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Pakistan’s first cyberpunk short film is out this month

Shehr-e-Tabassum is about freedom of speech and governance

SAMAA | - Posted: Feb 5, 2020 | Last Updated: 2 years ago
Posted: Feb 5, 2020 | Last Updated: 2 years ago

Photo: Screengrab

Shehr-e-Tabassum or City of Smiles, Pakistan’s first cyberpunk/dystopian anime film, will release online in Pakistan and the United Kingdom by the end of February 2020, revealed director Arafat Mazhar in conversation with SAMAA Digital.

In the film, which is inspired by Blade Runner, Akira and George Orwell’s 1984, is set in Pakistan in the year 2071, the State or Government is the main character. In the trailer, the storyteller keeps telling people they need to keep smiling. “On the surface it may be about totalitarianism and the rights we give up for ‘peace and security,’” Mazhar said.

Mazhar was recently in the UK for pre-release screenings, largely for students, and also showed it at the Lahore Music Meet over the weekend. They might arrange a post-release tour for the US in March.

According to Mazhar, he has been experimenting with different forms of messaging through engaging audio-visual content. This film was an extension of a previous project in which he animated legal literacy, governance and citizenship topics. Spinoff topics in Shehr-e-Tabassum are freedom of expression, privacy, surveillance in the digital age. 

Mazhar is also interested in how technology and Islam are used by an authoritarian regime with insidious intent. It is reminiscent of TV shows and films based on graphic novels such as the Watchmen and 2007’s Persepolis, the animated tale of a girl growing up during the Iranian revolution.

One way to treat such topics is to use dystopian storytelling in Urdu. “Dystopian storytelling is often a device to hold a mirror to society,” Mazhar said. It helps a filmmaker explore an issue by exaggerating extremes to prove that there are dangerous consequences if a society does not address issues. Take human rights and freedoms, for example. Fictional or make believe worlds allow a filmmaker to take up the violation of human rights.

Real life filmmaking, on the other hand, likes to use the documentary format. But storytelling means the filmmaker can avoid giving into “preconceived biases that exist when discussing a real world policy issue where lines have already been drawn according to dominant political or religious affiliations.”

The film is shot in 2D or a flat animation in the “Cyber-Khilafat aesthetic” style in which Arafat looks into the misuse of Islam and future technology by a fascist state and multinationals to create greater isolation.

“We are aware of cyberpunk influences but we also wanted to make sure that the story is rooted in conflicts emerging from our space. So a tech genius becomes Ameer-e-Mumlikat in this world even though he may not care about religion as tradition,” he said.

Censorship and Zindagi Tamasha
Could Mazhar run into trouble for making a film on sensitive topics, like freedom of expression? Just recently, Pakistan had, after all, prevented the release of Sarmad Khoosat’s Zindagi Tamasha.

“This points to the fact that the film has managed to address a particularly urgent point of contention for Pakistan, which makes viewing and discussing it all the more important,” said Mazhar, referring to Zindagi Tamasha. It was ironic—but not unexpected—that a film that questions censorship should itself be censored.

Mazhar has a solution to censorship as well: social media. It allows you to publish something yourself and get your message out there. “[It] removes many barriers to access that your audience may have,” he said, adding that this is why they are releasing the film online.
There are no plans yet, however, to put Shehr-e-Tabassum on video-streaming platforms such as Netflix.

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