Director Arafat Mazhar takes on mob ‘justice’ through animation
Imagine life with an app where your fate is decided by a swipe and that too by a person you hardly know.
Filmmaker Arafat Mazhar’s animated short film Swipe, which recently won the Special Jury Award at the 4th ANIMAFILM Festival, opens with a talk show where a cleric is debating the credibility of an app called iFatwa that gathers religious cases and crowdsources death sentences. Swiping right on the profile of the accused person spells a death sentence and swiping left secures forgiveness.
“There was a point in time where I felt I was so involved in blasphemy laws in a cerebral way and had seen so much violence, even by children,” Arafat said while speaking to SAMAA Digital. The filmmaker has been researching the blasphemy laws both as an activist and an academic for 10 years and his report Plurality, Dissent and Hegemony: The Story Behind Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law from 2012 has been published by Bloomsbury in Freedom of Expression in Islam.
As for Swipe, there were several ideas about how the story could be told, but Arafat decided on iFatwa as he felt it could grab the interest of the viewers and not let them feel defensive that the laws were being attacked. The main objective was to evoke empathy among the audiences and help them understand how these laws have been weaponised over the years. In one of the scenes, a woman threatens a fruit vendor with a “right swipe” while haggling over the prices.
“As far as the premise of the app goes, it was just intuitive,” Arafat said. Swipe has been inspired by a lot of sci-fi work, including Black Mirror, and speculative fiction in the west, he added.
The 14-minute film tells the story of a boy Jugnu who becomes increasingly addicted to iFawta and spends most of his life swiping on the fates of tens of accused whose cases are submitted on the app. Jugnu, along with several others, is racing for maximum swipes to be on the Ajar Board as it requires a user 10,000 right swipes to become a “ghazi” on the app. Swipe has been described as an “attempt to confront a growing crisis resulting from a culmination of nexus of technology, extremism and fascism”.
Another important question that Swipe raises is whether people would want their children to choose the path of violence when it comes to protecting honour, be it religious or otherwise. “Everybody knows that in Pakistan children have only one exposure to what it means to protect honour and that’s violence,” Arafat remarked. Swipe reflects how children’s innocence and their idea of love are being systematically turned into a weapon and gets this message across through its subtle fictionalised depiction of the politics of religion, haunting score, dark humour and moments of awakening.
According to a 2019 report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, at least 80 people are imprisoned in Pakistan on charges of blasphemy and 62 accused persons have been killed in violence since 1990 with only a few prosecutions.
In March 2021, Swipe became the first Pakistani short to be selected for screening at the Annecy International Film Festival, which is the oldest animation festival in the world. It was chosen by AnimaFest Zagreb as well, another prestigious festival.
Since its release in November 2020, Swipe has made it to several exhibitions worldwide such as:
The creators didn’t, however, submit Swipe to the Venice Film Festival as they wanted to make it available for public scrutiny before it was shown abroad. A film cannot be released for free if it has to be screened in Venice.
“Half the people [who worked on the project] didn’t want their names out,” Arafat revealed. But after release, the “overwhelmingly positive” response took everyone by surprise and made the creators feel a lot more confident about their work.
Swipe was made by a team of 20 Pakistani animators, storytellers, musicians, and actors over a year at Puffball Studios, which was launched in 2019. The second studio was opened in Rawalpindi in February 2021.
Among the many upcoming projects by Puffball Studios, two are short films that will be a “fresh take on intergenerational trauma through Partition”. They will be produced in collaboration with Project Dastaan.
Along with Swipe, Shehr-e-Tabassum is among Arafat Mazhar’s most widely recognised works. It is described as Pakistan’s first-ever cyberpunk short film set in a dystopian future.
Both Swipe and Shehr-e-Tabassum are available on YouTube, with the latter streaming on DUST as well.
Watch Swipe here.