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Pakistan’s newest animated feature, Swipe, confronts the weaponisation of religion and technology

Pakistan’s newest animated feature, Swipe, confronts the weaponisation of religion and technology

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From the start Swipe is both intriguing and alarming, we see a flock of crows ravenously feeding on scraps of meet and then we hear the overly cheerful voice of a news anchor talking about a shiny new app on the market called ifatwa. The casualness with which she states ‘swipe right se wajib-ul-qatal, aur swipe left se maafi’, is incongruous with the violent nature of the app itself. That discordant broadcast very casually talking about something which has the potential to be incredibly dangerous sadly invokes a sense of deja vu. How often have we in Pakistan seen cavalier tv broadcasts designating certain people as wajib-ul-qatal or ghaddar for the most minor of offences, imagined or otherwise. It must be this feeling that, director, Arafat Mazhar must be trying to invoke. 

He coined a new term for his genre of work, Cyberkhilafat, which aims to portray the anxieties we have regarding the warping of religion, language and power, and how in a uniquely modern twist of history technology is being used to weaponise them and dictate sociopolitical norms. He said, “The film is set in Multan— grounded in reality except one element, the app— and tries to explore anxieties of contemporary Pakistan. It is an absurdist film which takes to  an extreme many of the absurd things we see in society already, like how much worse can it get.” Here he references the new phenomenon of people calling for murder over disagreements on Twitter, in particular an incident where some teenagers made allegations of blasphemy against another kid, ostensibly in an effort to bully him over some personal row, but actually ended up endangering his life. “Twitter was being used as a mob”, he said. 

Swipe is a poignant and powerful film that very carefully evokes a sense of dread and anxiety in the viewer. It forces one to be introspective and consider why this feeling arises, and that is the film’s cleverest trick. It holds up a mirror to our own anxieties about the time we live in and forces us to question if we really want to continue down the path we’re on.

A parallel can be drawn between mobs engaging in vigilante justice and how social media allows everyone to be a vigilante now. In the film we see how our protagonist slowly becomes ensnared by the app and indulges in more and more gratuitous violence from behind a screen, until he makes a fatal mistake. At first he doesn’t swipe to kill everyone but upon seeing how low he is on the ‘Ajar Board’ (ranking system in the app) he starts swiping indiscriminately to be able to join his peers in becoming a ‘Ghazi’. This can be read as just an allegory of the perils of blindly following the herd, but it is greater than that. In a society akin to Pakistan’s where there is so much polarisation we all become socialised into believing in an us against them narrative. We fail to recognise the other person as being just as human as us. And this false binary creates a sense of detachment which allows us to commit unspeakable acts against one another that we never could otherwise. The director says as much as well, “Swipe looks at the outcome of defining things very narrowly. What happens when you force things to hold only one meaning? For instance, if there is a very narrow definition of ‘Ishq’ (in the context of ‘Ishq-e-Rasool’) but then a very broad definition of ‘Ghaddar’. Would Allama Iqbal and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan be able to say what they did in today’s climate?”. 

Swipe is a poignant and powerful film that very carefully evokes a sense of dread and anxiety in the viewer. It forces one to be introspective and consider why this feeling arises, and that is the film’s cleverest trick. It holds up a mirror to our own anxieties about the time we live in and forces us to question if we really want to continue down the path we’re on. Throughout the film we never really see any bloodshed despite the violent nature of the app, we only hear it happening and see the horror on our protagonist’s face as it plays out. We see sorrow and regret slowly creep over the horror on his face as the words of Ahmad Faraz are sung in the background. Arafat Mazhar sang Ahmad Faraz’s ‘Mat Qatal Karo Awazon ko’ for Swipe. And, it ties in perfectly with the narrative of the film. Faraz’s poem feels as if it was written for the present moment. And, it is such a sorrowful, resigned lament that it’s obvious it is being made to those who are our own. That sequence of our protagonist mutely staring at his phone whilst a melancholy voice sings ‘Tum apne aqidon ke neze har dil mein utare jate ho, hum log mohabbat wale hain tum khanjar kyun lehratey ho’ is haunting and embodies the message of the film.

Swipe looks at the outcome of defining things very narrowly. What happens when you force things to hold only one meaning?

Arafat Mazhar, Director Swipe

Swipe, like Shehr-e-Tabassum, was a labour of love for the director and his team. He revealed that the films have been self financed and fed with the profits from the commercial animation work that Puffball Studios has done for clients like Facebook and Pakistan’s Ministry of Health. The film is meant first and foremost for the local audience, which is why he has eschewed the film festival circuit and opted to release it on Youtube. Even the distinct style of the film is an effort to portray Pakistani stories accurately. Copious amounts of time and labour have gone into making the film look as much like a real Pakistani city as possible, and that dedication is noticeable in the little details like the posters on the walls of this animated city. It is really a wonderfully drawn film. All in all, Swipe is a thought provoking and important film to watch that succinctly manages to relay a most necessary message, ‘Jab shehr khandar ban jayega, phir kis par sang uthao ge’.

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