Anima State: Pakistan in film
I went along to a screening of Anima State a couple of weeks ago as part of the London Short Film Festival, having recently established The Mehfil, an arts organisation promoting contemporary Pakistani culture. The film is a jarring and arresting portrayal of Pakistan which shines a light on the ills of modern Pakistani society and is directed by British Pakistani Hammad Khan.
Described as a ‘provocative, tragicomic metaphor for the multitude of ‘anonymous’ threats in contemporary Pakistan,’ the film is relentless and unforgiving in its depiction of the various problems plaguing the nation. It takes specific aim at ‘the national apathy towards the rot in society’. At the screening, Khan stated that the film was meant as an ‘extreme comment’, emphasising that it was presented as ‘a personal dream’.
The British Pakistani experience
The film unquestionably makes for difficult watching. The viewer is ambushed with what could only be described as ‘a greatest hits’ of Pakistan’s most unsavoury aspects, vividly and arrestingly depicted in a series of dreamlike sequences. Khan describes the film as being ‘100% authentic to my personal demons and anxieties about the country of my birth’, a relationship with Pakistan that, I feel, is not uncommon within the British Pakistani diaspora. The film perceptively captures the internal struggle which is sometimes felt between wanting to be optimistic about Pakistan, but then by being confronted with the reality; and of course, seeing that reality through the prism of having grown up in the relative comfort of the West.
Khan’s surrealist dreamscape masterfully conveys the extreme comparisons British Pakistanis inevitably make between the two cultures. This juxtaposition of both societies is so jarring that it is often akin to the stuff of nightmares. It is admittedly not the easiest watch, but this is testament to the film’s effectiveness. It really gets under the skin in an almost therapeutic way. Its unabashed introspectiveness feels unpleasantly personal. The film externalises those inner fears, anxieties and struggles in a courageous and visually arresting manner. What’s more, it represents the peculiarities of the British Pakistani experience in a way I have never seen expressed so articulately before – at least not visually. This underscores its merit as a cinematic contribution which deals with issues pertaining to ethnicity and identity.
Portraying Pakistan to the West
Khan submitted Anima State for consideration to be shown at the Locarno Film Festival last year, which had planned to screen a slate of films showcasing Pakistani cinema. He lamented that the film didn’t make it to the final list, noting: ‘I thought that was saying something in itself.’ This is a shame: I feel this film typifies a prominent British Pakistani experience. Significantly, it is a unique alternative perspective that, although may veer from portrayals of Pakistan which are more conventional or currently in vogue in the West, is no less valid an interpretation.
This echoes comments made recently by Pakistani author Osama Siddique on depictions of Pakistan to Western audiences. Often such portrayals are rooted in a perverse over- fetishisation of contemporary Pakistani society and its perceived problems. As Siddique notes, such depictions are unfortunately ‘readily lapped up by foreign audiences as they reinforce existing bigotry,’ ultimately serving only to feed existing myths, prejudices and stereotypes. Khan’s unique interpretation of a peculiar migrant experience would have, I feel, lent some nuance to Locarno’s Pakistani cinema showcase. What’s more, it would have portrayed Pakistan as it appears to members of its largest community abroad. This would have been a valuable and no doubt a fascinatingly revealing perspective to explore.
The universality of apathy
There is universality to the film which gives it a broader appeal. It not only speaks to the possible complications felt by BAME individuals when negotiating a relationship with the country of their forbears; but also in Khan’s central charge of a widespread and debilitating collective apathy to the problems of the day. As Khan observes, ‘I believe you could make a film like this about anywhere in the world today… it’s sad but increasingly true. Trump, Brexit, the refugee crisis, fake news, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo… it starts to tell a story not very different from the film I made about Pakistan.’
Confronted with endless images in the media of the various horrors occurring across the world, the film exposes the complicity of the viewer in a near global and endemic desensitisation to violence and injustice. Khan notes that the viewer’s complicity in the subject matter of Anima State is an important feature of the film: ‘The fourth wall is broken many times too. We are led to question everything, from media to violence to all kinds of simple arguments about … society.’ Consequently, this film has the scope to speak to every thoughtful viewer who is able to draw parallels between a film focused exclusively on Pakistani society and the universally relatable themes underpinning it.
Driving change through artistic expression
Anima State’s appeal is that it is effective on so many levels – as an exploration of the distinct British Pakistani experience, as a mirror to the internal anxieties felt by BAME communities more widely, and then universally, revealing the paralysis caused by a global collective apathy. Given its relatability, it is a shame to hear that Khan was ‘disappointed the film didn’t quite get past the big gatekeepers of arthouse cinema’. As he notes, ‘It has been said that the film is crazy, out there, not accessible for Western audiences’, when in fact I believe any thoughtful viewer would stand to benefit from his generally unrepresented perspective.
This film shows that despite its problems, Pakistan has a socially and politically conscious cultural output recognised the world over, which is something to celebrate and champion. This is a perspective which is heartening to me, as the Director of The Mehfil. Our artists are at the Tate, Barbican, MoMA, London film festivals, and are shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and winning Oscars. This is a principal reason for establishing The Mehfil – to showcase the many positive contributions made by our community, critical or otherwise, in order to engage the British Pakistani community and wider society in a healthy and open dialogue with Pakistan. It also serves to promote the wealth of dynamic and irrepressible talent such as Hammad Khan helping to move the nation and its global diaspora forwards.