When I was a kid, I loved the proudly racist British TV show “Mind Your Language”, and not only because stereotype-based humour is so uproarious to a six-year-old. What truly made it an instant classic was that it featured a Pakistani, who always wore a Jinnah cap and mined canned laughter by mispronouncing English words. Back then, any mention of Pakistan anywhere in the West was a cause of celebration, no matter how humiliating the reference may be. The snake charmers and yogis of yesteryear have been replaced by computer nerds and gas station attendants, but that’s Hollywood for you: always reducing foreign-looking people to the most reductive character possible. The real problem comes when Pakistanis buy into the same game, actively striving to gain Western recognition or, for those who follow a more mercenary mantra, Western money.
It is not surprising, then, that Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is the first Pakistani film-maker to receive the kind of international attention an Oscar win guarantees. Her documentaries all perform the kabuki dance that brings forth international funding, distribution and publicity. From the repression of Afghan women to the radicalisation caused by the Taliban right up to Saving Face, which ties in well with Western efforts to highlight the oppression of women in Pakistan, Sharmeen’s documentaries fuel the narrative that has been set by the West for Pakistan. Unless you believe that the US government funds work only out of a pure love of culture, the fact that she has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from the US (although not for Saving Face) only shows how useful they consider these kinds of documentaries.
But this is not meant to be a personal attack on Sharmeen. The topics she chooses to concentrate on are all worthy of attention and have not been dreamed up by the West to justify military aggression. It is the consequences of the power enjoyed by western money and approval that needs to be critiqued.
The western influence means that only certain types of injustices will receive the international attention that has been bestowed on Children of the Taliban and Saving Face. Produce anything on militancy and at the very worst, you will get a pat on the back. Try and produce a documentary on, say, the victims of drone attacks or labour abuses and make sure you stock up on battery-powered torches and imperishable food items as you wait in the dark for NGO cheques and gold statuettes.
The pernicious influence of the West on Pakistan extends far beyond cinema. Anyone who has worked at a local NGO, after Pakistan suddenly became relevant again, will tell you how the gold spigots were turned on — but only if funding proposals hit all the right notes. Keywords like ‘Taliban’, ‘deradicalisation’ and ‘women’s empowerment’ have a Pavlovian effect on the likes of USAID. Once again, this is not meant to imply that such causes aren’t worthy of funding; simply that they crowd out other issues that should be as much of a priority for Pakistan, even if they are of no use to Western donors.
We also seem to have decided that our image, as projected in the West, is one of the most pressing matters currently facing the country. That we are in the news for an Oscar win is a matter for rejoicing, partly because now we’ll get a momentary break from stories about the latest outbreak of violence. And such feel-good stories will also ensure further foreign funding, more bouts of self-congratulation and more awards. Thus the vicious cycle remains unbroken.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 2nd, 2012.