Documenting Pakistan

By Sonya Rehman

Can a Wastern-made documentary on Pakistan avoid the standard clichés?

Last year at an event at Asia Society in New York, Director Cary McClelland spoke about his documentary ‘Without Shepherds.’ I’d never heard about the documentary prior to the event, but I was intrigued when I saw the trailer that evening.

The documentary is based on six Pakistani men and women in light of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in 2007, and the tumultuous quandary that the country was lodged in.

The star-power of three of the featured individuals (Imran Khan, Vaneeza Ahmed and Arieb Azhar) in the documentary, perhaps gives ‘Without Shepherds’ a bit of an edge, yet, other subjects such as a Peshawari female journalist, a truck driver and an ex-Taliban warrior gives the production an interesting, human dimension.
But while viewing the trailer it made me think back then, is ‘Without Shepherds’ just another documentary churned out ad nauseam, like others, using the typical formula of Pakistani subjects in light of the ongoing ‘war on terror’? Is Pakistan being cashed in on again, given the fact that we’ve been sitting on a troubled hotbed for the past few years?
In February this year, I happened to watch a documentary based on the Afghani arts, culture and lifestyle in Afghanistan. Aired on the BBC, the short documentary featured fascinating clips about spas, hair salons, musicians and female journalists in Afghanistan.

Screen shot from the documentary: Imran Khan

Thankfully, the documentary didn’t dip its toes too deep into the pool of politics, and this resulted in content that was not only richer but infinitely more refreshing. For instance, one clip showed a male Afghan hairstylist sporting a pony tail, while others featured a young Afghani rock band that produces songs in English, to an Afghani female politician who is also a professional singer.

While I’m not propagating an idealistic depiction of Pakistan, I just nurture the opinion that we must break free from this typical surviving-in-the-time-of-barbarity formula. Because it continues to fuel stereotypes. And documentaries stand as productions that ‘document’ history – they are trusted as sources of unbiased information; depicting nothing but the truth. Yet, it’s never always that black and white. Documentaries too, can propagate a certain viewpoint. And that’s what is dangerous in the grand scheme of things that shape mindsets.

Screen shot from the documentary: Vaneeza Ahmed

I trust that there is so much more to Pakistan than terrorism, madness, barbarity. And it is this very trust, and faith, and love of our local arts and culture that has been questioned time and time again by myself.
I’ve felt disillusioned and jaded like many other Pakistanis. The onset of 2011 didn’t help – Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti were both assassinated for a belief and for a purpose that they believed in. And it was this very belief which now lies six feet underground. But the question remains; can a documentary on Pakistan refrain from bringing in the political dimension, just like the BBC documentary on Afghanistan? Perhaps that is an article for another day, but certainly something to ponder on.

In an email interview with McClelland, the Director stated that Pakistan stood as an “ideal country to explore. From a distance, it seemed to be a country of paradoxes – somehow between democracy and dictatorship, peace and war, secular and religious.”

He continued; “I relished the idea of doing something that would cut against the typical tropes in the headlines, and spoke from a more intimate connection to the communities there. It seemed the question of ‘where is Pakistan going’ would be more pivotal to the region than any other. Hopefully, we can add some much-needed balance and humanity to the discussion.”
McClelland agrees that during the shooting of the documentary he did encounter some “very natural suspicion people had for an American filmmaker,” but as a liberal American he “would have hated to reinforce any stereotypes and misunderstandings.”

The project, McClelland stated, has been a joint partnership between Pakistani filmmakers right from the get-go.
“We worked with highly professional crews from Karachi, top documentary teams in Lahore, and journalists from Islamabad and Peshawar as researchers and consultants. Even here in New York, our post-production team includes Pakistani editors, sound engineers, translators, experts in community outreach, and more.”

For McClelland and his team, the quest for the subjects in his documentary was a “very organic process.” Pakistani filmmakers and journalists were consulted about the subjects and the content. Imran Khan was chosen as one of the subjects because the crew wanted “the story of the government to be told, but we wanted a fresh perspective, and Imran Khan’s boycott of the election and participation in the Lawyer’s Movement gave us just that.”
McClelland unassumingly admits; “We were outsiders and had a lot to learn about the country before final choices could be made.” Therefore the crew traveled the country extensively in search of subjects and their stories. After identifying their main subjects, the documentary’s filming process was soon put in motion.

“The arts have tremendous potential to balance out this paranoia by promoting humanism and presenting context”, McClelland stated and went on to cite the Pakistani Peace Builder’s Sufi Festival which was held in New York last year, which garnered much positive media attention.

Regarding ‘Without Shepherds’, the Director stated that “the idea has been that the Americans on the team are here to frame the questions that matter most to an international audience, but the Pakistanis were there to provide the answers. Hopefully, when people see the finished product they will agree we did this mission justice.”
For now, the crew of ‘Without Shepherds’ awaits to release the finished product – halted, due to a serious dearth of funds.

Since it hasn’t been released yet, I’ll desist from jumping the gun. For now, I’ll remain humble, and trusting, that the documentary is positive, sensitive and empathetic in its treatment towards Pakistan and its people.

The Express Tribune Magazine


2 thoughts on “Documenting Pakistan”

  1. You write well. Good work. Here’s a humble suggestion, can you please insert briefs (these are text boxes that have the punch line fo 1 or 2-3 following paragraphs) this will add to the reader’s interest. I hope you keep writing and hope you write good things about PK. Thank you for your time.

    I love the pictures. Wont copy them, but will keep revisiting to see them again 🙂

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