those girls in Shigar, of the Pakistan that could be in the future.