x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Exploring contemporary Pakistani youth

The Slackistan director Hammad Khan says his film depicts a group of middle-class kids a year after graduating from college who realise their dreams and aspirations are unlikely to be fulfilled.

Hamad Khan's film Slackistan posits that the problem with loss of motivation among Pakistani youth is not due to lack of opportunity.
Hamad Khan's film Slackistan posits that the problem with loss of motivation among Pakistani youth is not due to lack of opportunity.

Slackistan might be one of the wackiest titles of the year, but it perfectly describes Hammad Khan's debut film about slackers in Islamabad. Paying homage to Richard Linklater's seminal Slacker, Khan depicts a group of middle-class kids a year after graduating from college who realise their dreams and aspirations are unlikely to be fulfilled.

The easy analysis would be that this is just because Islamabad affords little in the way of opportunity, but Khan's clever movie posits that the problem might just be the attitude of the protagonists. Their feelings of alienation and dissatisfaction, he suggests, are shared by twentysomethings throughout the world. The movie feels like it's part of the American independent scene rather than anything cinematically that has come out of Pakistan.

It could be argued that the quirky ticks of the characters can upon occasion be seen in the writer-director Khan. The 34-year-old was born in Pakistan before moving to England, aged three, after his father had to flee the country after opposing the military dictatorship.

"I grew up in exile and couldn't go back for 11 years," says Khan, who is based in London. "I grew up with Pakistan being a fantasy-land that I wanted to go back to; then I went back and fell in love with it."

The principal protagonist Hasan, who delivers a lethargic, funny voiceover, dreams about becoming a movie director. Khan admits that this, like many other aspects of the story, comes straight from his own biography. "I was living there when I was 21 and really wanted to do something worthwhile while I was there - and that is really the case for many people. They want to do something; they all have dreams and aspirations. In my day, the difference was that the internet wasn't so advanced and we were a little bit behind the times, so the scene where he tries to rent Mean Streets from a DVD store was based on my own frustration from back in the day."

What Khan was also keen to do was give a picture of what it feels like to live in the capital city. There is a brief description of the various sectors, with an emphasis on the more middle-class areas, and the characters can be seen at a number of scenic locations in the capital.

They talk about city life, from the Taliban to bad spelling on advertising. Much of the political comment happens in the background, from news stories on the television to graffiti on the walls and Hasan wearing a T-shirt that has "democrazy" written across it.

Given the times, it's impossible not to talk about terrorism and it was a subject that the director couldn't avoid when filming: "I think it was so prevalent in the media everyday in Pakistan and as a threat. We reached a point last year where I did think that we could go out to shoot the film, a bomb would go off and that would be it. These are serious concerns, and I wanted to include it to show the contrast of this background and the group of characters going out to a party and how people just get on with their lives."

Khan designed the "democrazy" T-shirt himself and says: "I am criticising and making comment on the current political set-up there and the failure and aimlessness of the democratic set-up. Democracy cannot function in a society where feudalism is so entrenched, so when there are no rights and feudalism, and democracy becomes a bit of a joke, you might as well put it on a T shirt and call it 'democrazy'. I think that is something everyone is talking about back home."

The film also depicts females in a way that runs contrary to the popular western images of women covered from head to toe. Khan admits that this aspect of the movie was not by design: "The way the girls were depicted came out of an organic awareness of the people and the culture. I wasn't particularly trying to get the girls to have a 'look'. They look the way they look, they're wearing their own clothes and stuff and since making it I've realised that the images of seeing girls not in burqas and guys with long beards is quite surprising to a lot of people here [in the UK]. That continues to fascinate me."

What Slackistan does is explode the myth of there being one homogeneous Muslim world. Khan comments: "There is one image of the Muslim world in the West, and I think to undo that would take a whole generation. It's funny the world looks very different, depending on where you are."

Another interesting aspect of the picture is that the British director found his actors on Facebook. "I basically stalked Facebook youth from Pakistan and connected with them when I saw their profiles and pages and then started to put the word out about the film," says Khan. "There is no infrastructure for auditions in Islamabad, so I had to find friends of friends and networks and without that I wouldn't have been able to put this thing together, so thank you, Mark Zuckerberg."

As with the clandestine nature of the auditions, Khan shot the movie under the radar of the Pakistani authorities, believing he would not get clearance to shoot because of the threat of terrorism and also because the cost of doing so would have blown the already modest budget.

The director knows all about government supervision of movies as his regular job is as a ratings advisor for the British Board of Film Classification, which has been very supportive of his filmmaking aspirations. Khan is already planning his next movie, which will once again shoot in Pakistan, "I think Slackistan will be an antidepressant because morale is really low in Pakistan, but after antidepressants the next thing you need is therapy, and so the next film is going to get down and dirty with some of the problems that are happening in Pakistan - how messed up things are. It will be darker and more serious."