Posts Tagged ‘Islamabad’

Last week, I attended a screening of Slackistan, an independent film by director Hammad Khan. The film, which screened in London, Abu Dhabi, New York City, and San Francisco [Pakistan screenings are coming soon], was recently described by the NY Times as, “a pitch-perfect comedy about restless youths in Islamabad,” and is a raw embodiment of 20-something angst, superficiality, and existential musings about life. As someone who grew up in “the city that always sleeps,” Slackistan was – ironically – a very real treatment of Islamabad’s detached reality.

That, in many ways, was director Hammad’s point – to organically create something that was closer to a documentary than a film. Slackistan‘s characters to an extent even mirror the actors who portrayed them – somewhat like art imitating reality. Hasan, the narrator and main character in the film, is a 20-something who dreams of becoming a filmmaker, but instead drives listlessly around the city with his friends, hangs out at coffee shops, and waxes philosophical about where his life could be going instead. He is played by Shahbaz Shigri, also a 20-something, also an Islamabadi, and also an aspiring filmmaker, though he is making that dream come true rather than slacking alongside the city’s affluent class.

Hammad told me, “It was really important that the casting was right, and that we cast people from Islamabad who could at least embody the attitude of the character. It was important that I didn’t try to impose characters on the actors, but allowed it to organically happen.”

Ali Rehman Khan, who played Sherry, Hasan’s best friend in the film, echoed, “It was easier for me to relate to my character because I grew up in Islamabad and have been through many of those same experiences. It was important that Islamabadis were a part of the film because it gave Slackistan authenticity – we weren’t really characters as much as people in the film.” The making of the film, he added, was also a collaborative process, with Hammad mapping out a scene while the cast and crew were at a cafe or  another site, always keeping his camera on him at all times.

The interesting thing about Slackistan is its lack of political commentary or real mention of the volatility and violence that often shape Pakistan’s image in the news media. Instead, current events were pushed into the periphery, mentioned in passing conversations or playing on the television in the background. This was done on purpose, noted Hammad, “to reflect a narrative that was based on perspectives of young characters where the political situation and militancy are not the focal point in their daily lives.” He added, “It was very difficult for me not to be political because I am a very politically charged person. In fact, in the first draft of the script, Hasan would have monologues that would then connect back to a current event in Pakistan. However, we realized that this was artificial because a typical 21 year old wouldn’t necessarily think like that.”

Hammad didn’t want Hasan’s character to live entirely in a bubble, though. Perhaps the most telling part of the film was when he stumbles onto one of Islamabad’s many Christian colonies – or slums that house the marginalized Christian minority. The colonies are located amid some of the city’s nicest neighborhoods, but they are a far cry from the well-paved roads, pristine houses, and fancy cars outside their walls. The slums are dotted with cramped and dilapidated homes, and suffer from poor sewage and a lack of electricity. Hammad noted, “I wanted to make the point that these slums are basically a stone’s throw from some of Islamabad’s best houses and streets. It is an adjacent world that is literally right outside our door.”

Of all the days of filming, shooting the Christian colony was one of the cast and crew’s best experiences. “It wasn’t like we were shooting a movie,” Hammad told me. “For me, it was quite a transformative experience to see the joy and the sense of community among this minority, and then outside the slum’s walls to feel the sense of detachment and affluence in the city.” Ali added, “This is the reality of Islamabad in many ways, that we ignore the things that are right in front of us.”

That, ultimately, seems to be the biggest criticism of Pakistan’s elite – the apathetic divide between the rich and poor, the detachment from the jarring reality outside their doors. While this appears to be a criticism of Slackistan – that its attempt to show another side to Pakistan is still only depicting the affluent class, both Hammad and Ali argue that this is still a very real side of Pakistan. Ali noted, “We are such a bubbled society in Islamabad. There are lots of bureaucrats, diplomats, and politicians, and we’re the offspring of that. And this is how some people live – it may not be reality for the majority of the country, but it is a very real depiction of this slice of society.” In an interview with PRI’s The World, Hammad stated,

It’s important to say that it’s a personal film…it [Islamabad] always used to frustrate me that well, we’re pretty modern, we’re pretty connected, but the town and the environment just doesn’t lend itself to any kind of creative growth or progress. You know, we had nothing to do, nowhere to go. So that was something that I thought, what do you do? How do you move forward? And that sort of extended itself into this kind of metaphor for the country as well because these are young people living in a bubble and they can’t really move forward and in a sense that’s kind of how Pakistan is right now in the world.

In an interview with the Guardian last year, Hammad further noted, “Slackistan should be a wake-up call to the wider youth base, both in and outside Pakistan, to redirect the future of the country.” The film, though it depicts affluent young 20-somethings with no sense of purpose, does have a purpose and a solution – to take action, even if it means taking small steps to achieve that goal.

If there was one thing Hammad would like us to take away from the film, though, it’s to keep in mind this is only one film, one snapshot of life in the country. “Judge the film all you want,” he noted, “but judge me after watching ten of my films. Because the next one I am working one will be a drastically different lens of Pakistan, as will the ones after that.” Moreover, he added, “I am entirely dedicated to supporting anyone who wants to make films about Pakistan,” given the need for different perspectives and the power of imagery in changing perceptions of the country. “Cinema isn’t part of our culture in Pakistan, but images can be educational and they can be socially useful in showing a nuanced side of Pakistan. That can and should be imparted to Pakistan’s youth.”

Slackistan, though not without flaws, was a unique and telling film told through a Pakistani lens, one of many into the country’s rich and vibrant society. As a fellow Islamabadi, it was not only a very real depiction of life in the city that always sleeps, but it was also  a genuine attempt to capture the uninspired underpinnings of this slice of society, a wake up call for the apathetic and the affluent.

To join Slackistan‘s Facebook page and learn about screenings in your city, click here. [You can also visit Mara Pictures for more information on UK and future Pakistan screenings of the film. ]

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A Tragic Morning

AP: Mourners outside the Hospital

I woke up to really sad news this morning.

On Wednesday, an Airblue plane flying from Karachi crashed in Islamabad’s Margalla Hills. According to the NY Times, “Rescue helicopters fought against thick smoke and flames as they tried to find survivors amid the wreckage — about a two-hour drive into the hills above Islamabad — but hours after the crash, Pakistani officials said that none of the 146 passengers or 6 crew members had survived.”

Among the 152 people killed, news agencies report that six were members of Youth Parliament Pakistan and the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad said two Americans had been on the flight. For the full passenger list, see here. Dawn in its coverage also included the number for the Crisis Management Cell, for more information regarding passengers who were on board the plane: 051-9211223-4.

So what caused the plane crash? Raheel Ahmed, a spokesman for Airblue told reporters, “Apparently the cause of the crash is bad weather, but we leave that to the investigators.” Al Jazeera correspondent Kamaal Hyder further reported, “Visibility was very poor… Questions are now pointing at why the airplane would try and land considering weather conditions were so bad. What will be critical is finding the black box which will give the final moments of the cockpit conversation that will give better clues into what happened.”

What exactly is a “black box,” you ask? According to HowStuffWorks, investigators generally turn to the airplane’s flight data recorder (FDR) and cockpit voice recorder (CVR) for answers on how the plane crashed. Costing between $10,000 and $15,000 (not sure if Pakistani airlines get similar models), these black boxes reveal details of the events immediately preceding the accident. According to Dawn, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) told reporters that this black box has been recovered, so details surrounding the crash will presumably be released soon, (though GEO reports that Pakistan actually lacks the “facility” to decipher these gadgets).

According to the Wall Street Journal, Airblue was established in 2004 by Pakistan businessman and politician Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who was a former chairman of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) in the 1990s. The airline “has quickly grown in to the nation’s number two carrier,” with 1.4 million passengers in its 2006-2007 fiscal year compared to PIA’s five million.  The WSJ included an interesting angle in its coverage, noting that Pakistan’s airline industry “has expanded rapidly in recent years to cater to a growing middle class.” The expansion resulted in safety concerns which led to the European Union partially banning PIA from flying in EU airspace in 2007. This was soon after a PIA Fokker F-27 aircraft crashed in June 2006 after taking off from the city of Multan, killing all 45 people on board. According to the news agency, “That was the last major air crash in Pakistan.”

The tragedy of today of course is expressed in the images and videos of the victims’ families and friends, who swarmed the hospital and ticket counters at Islamabad’s airport this morning desperately seeking information about their loved ones. The office of PM Yousaf Raza Gilani said in a statement that the federal cabinet has declared today a “national day of mourning” for the victims of Airblue flight ED202. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends of those who lost their lives today.

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First of all, Merry Christmas to all of our Christian readers out there, and Happy Quaid-e-Azam Day to my fellow Pakistanis, since today is a national holiday  in honor of Mohammed Ali Jinnah‘s birthday, [the father of Pakistan]. Sorry that my coverage this week has been a bit sporadic – I’ve been traveling and have had limited access to the internet. However, I did read today that the Islamabad Marriott Hotel, which was bombed on September 20, [click here and here for some of CHUP’s past coverage] is slated to re-open this Sunday, December 28. According to Dawn, “Peter Alex, the chief operating officer of the Hashoo group which owns the 289-room hotel, says ‘new concepts of security and safety’ have been used in the extensive renovation work to ensure guests can check in without fear.” Alex told the AFP, “It will be the Fort Knox of Pakistan,” [referring to the site where the United States stores most of its official gold reserves].

Starting on Sunday, 60 rooms will reportedly be available for the hotel’s “soft-opening,” and the entire Marriott will be open for business starting in March. Peter Alex showed the AFP the hotel’s new “bomb-proof” wall in front of the freshly repainted building. According to the news agency, the wall is 14 feet (3.5-metre) high and 15 feet thick, and “has been designed to absorb the shock of even a massive explosion outside, like the one in September. Visitors will have to pass through a bombproof room within the wall in order to gain access to the hotel, which will feature sophisticated scanning equipment.” Although the hotel’s restaurants will also reopen on Sunday, there will be no available parking, and visitors will instead have to be dropped off at the front gate.

I will be home in Islamabad soon after the opening, and am interested to see if the re-opened and re-designed Marriott will still attract its usual crowd of people. [Image from the AFP]

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I’m attaching a Reuters report with more details on yesterday’s bombing in Islamabad. I grew up in Islamabad, and the fact that restaurants are being bombed because they may be regularly frequented by foreigners is extremely upsetting. Five Rupees compiled a list of the attacks that have occurred in Pakistan this year – according to their calculations, 33 attacks have occurred in 75 days – that’s one attack every 55 hours on average. The Pakistani government should realize that this battle is on our doorsteps now. Playing the denial card only exacerbates this situation further. My thoughts and prayers are with the families of those effected in the bombing.

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Today, breaking newswires reported that a bombing occurred at an Italian restaurant in Islamabad popular with foreign diplomats. The blast, which occurred in the “backside” of Luna Caprese – near Islamabad’s Super Market, reportedly killed two people and wounded nine, according to the most recently updated Associated Press newswire. The News reported that one of the people killed was a foreign woman, and “U.S. diplomats are feared among the injured.” The AP added, “Police have not determined whether the bomb was planted in the Luna Caprese’s back garden, or whether a suicide bomber attacked the restaurant.” BBC News cited a Pakistani police official who said, “One wall of the restaurant has partly collapsed and many people have been injured.” The AFP quoted witnesses who affirmed, “There are lots of injured people who have lost their limbs and legs, foreigners were inside. It’s a very bad situation. We don’t know what has happened.” CHUP will provide more details as they’re reported.


UPDATE [at 1736 EST]: The most recent Associated Press article reported, “Personnel from the U.S. and British embassies were among the wounded. It appeared to be the first attack targeting foreigners in a recent wave of violence in Pakistan.” A Turkish woman was reportedly killed in the blast, and five U.S. citizens were listed as undergoing surgery, as well as one Japanese, one Canadian, one Briton and three Pakistanis.


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