Thursday, May 17, 2007

Armin, Shame

Humanitarian actors and the media reporting from zones of crises, conflict and post-conflict rebuilding, have to walk the narrow line between creating awareness of the conflict (and evoking the will to respond among distant communities) and ensuring that affected populations are not portrayed as helpless, pitiable, without dignity. The Sphere Project Handbook notes:

"...disaster-affected populations must not be seen as helpless victims, and this includes members of vulnerable groups. They possess, and acquire, skills and capacities and have structures to cope with and respond to a disaster situation that need to be recognized and supported. Individuals, families and communities can be remarkably resourceful and resilient in the face of disaster, and initial assessments should take account of the capacities and skills as much as of the needs and deficiencies of the affected population. Irrespective of whether a disaster is of sudden onset or develops gradually, individuals and communities will be actively coping and recovering from its effects, according to their own priorities."

This difficulty is further exacerbated by the fact that interest is more likely to be generated when the audience can 'connect' with the victims than when they are fed facts and figures detailing the enormity of a crises. Stories are thus built on the 'power of one': they center around particular individuals, in the hope that their suffering will strike a chord with members of the audience, for the emotions that these stories narrate - hope, despair, success and failure are universal. There is always a risk that in showcasing these individual victims, humanitarian actors and the media - no matter how good their intentions - will focus more on the awful ordeals the victims have undergone and the period of greatest suffering, than on any other aspect, whether it be their ability to cope with the crises and move on with their lives, or their pursuit of other ambitions. Indeed, the rather cynical and regressive belief that if a episode does not move you to pity, it will also not lead you to loosen your purse strings, has a surprisingly strong hold.

At the recently concluded Tribeca film festival, two movies dealt with this issue very sensitively. The first, Armin [Note: the following paragraphs contain several Spoilers] by Croatian director Ognjen Sviličić, takes as its subject the story of a father and son, Ibro and Armin, who are traveling from their small town in Bosnia, to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. The purpose of the trip is to secure a role for Armin in a movie being shot by a famous German filmmaker in Zagreb. Armin is a talented actor and plays the accordion; both father and son are confident that this will be enough for him to get a role, in the film, which predictably, turns out to be, as both father and son say, "yet another film on the days of the conflict".

As it turns out, Armin is not selected after his audition. At a later point however, the filmmakers, whose interest has been somewhat piqued by Armin's odd silences, see him collapsing in the middle of a song that he is playing on his accordion and immediately assume, that he is suffering from some sort of post-conflict trauma. Ibro and Armin are then called in and offered - a starring role for Armin, in a film which explores his 'condition' as a result of the Bosnia-Serbia violence. The father and son are shocked. The son runs out of the room and the father, who had been most keen on a break for his son, rejects the offer. In one of the most poignant scenes of the film, the father embraces his son, who is weeping in the bathroom, presumably out of a sense of insult at all the gratuitous pity, and tells him the filmmakers 'don't know any thing'. The remark is telling for the film makers, without a doubt very sensitive, sympathetic people and extremely kind, have totally missed the fact that Armin , who has been through the conflict, but whose fainting fit was not the result of any post-conflict disorder, wanted the role on the basis of a belief in his talent, not on a platform of victim hood.

The film has received
several favourable reviews that characterize it as a story of a father-son relationship; this is accurate and the evolution of this relationship over this period is beautifully portrayed. However, the movie goes beyond this relationship and makes a strong point about being a part of certain chain of events and being an interested outsider; about recognizing patterns and actually understanding why they play out as they do. The film makers are as bewildered by Armin's behavior, as the father and son are by what drives the filmmakers’ interest - why Armin's 'condition' is a matter of greater interest than Armin's talent. Above all, as mentioned before, it provides a beautifully understated critique of the slippery-slope of victim representation in popular media. The director sums it up:

"This film is my way of telling a story about the war; what that situation brings and how one can deal with it. Father and son are fighting for respect. Their only problem is that they are from Bosnia, and we all know what that means. They want to escape their poverty and the only thing they have to lose is their pride. That‘s all they have. For the rest of the world, they are simply two poor people from a devasted country. This is why they have to fight."

The second film Shame, was unarguably one of the highlights of the festival. The documentary is the story of Mukhtaran Mai who was gang-raped on the order of the village council as punishment for a crime committed by her younger brother. Her village council, in Meerwala, Pakistan, like many others in the country and in other parts of the world, was blissfully following their time-honored practice of 'honor for honor' - Mukhtaran's 12 year old brother was accused of having compromised the honor of a young Mastoi girl, so the girl's brothers were given the right to extract revenge from Mukhtaran. The resultant shame that would result from this, would be the family's absolution. After the incident, Mukhtaran and her parents were expected to shut up and go on with their life, of course, with lowered heads. Mukhtaran was shunned and was even expected to commit suicide, as her natural course of action. She did not, and shocked the village by not only filing a case against tremendous odds (the nearest police-station was more than 50 kilometers away, and initally refused to register the complain) and bringing them to justice, but in also creating a media storm which brought attention - not to her sufferings, but to the state of affairs in the country that had allowed such practices to continue unquestioned, since time immemorial.

Under the stunned and then gradually admiring eyes of her village, the unlettered Mukhtaran used the compensation money awarded to her by the government to start a girl's school, remarking that it was the ignorance of the villagers which had led them to preserve such heinous customs. It was a blow to her, when the High Court overturned the death sentence that the lower courts had awarded to the culprits; for she could not believe that this time it was an educated, urban set of people who had failed her cause. Mukhtaran's case is now awaiting final judgment by the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

Despite setbacks, like the High Court verdict and the ebb in international interest - which lead to a decline in aid, Mukhtaran continued to build up her school and various other community institutions. Her village, which previously had no roads and no electricity, now has both, as well as its own police outpost. Plans are afoot to build a community centre, and Mukhtaran now heads a full fledged development organization.

The movie also showcases the very constructive role that the media played in this case - it was through the media that Mukhtaran was able to make the inital appeal for justice; it was the media again which went back to her a year after the whole incident to discover that she had taken to selling her family's livestock in order to keep the school running, publicity of this lead to fresh aid for the development of the village; finally it was the media which took the first step in reversing the attribution of shame - Mukhtaran was not portrayed as a shrinking victim but a strong woman fighting for justice and fighting also for the emancipation of her village; it was the turn of Mukhtaran's community and members of the Pakistan government to be ashamed. The documentary includes the episode during which the Government of Pakistan put Mukhtaran under restraint to prevent her from traveling to America to speak about her case and her problems in bringing the perpetrators to justice, as well as her development efforts, in which, as she candidly put it, she seems to have taken on the duties of her state.

Above all, the film is a very sensitive exploration of Mukhtaran's journey from immediate aftermath of the crime, to the present in which she has earned the respect of international society, as also the previously unwilling admiration of her own community. it has conveys a sense of the horror she went through without dwelling on it and has gone on to present a composite picture of the manner in which the different interests and goals of the various people involved have played out. The director, Mohammed Naqvi, tracks the change in perspectives of the government, the villagers, NGOs and the international community, Mukhtaran's family and Mukhtaran herself, over the five years since the incident.

He also provides several interviews conducted with the family of the culprits, who have remained in a pall of gloom since the death sentences were awarded by the court of first instance (at present of course, their fate hangs in balance). The mother is very bitter, she cannot understand what her sons have done that has has landed them in this situation. While these days they do not admit to the crime at all, one could probably understand that her bewilderment would arise even if she knew her sons to be guilty - for in her mind, they only did what the council told them to do, in fulfillment of tradition. Her own daughter (the girl allegedly compromised by Mukhtaran's brother) who claimed that she too had been gang-raped previously, by Mukhtaran's twelve year old brother amongst others, but this family chose to let the tribal council decide for them.

It is important that the film does not swing the other way either and represent Mukhtaran's life as one without any set-backs altogether, after the one launching incident.[1] Mukhtaran's school faces many challenges, not only financial ones - as many of her pupils are taken away by their parents as soon as they hit their teens, in order to marry them off; there are members of the community, her elder brother among them, who feel she has brought more shame upon them by her actions; some others believe that the incident may now have come the basis for a money making operation; and three years after her efforts to educate her people and her numerous efforts at promoting consciousness of human rights and dignity across the country, a nine year old gets raped in her own village.

The documentary's portrayal of the affair had brought the audience to its feet every time it was shown at the festival, hopefully it also set the donations boxes overflowing at the Sakhi benefit dinner, and for once not as a matter of charity but of a genuine desire to assist in her development efforts.
Finally, a note on the use of the word Shame. Apart from this film, Shame was used as a title by Salman Rushdie in 1983, for his book set in a country ‘not quite Pakistan’ and revolves around the lives of two men, modeled on former Prime Minister Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto and General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. It is also the English title for Taslima Nasreen’s book on the anti-Hindu riots which erupted in Bangladesh, after the demolition of Babri Masjid in India, by Indian Hindu fundamentalists in December 1992. Following its publication, a death fatwa was issued against Nasreen; Rushdie is also under a death fatwa, for another book, Satanic Verses.


[1] Although, during the Q&A session after film, there was an audience member who, probably not in the best of taste, wanted to know if, after all that happened, Mukhtaran would change the fact of the rape if she could? The director, who was playing interpreter, understandably refused to put the question to Mukhtaran.

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