An engraver carving a gravestone.
The Covid-19 pandemic has come to be the defining feature of 2020. With the disease still looming large ahead, and a pause in intermittent lockdowns, much of the chaos appears to have subsided. Most shops and dine-in restaurants have opened, and people seem to be going about their pre-pandemic lives, albeit cautiously.
Cultural events, however, have yet to embrace the easing of lockdowns, and continue to be held online. One such event is the Chalta Phirta Festival 2.0, which officially began on August 22.
Organized by the Documentary Association of Pakistan, which seeks to promote documentary filmmaking in Pakistan and foster a community around it, the Chalta Phirta Film Festival is in its second incarnation.
In its original form, the initiative is a traveling film festival that screens Pakistani-made documentaries, for free and bi-annually, in various cities across the country. The goal of the festival is to showcase the efforts of local filmmakers taking stock of Pakistani society through their work, which in turn is meant to provide a platform for discourse among people.
This year, the festival is completely online, with a different film being screened every two weeks on the Documentary Association of Pakistan’s YouTube channel. The first film to be screened this year was a short documentary titled: The Lost Procession, by Berlin-based Pakistani filmmaker Bani Abidi. The film was made in close collaboration with photographer Asef Ali Mohammad and was commissioned by the Sharjah Art Foundation.
The Lost Procession begins with a Muharram procession walking through the streets of Berlin, Germany. Among this procession are Hazara Pakistanis, who have fled their homeland to find refuge from the violence they face there. As the camera follows the procession, viewers hear the director providing context and her view of the events being pictured.
This starting point sets the tone and the broad layout of the remainder of the 18-minute film.
From there, the film moves to Quetta, where we see glimpses of the daily lives of the denizens of one of the most densely-populated neighbourhoods. The images one sees are ordinary, plain even. They show children playing cricket in the streets, people walking down narrow alleyways – everyone going about their daily lives.
And then the film cuts to a close-up of a smaller banner dedicated to a shaheed Hazara man, the first of many banners is a local marketplace.
It is at this point that it becomes clear to the viewer that this is one of Hazara-majority neighbourhoods. The visual progression is compelling, insofar as the viewer is not told via voiceover or by screen titles that this is a Hazara neighbourhood, so to speak; rather, the viewer is led to piece it together.
We see Asef Ali Mohammad sitting at a computer, flicking through his photos of locals who have lost loved ones to violence. Abidi’s voiceover chimes in again, revealing that director Bani Abidi, who is a friend of Asef’s, asked him if he knew someone who lives near the Martyr’s Graveyard in Quetta, the final resting place of a lot of Hazara people. Asef, says Abidi in her voiceover, told her he lives right next to the graveyard.
From there, we see more images from this community: banners commemorating shaheed Hazara men; a grave-stone engraver carving names in marble slabs; local citizens having their IDs examined at Army check posts. Armed soldiers keeping watch. People cordoned off into de facto ghettos. At various points in the documentary, we also see a teenaged boy doing parkour, the street-running art-form where one uses momentum to scale walls and traverse urban spaces.
The tone of the film is ponderous, its pace languid. The camera lingers on single frames for several seconds before cutting to the next image, establishing the local geography of the area it is depicting. There is no music in the documentary, or any sound that was not recorded on-location. Even Abidi’s voiceover takes long breaks in between providing context and her viewpoint.
In cycling through the aforementioned images in this manner, The Lost Procession provides a compelling, if uneasy view of the Hazara community: a constant reminder of loss everywhere, with the ever-looming specter of tragedy being a feature of every day existence. However, one also gets the sense that the locals’ relationship to death is vastly different from that of people far away from the Hazara plight.
We see a mother visiting a grave and tending to it, before sitting a short distance away to smoke a hookah, with the grave in full view. We see a crowded children’s playground inside in the graveyard. The graveyard. It seems, is just a place for people to spend time with their loved ones; including the deceased.
The Lost Procession takes a sensitive, if detached view of its subject matter. A casual observer would even be forgiven for labeling this lazy or half-baked because, for example, we never hear from anyone in the Hazara community itself, throughout the course of the movie. The reasons for this, however, were well-considered.
“It’s not meant to be an infomercial,” said Bani Abidi during the question and answer session after the film. She acknowledged the challenge of working on this film while living abroad, and did not try to make an exhaustive documentary. “It’s about the geography, about the psychology,” see adds, saying that the film is her subjective view of the situation of the Hazara community.
Asef Ali Mohammad added that he had been trying to tell the story of this community, but couldn’t figure out how. This, he felt, was because he found himself overwhelmed by the subject matter in some ways, as he is from the Hazara community himself. Working with Abidi on this film, then, was an opportunity to have an outsider say something about the subject, especially because the director wanted to focus on grief, rather than the Hazara people. In this regard, Mohammad describes director Bani Abidi as a “parrosi” (neighbour).
In the end, The Lost Procession is a film about the desperation and fear of what it is to be an ethnic minority. “The parkour character is a rat caught in a labyrinth,” says Abidi of the teenage boy who is shown at various points in the film – but one who, according to the filmmaker, is deeply patriotic. Even if they leave their country to find safety abroad, they are intrinsically linked to their homeland. It is a compelling and carefully constructed view of a marginalized community’s plight.
The Chalta Phirta Documentary Festival 2.0 will run until November, with a new film screening every two weeks. Dates can be checked from the website of the Documentary Association of Pakistan.
The writer is based in Lahore and can be found on Instagram: @ab.mueed