Controversy over Pakistani film Joyland: A land with no joy

joyland is an ironic title for a movie that is actually about a land without any joy. This year, Pakistan received record rains that flooded a third of the country, leaving millions homeless, with diseases like dengue fever and crops rotting in the fields. You would think that the number one issue on the minds of Pakistanis would be the economy and social welfare. Unfortunately, it is the young filmmaker Saim Sadiq’s debut feature joyland which seems to be taking over the news cycle these past few days. The film is drawing the ire of homophobic and religious fans who, just by watching the trailer, feel that the film is normalizing LGBTQIA people and promoting a “gay agenda.”

I was at the world premiere of joyland at the Cannes Film Festival this summer, where it received the longest standing ovation I’ve experienced at a screening of Un Certain Regard in all my years of visiting that festival. I knew at that moment that this film could win the jury prize. It is a film about desire and family dynamics in a lower middle class family living in the Gawalmandi neighborhood of Lahore. It is a sensitive portrait of men and women who are victims of patriarchy and stifling tradition. Sadiq weaves a story of family dynamics, with sensitive themes not often depicted in South Asian films, especially Pakistani films. There is a deep honesty in the characters that the audience relates to, sometimes without realizing it.

At Cannes, I thought the film could only resonate with other South Asians. I was wrong. The movie theater was filled with applause. The actors and film crew were standing there, stunned and surprised by the reception of the film; his honesty touched everyone. The fact is that anyone who understands the oppressive nature of patriarchy and the repression of desire can empathize with it. The film features transgender actress Alina Khan in the performance of a lifetime of hers, as well as notable and experienced cast members like Sania Saeed, Sarwat Gilani, and veteran filmmaker and actor Salman Peerzada. The incredibles Rasti Farooq and Ali Junejo are the playful lead couple whose journey we connected with to the heartbreaking end and even as we walked out of the theater, forever moved after witnessing something that has always been there but never articulated so well on film before. screen.

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The film has been at the Toronto International Film Festival, Sydney International Film Festival, Melbourne South Asian Film Festival, among many others. In addition to the Jury Prize and Queer Palm at Cannes, the film won the prestigious Golden Pram at the Zagreb Film Festival. The film was screened to packed halls at India’s Dharamshala International Film Festival, where audience members gave moving testimonials about the film’s power and resonance.

In any civilized nation in the world, this film would be celebrated; not in Pakistan. There, the pitch went off the rails, and the conversation veered away from the film’s Oscar success and buzz, toward channeled homophobic hysteria against the film’s perceived LGBTQIA agenda. Comedian Shehzad Ghias Shaikh summed it up by saying that “a Western fashion designer, an alleged wife beater and a bankrupt provincial government are leading the calls to ban a film. This culture war is being waged for attention and cheap populism. You can’t attribute their hate to anything other than pure transphobia.”

In 2019, I brought my autobiographical documentary Abu to Pakistan. The distributors told me from the beginning that my film would never pass the board of censorship due to the fact that it contains the word “gay”. I didn’t bother to continue with the distribution. In 2021, the Busan and MISAFF award-winning film from director Sarmad Khoosat zindagi tamasha it was similarly banned due to pressure from religious groups because the film dared to criticize the clergy.

Similarly, after major (and heartbreaking) cuts, joyland it was eventually approved by all four of Pakistan’s censorship boards, which was no easy feat. It was then edited according to his wishes and prepared for publication throughout the country. After all, one would think that a film made by Lahoris, named after an amusement park in Lahore, should have no problem gracing the nation’s screens.

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Every year hundreds of transgender people are killed in Pakistan. Those calling for a boycott do not care about the lives of LGBTQIA people. They want to maintain a fraudulent culture of piety in which people are forced underground, sexual abuse is rampant, and any conversation about sex or sexual awareness is suppressed.

The Prime Minister appointed a special commission Shehbaz Sharif, this time made up of representatives of the civil intelligence services and the army. Two days before hitting theaters, they came to the conclusion that the film needed to be released nationwide. However, this time the Punjab government, led by the PTI party (of former Prime Minister Imran Khan) upheld the ban in the province, apparently to upset the federal government. Leading members of the PTI party have also openly opposed the film, making them and their political stance very similar to the far-right Jamaat-e-Islami.

PTI standard bearer and clothing retailer Maria B is a vehement opponent of joyland and LGBTQIA people, baffling the artist community. “Give it a few weeks and Maria B and (preacher) Raja Zia will launch an abaya collection,” says trans rights activist Mehrub Moiz Awan. According to researcher Hiba Sameen, most Twitter, Instagram and other social media accounts that tag #BanJoyland are bots. This leaves a big question as to who is really pushing the government to shut down the movie.

The political parties spewing vitriol haven’t actually seen the movie. Pakistanis are not inherently homophobic, but the loudest loudmouths among them bully others into silence and submission. They do it about Islam and they use the Islamic argument and of course you can’t question the word of God. Homophobia in Islam stems from the Judeo-Christian tradition and the story of Lot, Sodom and Gomorrah. Scholars argue that the story is about sexual abuse, statutory rape and inhospitality, rather than same-sex love. However, Pakistani society ignores all other lessons from Sodom and Gomorrah and singles out the LGBTQIA community for their religious anger.

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Of many ways, joyland it is the opposite of a “gay agenda” movie. It’s very traditional in its treatment of LGBTQIA characters, and if opponents did indeed end up watching the film, they may find the takeaways in their favor to be that only a lifetime of punishment awaits those who dare to walk out of it. . accepted cultural norms.

Pakistanis find themselves at a clear political, social and religious crossroads. In all nations, the pendulum swings from the extreme right to sometimes the extreme left. In Iran the war for freedom has already started. With joyland, Pakistanis seek the freedom to decide for themselves what is or is not acceptable to them. Does the government care about the hundreds of people who worked on the film project and those who invested in Pakistani cinema and can it consider further investment in independent voices in the country? Do Pakistanis care about improving their cinema or are they content with the status quo and the bloodbath that is like Maula Jatt and co? Perhaps it is time for Pakistanis to start the important conversation about religion and the rights of sexual minorities. It is time for religious and political groups to stop using minorities to draw attention to their agendas. So far, the regions where joyland has been released has had sold-out tickets and record audience numbers. People are full of praise for the movie and absolutely no one seems to be complaining about any immoral elements in the movie. Let’s hope that a brighter future awaits Pakistani filmmakers and moviegoers alike, so that one day, those who are fiercely opposed to film may come to terms with the fact that if you don’t want to see a movie, just don’t buy a ticket to go. . Look. Don’t treat a nation of 250 million people as if it couldn’t make that simple decision for itself.

The writer is a Pakistani-Canadian film director, producer and programmer.