Cinema is language.
By Hamza Bangash
Hamza Bangash is an award-winning Pakistani-Canadian director and screenwriter. His works have been showcased in film festivals worldwide, including Locarno, Clermont-Ferrand and Palm Springs. His first feature project, Mariam, was selected for the Talent Project Market at the Berlinale 2020.
Having grown up between Canada and Pakistan, my language is somewhere in-between.This being in-between, something I hated as a teenager, has proved useful as a filmmaker. It’s allowed me to navigate different worlds. We have bigots in both the East and West. Much rarer are good people. With some perseverance, they can be found in both spheres. What I’ve found most of all are ordinary people, who are struggling to make it through another day. Who are keen to provide for their families, and trying their best to ignore the rapidly changing world around them.
Because of my upbringing, I am keenly attuned to othering. I know what it feels like to go from being in the religious and ethnic majority to being part of an immigrant, marginalized community. From having both gender and class privilege to being forced to renegotiate my identity. This I first learned as a ten-year-old.
With my cinema, I try to put marginalized communities in center focus. My first film, Dia (2018), depicts a matriarchal household in Pakistan. A young woman yearns for sexual and economic independence, and tries to find it through her smartphone. The story speaks of the intersection of technology, mental health and feminism. It was inspired by someone close to me, who at a vulnerable age had to confront a weaponized cultural rhetoric and the violence it nurtures.
Dia had its world premiere in Locarno’s Open Doors program. It was the first time one of my films played in a cinema. After the screening, a Swiss man approached me and said the film had deeply moved him. It reminded him of the parenting challenges he faced when his son’s mental health deteriorated.
The story of a young Pakistani woman resonated with the experiences of a 50-something Swiss man. This was my first brush with the universality of cinema, with the fact that local stories can transform into something greater.
I returned to Pakistan, more determined to find new stories, to push myself further out of my comfort zone. I began pre-production on a new short, Stray Dogs Come Out at Night (2020). The film was to be about the lives of maalishwalay – street masseurs. Between back rubs, these mostly young men play the role of discreet sex workers for a predominantly male clientele.
I remember interviewing two street masseurs. I learned that the work is seasonal and, surprisingly, a family trade. That their fathers, uncles and brothers all did it. That most maalishwalay who work in my province, Sindh, are from the same small town in Punjab. That they come to Karachi looking for better prospects. That they take their earnings home every fall, where they are treated like kings by the women in their families, who know nothing of their work in the sex trade. That they are experts in navigating identity, spending half the year as immigrant sexual minorities, and the other half as patriarchal heads of households.
Sometimes I think much of my curiosity for storytelling comes from my outsider status. I’m fascinated by social and cultural norms that are often taken for granted by the local community. I’ve also found what constitutes ‘normal’ to be such a personal thing. This reaches extremes in Pakistan, but I also lived it during my adolescence in Canada. My friends were from a diversity of backgrounds: Chinese, Arab, Bangladeshi, Irish. I would be offered a drink in one home, and religious instruction in the other.
In a sense, this is where I began my journey on my latest short film, 1978 (2020). I walked into a house full of music, camaraderie, and a stocked liquor cabinet. It was the home of Clifford Lucas, a prominent member of the Goan-Christian music scene of Karachi. Through Cliffy, I learned about a parallel history of my native city. A history that is removed from my own through class and ethnicity, but so strongly related through lived experience. The film is about an artist who cannot conform to the world around him, and yet is expected to do so. It is set in the Goan-Christian community of Pakistan, which has long been ignored in the cinema of the country.
Cinema is language, and language is evolving faster than ever. New terms are being invented to show how language has been weaponized and manipulated by those in power. ‘Neutral’ language does not exist.
I’ve found it much easier to speak about injustice through cinema than through conversation. If you try and speak about injustice to bigots, they will give you a thousand reasons for how it can be justified. But if you show them a film that stirs their empathy, they might be willing to listen.
Cinema leaves us with a language of emotion, one that can speak volumes without using a single word.
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