Black Swan: If only all films were this good

The film is what every film should be: just the right side of 90 minutes, with excellent characters and a great plot.

Aleyha Ahemed November 04, 2010
Do you remember the last time you left the cinema shaking with excitement? And not shaking because they put the air conditioning on too high (why do they do that)?

The last time this happened to me was when I left the cinema at midday without an ounce of guilt in my body, after watching a little film called Avatar.

What’s with the presence-or lack thereof-of guilt, you may ask?

Well, I had woken up at 8am, on Mothers’ Day no less, to sit all by my lonesome, in the best seat in the house at the IMAX theatre to watch Avatar. As I put on my large-brimmed 3D dark glasses, I became responsible for delaying our family’s ritual present-giving and annual love-outpouring to our beloved mother, who, incidentally, had to lie in bed for an extra couple of hours just to not break with our tradition of breakfast in bed, until my gleeful, un-guilt-ridden return.

When I sat down to watch the film, I was wracked by the ‘I’m a bad daughter’ conscience prick that middle children still claim ownership over, at an age when we’re definitely supposed to be old enough to know better. This guilt was completely vapourised once the film started, by the intense distraction that is James Cameron’s Avatar.

The film was exceptional, regardless of what people have said, or have repeatedly parroted film critics as saying. Almost a year on and I still get remarks like “Oh, it’s just like Pocahontas” and “Please, anyone could take $237m and make that film, except they’d probably make it better.” And then, as if to add insult to injury, the Academy gives it its biggest and most critical snub, by handing over the most coveted Best Film award in 2010 to Cameron’s ex-wife, Kathryn ‘I will make you Hurt’ Bigelow.

Now, I won’t deny that that film is excellent, but you have to ask why that award was given. Was it because Bigelow made a film that was going to have you on the edge of your seats because of its subject, namely a life-threatening job, or was it because of the topical subject and the guilt (that word sure does make the film industry’s world go round) felt by pretty much all Americans for ignoring their heroes dying in Afghanistan and Iraq? So, was it given for the subject or the subject? Tough call.

I digress.

Back to that feeling. That feeling, whichever film you last had it in, is the same feeling I got as I left Aronofsky’s Black Swan this week-and here’s why.

The film is what every film should be: just the right side of 90 minutes, it maintains suspended disbelief and invites audience subjectivity on the plot.

Before you obliterate my argument: yes, Avatar is the 162 minute long exception that proves this rule.

Black Swan has been described as a ‘psychological thriller’ and yes, it is an edge-of-your-seat rollercoaster ride of a film, but it is so much more.

Like Darren Aronofsky’s previous films, Requiem for a Dream (2000) and The Wrestler (2008), Black Swan focuses on psychological weaknesses that impact the characters’ lives, be they an addiction to drugs, fame or, in Black Swan’s prima ballerina’s case, to perfection.

You don’t have to read up that Aronofsky studied Anthropology (alongside Film and Animation) at Harvard to extrapolate something to that effect from his work. The guy makes brilliant, dark films by concentrating on what makes a film compelling: the characters. It is the characters in Aronofsky’s films that drive the story. They are set up with choices and it is the characters that decide their fate in the film, as opposed to characters reacting when situations arise. Perhaps this is what makes his films so hard to watch and so watchable at the same time.

Once I was (almost) done gushing over the film, my mind began to veer, as it always does, to the inevitable question. Why didn’t I make this film? And then to its ultimate resting place: why isn’t this sort of film being made in Pakistan?

At $10-12m, it is a low-budget film by Hollywood standards, but steep for any non-casting couch abiding filmmaker. But when we strip the film of its Hollywood elements (the stellar cast instantly springs to mind) a film like this could be made on a shoestring budget. Yes, we would need talented actors. Yes, there are ‘scenes’ in it that would be frowned upon by the non-designer beard wearing men, but the fundamental idea is still there.

Why can’t Pakistan make audience-engrossing, multidimensional, psychological thrillers?

I am not one for criticising our film industry and, besides, having lived abroad for over twenty years, what do I really know about it anway?

But what I will say is this: as our industry continues to grow, we need to move away from the staple subjects that are easily digested by mainstream cinema in the west. When was the last time we made a film that didn’t involve politics, religion or India? True, Hammad Khan’s debut feature, Slackistan, focuses on a seldom-explored side of Pakistan- one that we are all too familiar with and which the west is not.

But what does it prove?

What if we stopped proving things and wrote a real story? How about an engrossing narrative that makes the audience forget to question whether the filmmaker is from Pakistan or India? What if they forget that they’re even watching a film?

Too much?

They say an actor is truly brilliant when the audience forgets who he is, whether he is a Pitt or a Clooney.

Why not focus on the positive and get creative? We could make a world for ourselves.
Aleyha Ahemed A London-based filmmaker. She has lived in Barcelona, St. Petersburg, Colombo and Karachi and writes on films. She tweets as @aleyhaa (
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Spam Robot | 13 years ago | Reply @Jamal Asfandyar: I have been spared. I feel left only problem with Sahar's post was the statement "people like you......." I did not find a reason for her rant but then is there ever one. I like differing points of view and opinion. @ Sahar Have you seen the movie. What is your opinion? How can our cinema be a catalyst of change in your opinion?
Sahar | 13 years ago | Reply I'm sorry Aleyha, for ruining your thread with irrelevant bs. Hope you get a better audience next time.
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