Film: the bigger view
SHARMEEN Obaid-Chinoy has done Pakistan proud and given its stubborn film buffs a glimmer of hope. Now that the excitement over winning an Oscar is receding it should be possible to discuss her success in a broader context.
But first it is necessary to have the full measure of her achievement. Her award-winning film is not a flash in the pan; she went through a fairly long period of strenuous training and experimentation in the print as well as the electronic media. Additionally, she had a few lucky breaks.
First, she found a theme worth discussing which had both a problem and a solution. Second, it was possible for her not only to find the actors in her drama but also to secure their cooperation. And, third, she arrived on the scene at the right time, when the women’s movement had created the space required for a fair appreciation of one of the worst atrocities Pakistani women suffer year after year.
It is the third factor that largely explains the high Pakistani authorities’ courage in hailing the work of a filmmaker, unlike their predecessors in 1950s and 1960s, who were shy of greeting film people in public. That may also be the reason that the traditional artist-baiters in clerics’ robes have been rendered speechless by the glitter of a golden statue and that too of American origin. And for once the pseudo-patriots have forgotten to frown upon the projection of a Pakistani social evil before the whole world.
That an artist backed by public opinion can facilitate such changes in the behaviour of the rulers and the people is a lesson worth remembering and worth repeating.
The government has announced its intention to give Sharmeen a high civil award. Any wide-awake authority would have announced the award and not merely its intent. But did anyone in government suffer any pangs of remorse at realising that it had done precious little to enable Pakistani artists to explore the potential of the art of the film?
Few areas of creative activity have been so persistently neglected by the state of Pakistan as the art of filmmaking. This is not the time to describe how resolutely various governments have worked to destroy whatever of the national cinema we have had.
Every now and then one still hears of government promises to extend economic relief to the producers of commercial films. But that is all that the rulers find worth talking about.
The failure to address the art part of cinema contributed in no small measure to the decline of the short film. While the Pakistani makers of feature films started from scratch, the short film had a less inauspicious birth. Since the early years of Independence the government had a Department of Films and Publications.
Quite a few people associated with the directorate of films, from a fast-talking Haccum and professional Merchant to a stickler for perfection like Khalique Ibrahim Khalique, not only made newsreels and documentaries but also tried to keep pace with developments in the medium abroad. At least they were not unfamiliar with the names and works of Flaherty, Rotha, Grierson and Eisenstein.
That was the time when the screening of newsreels and a short film before the start of a feature film was mandatory. Large production companies competed with one another in helping the ordinary cine-goer to improve his general knowledge. The department of films did not set the Ravi on fire and made many poor films, but it kept the promise of short film alive. However, like other institutions this department also fell on bad days and one doubts if it has done anything for years or if it exists at all.
One is not sure whether the worthless Ministry of Information has preserved all the films produced by it.
The advent of television revived the Pakistani short film, but only for a certain period. Under authoritarian rulers PTV had little tolerance for the truth and that affected its approach to documentary-making too, because truth, realism and unbiased thinking are the main planks of a genuine documentary. Producers like Kunwar Aftab Ahmed, Shireen Pasha and Obaidullah Baig made some outstanding documentaries but their bosses failed to retain their services and, what was more crucial, their trust and respect.
The government’s hostility towards film art was not limited to departments under its direct control. Came Gen Ziaul Haq and he drove two independent filmmakers, Jamil Dehlavi and Salman Peerzada, who had shown great promise with their first films, into exile and wilderness and their sponsors were harassed and penalised.
And yet a younger generation of Pakistani filmmakers — Sabiha Sumar, Mehreen Jabbar, Shoaib Mansur and Hasan Zaidi, to name a few — have managed to carry out highly creditable work. There are many others, like Beena Sarwar, Farjad Nabi and
Tehmina Ahmad, who are capable of offering high-quality fare if they can secure adequate backing.
The sad part of the story is that society as well as the state of Pakistan are doing nothing to facilitate the use of film for spreading the values of democracy, justice, equity, tolerance and rationalism that the people need most of all. Besides, possibilities must be there for anyone to experience the sheer range of cinematic expression.
The state has taken no notice of the Pakistani creators of short films who have been winning recognition at regional and international levels and from critics. When the Kara Film Festival, a highly laudable and useful venture in the circumstances, expired for want of resources the government, notoriously extravagant otherwise, did not dish out even a penny.
Many of the issues relating to state patronage of art institutions and artists have been rendered irrelevant by the ongoing revolution in information technology. The film community has stopped asking the government to set up film schools/academies as something quite credible is being done by art institutions in both the public and private sectors.
The video camera has made filming extremely easy and inexpensive for amateurs and beginners, although the equipment for professional work is still beyond the reach of young enthusiasts who are strong on ideas and weak on resources. And television
has taken up much of what one expected of cinema 50 years ago.
Yet film, feature as well as its shorter version, is not dead over a greater part of the world and it will not die. It may be seen less in cinema halls than on television or on the laptop, but it remains a potent medium through which people can see themselves as they are, talk to themselves and equip themselves for the task of making the world livable again.
Will Pakistan as a collective continue to abstain from playing a healthy role in the utilisation of film art for the public good? The best way to recognise Sharmeen’s work is for the state to create conditions in which she may realise herself fully and in which
many others may be able to follow her path to distinction.