The 11th annual Seattle South Asian Film Festival (SSAFF) is less than a month away and this year it will host more than 3,000 attendees, 45 films, and 16 attending filmmakers.
Organized by Seattle-based nonprofit Tasveer, it is the largest South Asian film festival in the country. The idea of Tasveer was born in the aftermath of 9/11 and over the years through digital storytelling it has attempted to dismantle stereotypes of South Asians in the media. Tasveer has been successful in creating a platform that provides a non-judgmental space for South Asian voices to be heard. In addition to SSAFF, Tasveer organizes a South Asian Women Festival (Aaina), South Asian International Documentary Festival, and various film screenings, community forums, and programming events.
SSAFF is Tasveer’s most extensive annual production and it focuses on an exploration of issues that face South Asia and its diaspora in the United States. Through a series of film screenings, panel discussions, workshops, and cultural programming, the goal is to involve audiences not just with the film and video works presented, but to create a prolonged space where the social, political, personal, and international issues that form the core subjects of those works can be discussed and understood.
Post 9/11, representations of South Asians in American popular television and news media have increased significantly. Due to the proliferation of unsympathetic portrayals of South Asians and Muslims in the media and oppressive government policies, there has been a significant increase in both the incidence of hate crimes and anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States.
In June 2015, The New York Times published an article, which includes statistics that strongly suggest that post-9/11 white supremacists and domestic terrorism have posed a much graver threat than radical Islamic extremists. However, according to a Washington Post article Anti-Islam sentiments and hate crimes against Muslim communities in the United States are five times more common today as compared to 14 years ago. A 2010 Gallup Poll suggests that about 48% of all American Muslims said they have experienced racial or religious discrimination.
Not only have Muslim families been victims of these heinous attacks, the Sikh, Hindu, and most other South Asian communities have all been targets of numerous hate crimes, profiling, harassment, and discrimination at work. These events are partly influenced by Countering Violent Extremism operations and the Strong Cities program implemented by the United States Government. U.S. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies profile subjects based on religion, ethnic background, and country of origin and carry out sting operations that are targeted at vulnerable members of the Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities. These programs and targeted operations are problematic for a variety of reasons but most importantly they lead Americans to believe that their Anti-Muslim sentiments and actions are justified. The question remains: If the State can do it, why should we stop?
However, oppressive government policies are not the only reason. A critical part is played by radical Western networks like Fox News and Newsmax and Hollywood productions such as Homeland and Zero Dark Thirty.
In order to dismantle these stereotypes, the popular cinema in South Asia has made blockbuster movies such Karan Johar’s My Name is Khan and Shoaib Mansoor’s Khuda Ke Liye. Although these movies made it big in South Asian communities, they lacked viewership in Western circles. This is evident by the fact that Shah Rukh Khan, the lead character of My Name is Khan and one of the most celebrated Bollywood actors of all time, has been detained at American airports twice after the movie’s release.
However, the efforts of the independent cinema and the community of underground artists in South Asia have been fairly effective in humanizing the various South Asian communities. Facebook pages inspired by Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York have made their way in major South Asian cities, like the Humans of Karachi and the Humans of Bombay pages. This has opened up a completely new and unbiased phase of people to people contact.
My project, “Karachi Hai Kya,” attempts to deal with some of the issues mentioned above. Through my project, I am exploring the history of immigration in the second most populous city in the world by focusing on themes of racialized and gendered discrimination. My guiding question for the project is: “Who does the city belong to?”
With a population of approximately 24 million people, Karachi is the second largest city in the world by population after Shanghai. It is home to people of diverse backgrounds from across South Asia, comprising of over 40 different ethnic, sectarian, and religious groups. Therefore, it is extremely important to situate Karachi and understand the city better in the current global political climate, post 9/11 and in the midst of the ongoing “War on Terror.”
What does the case of Karachi illustrate vis-a-vis the perceptions of Muslims in South Asia, the Middle East and around the globe? How has this fostered a culture where institutional self-care is absent from one of the largest cities in the world? Specifically, how do representations of Pakistanis in dominant Western narratives, and the discrimination that ensues as a result, lead to continuing trauma for those who are ethnically profiled because of an imagined propensity to “terrorism”? What agency do individuals have in reclaiming their sense of identity, and representing themselves? Who does Karachi belong to in an urban context, but also in the context of the world?
By learning about the experiences of a heterogeneous group of people from a multitude of backgrounds, I hope to enrich the existing discourse on deconstructing Islamophobia narratives about Pakistanis, an approach that can be extended to South Asia and the MENA region, more generally. Through this project, I intend to humanize the various minorities from the city I call home, and by bringing their unfiltered nuanced perspectives to a global audience, hopefully promote a more pluralistic and less biased narrative perception of the people who Western governments classify as “terrorist” by virtue of their place of origin.
I used non-traditional cameras, like GoPro and 360 view cameras, in order to paint a raw, more authentic picture of life in Karachi. The 360-view camera allows me to share with my audience an experience that situates my subjects in their surroundings more intimately. I used these cameras to emphasize the centrality of geographical concepts of space and place to the lives of these individuals. Along with these visual documentations, my website will feature written testimonials of my subjects’ narratives to offer a more holistic understanding of their lives.
Given the political climate of the past decade, and the continuing period of fear-mongering due to the attack in Orlando this year and the San Bernardino attacks last year, I cannot think of a more important time to deconstruct dominating narratives demonizing Muslims from South Asia and around the world.