Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Occupy Islamabad!

For decades, we have heard, and chanted, slogans against the evils of capitalism. We have witnessed the monopolization of multinational corporates and intensifying ratio of starvation, growing side by side. We have seen so many wars, imposed in the name of peace. We have heard enough lies about the people’s struggle and their achievements of the past. We have watched the world transforming into a global village of miseries, poverty, bloodshed, hunger and oppression. Now, the masses, all over the world, seem to realize the root cause of all the miseries: exploitation of man’s labor by man. Capitalism is failing. The world is changing!

It is a historical moment for us. The advocates of free-market economy are shaken by the series of protests that, starting from the New York City, have captured the hundreds of cities all over the world. These protests represent the awakening class-consciousness   of the masses that has culminated in the Occupy Wall Street Movement. These occupy activists have gathered to change the existing economic inequality of the system. They have always been taught that Marx was wrong in his critique of capitalism. They have realized the empirical evidence of the opposite.

Karl Marx, in the 19th century, had explained the inevitable presence of exploitation as an essential ingredient of capitalism. The German social scientist had proved that, in any society, the exploitation takes place when a few people own all the means of production and the majority, who doesn’t own anything, is bound to sell its labor to that minor class which accumulates private property. While, the state functions to protect that unequal distribution of wealth, assuring the widening class-differences.

The NY Post has referred the Occupy Movement as the New York’s ‘Marxist Epicenter’.  It has countered the myth, propagated by the media, that the occupy activists are a breed of bored, hippie-like folks who are doing some adventurism to seek attention. According to their report, the flags depicting revolutionary icons can be seen everywhere, showing their ideological commitment. Moreover, the ‘occupiers’ openly refer to each other as ‘comrade’, a term used by the left-wing worldwide, meaning ‘friend’ or ‘ally’. Their literature openly declares Socialism as a cure of all the prevailing problems.

Ammar Aziz during a protest against Imperialism, Lahore.
At this historical moment, the Pakistan’s left is reorganizing like their counterparts of the West. We have a long history of youth’s struggle against the dark military regimes. From the Democratic Students Federation’s front ‘Red Guards’ to the Lawyer’s movement, our young activists have always stood for the people’s cause. Continuing their legacy of internationalism, Pakistan’s left parties have decided to start anti-capitalist camps, initiating from Lahore, not only for the solidarity for the Occupy Wall Street movement, but also as a continuous struggle to change our indigenous problems. We need to realize the importance of this revolutionary wave. We need to be in the flow. For how long the people will continue to suffer and dream for a better society? The time has come to make those dreams an existing reality. The time has come to reject all the confused liberators. The time has come to chant, ‘Occupy Islamabad!’

But, unfortunately, the state is not the only thing to occupy, in our case. We are aware that Pakistan suffers from multiple complex issues. We don’t only have the corrupt feudal political families and their huge palaces to occupy; we have millions of minds to occupy which are burning in the flames of religious fanaticism. We have to occupy the rising sectarian mindset of the people. We have to occupy the religious rage to assure peaceful coexistence of everyone. We have to occupy the narcissistic prism and replace it with rationality and realism. We have to occupy the filth of the society and the filth within. And we, the people, can do that! We can do that because we are the 99 percent

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Rehmat Cries for Salmaan Taseer

Today, when the MQM-Mirza conflicts have shifted most people’s interest from Indian soaps to Pakistani news channels and local conspiracy theorists declare dengue fever an American agenda; when Shahbaz Taseer has still not returned home and most people prefer Aafia Siddiqi over Taseer, I want to share something with you – something that you may not find as interesting at all, but still…
This real account includes incidents that take this story beyond me or the people related to it – it is a story relatable to every citizen of our decaying country.
It all begain in March on Faiz’s centennial when I wrote a  blog in The Express Tribune about an old power loom worker from Faisalabad named Rehmat who could not afford to enter a bourgeois gathering of Faiz’s elitist admirers. He was not the only victim of intellectual elitism; Rehmat represented thousands of those working-class followers of Faiz, who could never cross the barrier of a thousand rupee ticket decided as a mandate by Faiz’s family.
The very day when the piece got published on this site, I received a message on Facebook from Shehrbano Taseer, a bold journalist and daughter of slain Governor of Punjab. She wrote that she felt sad after reading about Rehmat and that she wanted to send a gift for him. This was really surprising to me. Why would someone like her send anything for a person that could be very well be fictional? So, I wrongly thought maybe she’s trying to be cathartic – like a lot of elitists who find relief in charity work.
A few days later, one of her staff members dropped the gift for the old worker at my office. I was impressed by her humanistic vision.
I had to go to Faisalabad in any case for the completion of my documentary about the power-loom workers. I had luckily penned down the factory’s name where Rehmat worked when I met him in Lahore. Now, the task was to find him.
After spending many hours in the poverty-stricken narrow streets of the industrial area, I found the mill I was looking for, and immediately began searching for Rehmat. Eventually, I saw him again, this time working among the haunting machines. The same old ragged clothes and wrinkled face, but this time the old man was holding a black piece of cloth, while manufacturing it in a machine, instead of a red flag.
It was a short meeting. We sat outside his factory where he could rest a little bit. He lit a cigarette and smoked it, holding it in the last two fingers of his closed hand. He was really surprised to see me and I was a little confused too. Finally, I started explaining the reason of my visit (in Punjabi of course).
‘’Actually, Ms Shehrbano Taseer has sent something for you.’’
That was obviously a vague way to start the conversation. He, thus, replied:
“Who is she?”
“Oh, well, she’s a journalist who came to know that you could not enter the Faiz day at Alhamra in Lahore…”
I gave him Bano’s gift, an audio CD, a special centennial edition of Faiz’s poetry. Rehmat sorrowfully smiled and kept looking at Faiz’s photograph on the CD cover for a few seconds. He then asked:
“So, who is she?”
“Well, she is the daughter of Salmaan Taseer.”

He stopped smiling and looked into my eyes with great disbelief. His eyes reflected an expression I could not understand. His expressions changed all of a sudden and the wrinkled face looked even more wrinkled. After a silent pause, he started crying. He kept crying for a while. I found out his full name, Rehmat Masih (Masih is the Arabic word for Messiah) and that he’s been a die hard worker of the People’s Party since Bhutto’s era.
He started speaking with great difficulty:
“Onhey meray wastay apni jaan ditti si…” 
(“He gave his life up for me”)
He continued:
“Tell his daughter that her father lives among all of us who still see hope for a secular and classless Pakistan in the future.”
He kept crying. In his each drop of tear, I saw the smiling face of Salmaan Taseer; In his each drop of tear, I felt the defeat of Mumtaz Qadri and his supporters. In his each drop of tear, I found the success of truth and defeat of those who kill that.
I had absolutely nothing to say,  and no way to console him. I was about to leave when Rehmat stopped me, put his hand on my shoulder and said,
“Sahab, tussi waday banday lagdey o. Tusii Bilawal nu dusna ke Bhutto da raasta chuney.  Jinhey aakhya si ke Socialism sadi maishat aey.
(Sir, you seem like a high-class person. Ask Bilawal to follow Bhutto’s path who said that Socialism is our economy…)
“I’m not a high-class person.” I said and moved away.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Being 'Bloody Civilian' in Pakistan

They pointed their guns at me, and started comparing my face with different photographs of wanted terrorists.
“What do you do?” an officer asked.
After an anguished bit of silence, I replied.
“I’m a teacher.”
“Teacher of what?”
“I teach film.”
“Sir jee he is lying! Who on earth teaches films after all?’’
This was about two weeks back, while I was entering the Lahore Cantonment, when army personnel stopped me at a check-point. The minute I was about to leave after the usual investigation, I heard an army officer say something out of the blue, that offended me to the core:
 “Bloody civilian!”
I instantly turned back and strictly asked the reason for their immoral stunt, also impelling them to apologize. They did not expect such a reaction, and thus resorted to harassing me in the way I’ve mentioned above. What has given the courage to this uniformed bunch of fascists to affront the people in every possible way?
Our people’s almost sacred love for the military!

A constant delusion of Pakistan’s majority regarding their armed forces has been the most effective tool for the military forces to keep their hegemony alive. This delusion is the upshot of our state’s policy of distorting and narrowing the history since its inception in 1947.

“Hindus are our worst enemies, India is behind every misery, Islam is the center of the universe and Pakistan is the greatest nation” are the compulsory clichés of our curricula and hence the first few things our children begin to learn and believe in. Why are we surprised over this hate culture which culminated in an era of terror and horrid bloodshed? What else can be expected from a generation which has grown up in the siege of state-sponsored illusions and cultural narcissism?

On the one hand, the content of our state-prescribed text books inject our minds with hatred for almost everything that has officially been declared “against the religious and national sentiments” of the country.  On the other hand, they continue to preach the ‘heroics’ of Pakistan’s military forces, with a strong emphasis on the “great nationalist” army dictators, portraying them as the protagonists of the state’s chaotic history. This nauseating propaganda is the foremost reason behind this delusional culture. People mostly see the military as the most “organized, committed and corruption free” national institution, ignoring a history of their crimes and failures.

An exaggerated fear of India’s conspiracies has been a stereotypical justification for supporting and strengthening the military forces since 1947, although according to all records outside of Pakistan, they have lost all four wars with our neighbouring country.

Pakistan’s holier than thou military has frequently imposed martial laws and emergencies. They have tortured and killed countless people who stood for democracy during their dark tyrannies. They had inevitably brutalized the people of the former East Pakistan and are responsible of massive atrocities over there during the war of 1971. Numerous Bengali women were being raped and tortured. Bangladeshi sources cite a figure of 200,000 women raped, giving birth to thousands of war-babies. This shameful brutality reflects the real face behind the ‘oh-so-holy’ persona of Pakistan’s armed forces.. They, along with the ISI and CIA as their key backer, are responsible for producing and training the Mujahideen against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, an act whose fallout in the form of Islamic extremism keeps haunting us. They continue to kill people in Baluchistan and other conflict-ridden areas in the name of national defense. 

Pakistan’s military has also turned out to be a trained corruption syndicate which is the major stake holder in every immense business of the country ranging from commercial banks, housing societies, airlines to hospitals, schools and super stores, not to mention the greater percentage of GDP our poor country spends on defence every year. This haunting tale that has left Pakistan as a traumatic state, doesn’t merely end here. The vicious circle has reached to a point where they feel pride in calling us “bloody civilians!” 

Our silence amidst this worst exploitation – taking place at every level – will lead towards more social, political and psychological destruction by the fascist armed forces of the country.  If the Pakistani masses choose to shut their eyes from reality, we may soon see a time when our children will be forced to memorize that India was once a part of Pakistan!

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Let's burn the bras!

An advertisement on the eve of the Women’s day – offering special discount on branded bras –  made me rethink the role of a garment, usually considered a compulsion for every adult woman. (The word adult has no meaning in our region when it comes to women. That implies on every girl they feel have ‘grown up’.) Women’s day and bras? I found that very contradictory. But what can you expect from the advertisements after all?

If you ever visit the old bazaars of Lahore, you would find hundreds of multi colored brassieres, hanging bizarrely, in the narrow streets and on the main roads. Yes, they are to be sold but this open nasty exhibition unfolds many aspects related to gender oppression in our society.

It is similar to manufacture shackles in different colors and exhibit them publicly, apart from using them to torture the public!

Bra is certainly the most socially accepted patriarchal thing ever. It is not only a commodity that objectifies women but has also been glorified to an extent where it becomes a sexual object itself. In today’s world, the role of bra has extended – from a garment to cover your body part– to something that excites men and makes your body part more desirable. This has resulted in the sexualization of a non-sexual body part.

In the phallic culture we live in, there’s an ancient desire of an ‘ideal woman’, a woman who is so ‘perfect’ in fulfilling man’s sexual needs. Thus the whole existence of women has been confined to their sexual role. Bras serve as a tool to represent that desire of a ‘perfect body’. They give an illusion of that hard, ‘well-shaped’ and pointy look, that is considered essential in a phallic society. A braless woman certainly eliminates that illusion and deobjectifies herself. Therefore, she is being opposed and seen as ‘immoral’.

Feminist author Iris Young writes, ‘Without a bra, women's breasts are not consistently shaped objects but change as the woman moves, reflecting the natural body. Unbound breasts mock the ideal of the perfect breast.”

According to a research study, bra-wearing is also associated with breast cancer. Bras exert enough pressure to the body part, to inhibit the flow of lymph, which then causes toxins and other waste material to remain in the chest. If bra-wearing is that oppressive and unhealthy, than why do women wear them?

There are various reasons for that, depending upon the different cultural and social norms. Women are usually made to believe that breasts are some indecent or dirty body part, something to be ashamed of, so they cover them as a continuation of those ‘moral values’. Is morality really dependent upon your under garments?

Girls are taught to wear training-bras during their teenage. This is the worst way to sexualize child girls. They develop a fear about self-image and get really conscious about the development of their body because the society wants them to fulfill the stereotypes of beauty. For women, who have been wearing bras since that age, it is difficult to get rid of them. They feel there’s something disgusting about breasts that aren’t bound. This irrational idea that a certain body part must be bounded to stay ‘normal’ is similar to some old tribal traditions of binding women’s feet in order to beautify them. To fight that psychological bondage, they would have to realize that there’s nothing abnormal in having breasts. They are just fatty protrusions to nourish infants!

I asked my ex-teacher Nabiha Meher Sheikh, an academic and feminist activist, her opinion on this. “Bras are VERY uncomfortable. One gets used to them, but still- they're not comfortable,” she said,  “So why do I, Nabiha, the hard core feminist bother? Simply because I was raised in the age of the beauty myth, an age where I was taught by society to hate my big body. I'm unable to reject the bra simply because of this indoctrination.”

Even some tendencies in the feminist framework seem so anti-feminist in this regard. The opposition of bra-wearing is not public nudity of women. That makes the situation more “sexual” rather than countering the cliches about sex. Sadly, we live in a world where women’s sexual liberation is usually messed with being sexually more ‘available’ to men. Oxymorons like ‘Sex Positive Feminism’ reflect the liberal myth of women’s ‘sexual freedom’ as the  foremost form of their liberation. That ‘freedom’ includes pornography, sex work, BDSM and other forms of gender oppression, considered to be women’s sexual expression.

This concept is the modernized version of an ancient patriarchal desire to confine women’s role to sexuality and to negate their actual freedom that begins only when sexuality loses its exclusive importance in an individual’s life bringing an end to the sexual objectification This freedom can never be achieved in the presence of the patriarchal social norms and class division.

There’s a radical myth about the second wavers who burned their bras in the 1960s. They probably never did that. But it is the time for women to rise and break every chain of exploitation and burn every symbol of oppression, including bras!

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

My art is not for you Prime Minister Gilani!

Originally Published in The Express Tribune
My friend stood painting something abstract, holding a cigarette  in a manner that complimented her artistic persona. She probably noticed my sarcastic smile and said, ‘Hey Ammar! I know you criticize abstract art, but you see artists are free souls. We don’t believe in any rules, regulations and boundaries. We choose to be apolitical and are not disciplined folks at all. Discipline and art do not go along.”
I remained silent looking at something black lying next to her bag. She continued, “What are you looking at? The graduation gown? That’s for the convocation dress rehearsal. Everything has to be perfect for the honorable Prime Minister!”
I’ve decided that I am not going to attend the 12th convocation of the National College of Arts, from where I graduated last year. I am not going to be a part of this celebration. Despite being a distinction holder and the fact that my parents have waited for this moment I graduated – I refuse to attend. This should be taken as a small form of resistance over an event where artists rush to offer protocol to bureaucrats.


You spend four years at an art school while learning about the art of resistance. Your film thesis depicts the class struggle in an obscure area of Pakistan. You graduate  with distinction with an emphasis on Marxist Film Theory and finally you receive your graduation degree, with a fake smile on your face, while wearing a stupid black gown and cap, from Mr. Yousaf Raza Gillani!   

Sorry, It doesn’t make any sense.  You may think that I am being ultra leftist but I cannot participate. You can either be Darbaari or Awaami.

Many consider our academic artists as some sort of rebels who oppose the bourgeoisie and bureaucracy.
A majority of them have a love affair with the establishment. I find it ironic that some ‘liberal artists’, who claim to be the intellectual vanguard of the country, are so pro-establishment. This doesn’t just include the fresh art graduates but also academics who romanticize their ‘artistic freedom’ and have illusion of being liberators. These people feel pride in the fact that  a feudal cum Prime Minister of a chaotic country would spend a few minutes in their ceremony. The “free souls” are so afraid of committing any mistake that they organize rehearsals to make sure everything remains ‘disciplined.’
Mr Gilani hasn’t played any slightest role in shaping my artistic abilities. He probably doesn’t even know what art is. He has no right to preside the convocation ceremony of an art school. I can’t pretend to have any respect when I don’t have that for him.

I don’t have any illusions regarding People’s Party being ‘comparatively a progressive party’ of Pakistan. All the main leadership come from a feudal background, something that can never be ignored. Moreover, during their regime we have witnessed the brutal killings of their senior and outspoken members likeSalmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti. Mr Gilani , being the Prime Minister of Pakistan, has failed to punish their murderers.
He has failed to find the people responsible for the killing of Benazir Bhutto. He has failed to provide people with the basic necessities of life. And I can’t receive my graduation degree from a failure, no matter how respectable he is in the eyes of these ‘art bureaucrats’.
Lets replace him with those architects of society who have been suffering since ever in this land of the pure.
Where are those blood-spitting artists? I want them to award me the degree.
Where are those hunger-stricken poets? I want them to award me the degree.
Where are those revolutionaries who got tortured in Zia’s era? I want them to award me the degree.
My art is dedicated to the people’s cause and I don’t need any Prime Minister to prove my art.
I would rather choose what Faiz said once:
My heart, my fellow traveller
It has been decreed again
That you and I be exiled

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

When they declared me a heretic...

Originally Published in The Express Tribune

It was like a nightmare. Dark shadows, mysterious phone calls, dreaming of death and seeing your corpse with your own eyes. It was such a nightmare.  There should have been a reason for all of this, but there was none. I had been declared an accursed heretic.
I could feel them chasing me down, chopping me into pieces and celebrating wildly afterwards. I could sense the happiness they would gain from spilling my blood. The days were getting darker.
I was alive but there was a deadly silence around me.

Suddenly, my friends had stopped talking to me and so called 'moderate' art teachers started discriminating against me. My once so 'liberal' social circle suddenly found some strange love for conservatism.
People stopped answering my phone calls. The threatening messages kept increasing every day. I felt isolated. They were getting closer. That was the time when I realised how it feels to be dead when you're alive!
I’m a documentary filmmaker and my sin had been to document some mohawked guys with tattoos and body piercings, playing loud riffs, singing Sufi poetry, and (also) offering prayers!
Ring any bells? They were the Taqwacores!

When we filmed Taqwacore – the birth of Punk Islam in Pakistan, things were peaceful. It was a spiritual journey of an American convert who presented the concept of a new subculture in his novel.  After his fictional writing, people from real life started following the idea that, more precisely, synthesised Islamic concepts with Punk subculture, which ended up as a new genre of Punk Rock music.
The Kominas were one of the pioneering Taqwacore bands. It was their story, a story of harmonising peace, a story of rebelling against both US imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism, and finding a new voice, that was so radical in nature. Taqwacore reflected the identity crisis the Muslim youth is facing in the post 9/11 West. It challenged both, western stereotypes about Islam and the clichéd interpretation of violent Islam that is based on their preconceived notions.

But the clerics who declared me a heretic never watched that film.
They never witnessed the spiritual transformation of an American who rediscovered Islam in this land.
They never watched him going to the Sufi shrines in search of the missing essence of peace.
They were not there when the punks were shown walking on the American flag.
I am not being defensive here. All I’m saying is that rationality requires at least knowing about something before opposing it. Sadly, they don’t understand that.
They can impose a fatwa on anything that doesn’t fit in their narrow framework. They can kill anyone by assuming that they have a religious right to do so.
When young girls are forced to marry the Holy Quran for the sake of property, they remain silent.
When feudals continue their inhuman patriarchal norms, they remain silent.
When children are abused at madrassas, they remain silent.
When workers and peasants die due to oppression, they remain silent.
But if you play musical notes, they scream.
If you paint the beauty of life, they scream.
If you write songs of love, they scream.
They scream and we keep quiet. They scream and start killing us but we keep quiet.
They continue to kill with sinister smiles on their faces, and we keep quiet.
They wanted to kill me.
What difference would it have made? They have killed people earlier, and they will continue to kill – until we come forward and break the vicious circle of ignorance.
What really and most tragically matters is our silence – the haunting silence of the people.
We were silent when they killed Benazir Bhutto.
We were silent when they killed Salmaan Taseer.
We did not speak up when they killed Shahbaz Bhatti.
Though I remain alive, the tragic ignorance of my own people has killed me. They started feeling like sinners just for being around me.
This assassination of Osama bin Laden is meaningless unless each one of us kills the Osama within. Otherwise they will keep killing you, me and all of us.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Why they fear Film Theory?

Originally Published in the Viewpoint

In the academic realm of blood stricken Pakistan, film studies have begun to emerge slowly. Partly because of the rising trend of private media (which proudly calls itself a ‘revolution’), partly because of the efforts of many old art academics and partly because of our film-going culture, film studies are becoming a part of our educational curriculum. The institutions offering film courses are usually equipped with latest high-definition equipment for production and post-production. They’ve got outstanding technicians to train students and many young kids – who can afford these film schools – are realizing that they wanted to become ‘directors since childhood’! Artistic ambiance, updates on latest technology, jargon – that’s all these ‘art’ schools offer. That results in film graduates who continue with family businesses afterwards. Others start looking for jobs in private sector. "There’s not much out there you know. So I’ll be studying Business Management now", conceded a fresh film graduate. 
What do you think is missing, that even after studying a medium for more than four years, the students can’t relate to that? Even if they do so, they come up with pretentious attempts of petty creativity. That’s because they’ve never been trained to see film as social practice! 
The most of these elitist institutions lack an essential and the most crucial aspect of film studies- the theory of film. In these schools, film theory is usually messed up with film history in general with a brief overview of its origins and important inventions. Speaking of history, we know how all the widely ‘accepted history’ continues the post-colonial and imperialist legacy. Likewise, the film ‘history’ starts from D.W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’ – an extremely racist American film of 1915 – and ends at ‘Pulp Fiction’ – a 1994 (again) American film romanticizing sex, drugs and violence, usually considered as a landmark of ‘pop-culture’ and ‘post-modernism’ which has become the globally appreciated tendency in arts since the official declaration of the ‘end of history.’

The question arises here that why on earth is academia so uneasy with film theory? The answer is simple. Film theory is closely affiliated with an ideology– which has been nastily opposed by all the advocates of traditionalist intelligentsia, religion, free-market and ‘liberal arts’ – the ideology of Marxism. It relates film to an element – academia has always been uncomfortable with– the question of class and it originated and developed in a land – historians are so biased about – the Soviet Union!

Logo of Mosfilm, Soviet Union, one of the oldest film companies in world

Film theory arose from the scientific and philosophical doctrine of Marxism. It is not a coincidence that the early and most important film theorists and filmmakers were active Marxists who emerged in the newly formed Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. They not merely saw film as a catalyst of social change, but also innovated highly avant-garde formal techniques. In the decade of 1920s, when film as medium was hardly 24 years old, the world started witnessing socially relevant, intellectually innovative and aesthetically rich films that shaped the future of the world cinema. Lenin declared cinema as "the most important of all art forms" and the world’s first ever film school was set up in Moscow. Lenin thought that cinema's role to communicate through imagery had an innately democratizing aspect, one crucial to the Soviet Union's numerous ethnicities and languages. These films were proletarian in content and realistic yet so experimental in form. The earlier Soviet cinema was the most avant-garde in the world and became a foundation of artistic modernism. Let’s just briefly look at the cinematic contributions of the three Soviet film theorists and directors, who agreed on the ideological role of film but were different in their approach towards form. Lev Kuleshov, whose "Keleshov efefct" emphasized the importance of film editing for the first time in cinema, by demonstrating how the interrelationship of shots affect the consciousness of viewers. His most precious contribution, more precisely, is known as Montage in filmmaking. In an article in 1917, Kuleshov wrote, "to make a picture the director must compose the separate filmed fragments, disordered and disjointed, into a single whole and juxtapose these separate fragments into a more advantageous, integral and rhythmical sequence, just as a child constructs a whole word or phrase from separate scattered blocks of letters." He concluded his theory of cinematic montage "Montage is to cinema what colour composition is to painting or a harmonic sequence of sounds is to music."
While Kuleshov believed in harmonizing the narrative and mis-en-scene by creating unification in shots, his contemporary Sergei Eisenstein differed and pioneered one of the most philosophical film theories ever, the Soviet Montage Theory. His idea of film editing was based on dialectical approach, that differed from the linear continuity editing style of the Western cinema. Unlike Kuleshov, he argued that images should "collide" rather than merely be "merged". Eisenstien introduced the Hegelian and Marxian concepts of Dialectics into the film form, where a shot (thesis) collide with another shot (anti-thesis) and form a new meaning (synthesis), an idea he borrowed from Marx that in any society the class oppression (thesis) collides with the oppressed workers (anti-thesis) resulting into revolution (synthesis). His dialectical approach can be seen in the Odessa Steps sequence of ‘The Battleship Potemkin – the most studied scene ever in film history – where the oppressed masses as thesis are shown in an intense parallel cutting with the Tsarist troops as anti-thesis. The ultimate synthesis is the consciousness and awakening of the spectators.

"The film drama is the Opium of the people…down with Bourgeois fairy-tale scenarios…long live life as it is!" said another radical film theorist and documentarian, Dziga Vertov, whose influences continue in documentary filmmaking in the form of techniques like cinema verite. Vertov theorized the primacy of the camera’s lens (the ‘Kino-Eye’) over the human eye. He clearly saw it as some kind of innocent machine that could record without bias or superfluous aesthetic considerations (as its human operator) the world as it really was. His theory and method emphasized the importance of realism. In the manifesto of his school of thought, known as Cine-Eye, he wrote,
"We invite you
From the sweet embraces of the romance,
From the poison of the psychological thriller,
From the clutches of the theatre of adultery,
Into the open, into the four dimensional space,
In search of our own material, metre and rhythm…"

And so the very material, metre and rhythm of the Soviet film theorists, that has inspired and shaped the medium of cinema owing to its strong theoretical but very social foundations, keep haunting the liberal art academics of our time who viciously use the mere term of ‘propaganda’ for the most creative spectrum of the 20th century.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Art in our times

Originally Published in the Viewpoint

An art exhibition was going on in a posh gallery of Lahore. Installation art was the medium and you could find strange ‘art objects’, hanging and placed, in all the dimensions of space. The gathering - filled with high class ‘intellectual socialites’ and art critics – was enough to represent a ‘positive image of Pakistan’. That positive yet so unrealistic image consisted of the postmodern works by many famous artists. While passing from one side of the gallery, I looked at an art piece. It was one and a half brick, placed on a tiny table with the artist’s name. I kept moving and found a blank canvas, hanging in the middle of a wall. A few art critics were trying to understand the “depth of white” from that blank canvas while others were satisfying their intellectual thirst by relating those bricks to the complications of “consciousness and unconsciousness”. At the end of the gallery, at one corner, a couple of multicolored electric wires were exhibited on the floor. I found that art piece the most interesting of all. I was still trying to figure out what that meant when all of a sudden a man – probably an electrician who was working there – came, grabbed the wires and went away! 

Art in our times has lost everything – content – form – meaning and purpose.

It has become a possession of a minority that has not only commodified its very social nature but also has destroyed its aesthetic beauty. This approach, however, has been viewed as the ‘next big thing’ in the philosophical premises of art and being highly praised by the West. One wonders, what’s the reason of promoting a meaningless generation of art in the name of intellect or, more precisely, postmodernism? Why is there a rising trend of obscure and pretentious creations that create a wedge between the intellectuals and the masses? This chaos, known as art, shows the philosophical and ideological conflicts of the 2oth century and their tragic consequences after the end of the cold war. This emerging craze of strictly meaningless art has its roots back in the political interests of the Western Imperialism. The advocates of ‘free-market’ who talk about ‘artistic freedom’ negate the social relevance of art, by limiting it to merely subjective and usually nihilistic themes if not completely meaningless. What on earth is that artistic freedom that rejects the objective truth? The philosophy behind such art is as perplexing as the art itself. Chomsky while criticizing the postmodern theorists said, “Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, even Foucault…write things that I also don’t understand but don’t hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me.”
The realism- phobia that started during the cold war era still exists in the capitalist West and its intellectual-allies throughout the world, including Pakistan. I remember how one of our ‘liberal’ art history teachers at NCA viciously declared social realism merely as a propaganda while romanticizing abstract expressionism as “the avant-garde” art form.

I feel it’s important here to discuss briefly the origin of this irrational fear of realism. In order to counter the ideologically strong, realistically significant and aesthetically appealing Socialist Realism of the Soviet Union, the CIA came up with a secret policy in the 1950s– known as ‘long leash’ – to promote that sheer nonsense known as abstract expressionism in order to prove the “intellectual freedom” of the US. Donald Jameson – a former CIA officer – conceded in an interview, “yes the agency saw Abstract Expressionism as an opportunity, and yes, it ran with it. It was recognised that Abstract Expressionism was the kind of art that made Socialist Realism look even more stylised and more rigid and confined than it was.”

The materialist analysis of history reveals that art has always been important to people, since its earliest beginnings from the dark caves of France to the present day. What’s the element that has kept those prehistoric cave paintings alive even after tens of thousands of years? Their ability of being understandable owing to their astonishing realism! This not only drives our attention to the fact that art’s initial beginnings were based on the representations of the actual world but also enforces the idea that art was meant for some social purposes. Do you think those prehistoric people would have gone that deeply, crawling into the inaccessible recesses of the dark caves to draw something for the sake of decoration? I highly doubt it. Such drawings were an important ritual among those hunter gatherer societies – a ritual they used to perform for the success of hunting animals for food! Thus, art started evolving as a social activity rather than an individual act.
With the division of labor and evolution of private property – that culminated in the division of mankind into classes, separating mental labor from manual labor and art from craft, the very basic character of art lost its social significance and became a commodity – a meaningless commodity whose nasty importance is based on its price like any other thing in a capitalist society. For example, Van Gogh, who died in extreme poverty, is amongst the most ‘valuable’ painters of the world whose paintings change hands at auctions for millions of dollars. If, somehow, his works go out of fashion tomorrow, these so-called art lovers would divest themselves just like the dealers get rid of the falling shares on the floor of the stock market.

Thus, art, in the “free world” we live in, has become the monopoly of the ruling classes which suits the basic nature of their exploitative system in two ways: a) it generates profit b) it keeps people in a state of confused contentment. That minority always use and abuse the role of art and culture for their own gluttonous interests. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engles explain, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force”.
Steel Workers. Stalin-era (1950). Painted by V.Malagis. Oil on Canvas

 Every sensible rational mind should understand that the cultural aspects of any society (superstructure) can not be fully understood when separated from the material economic conditions of that society (base). Every society is shaped by the relations of production and exchange (economics) that form its base. History’s most liberating event – the October Revolution – when the working-class played the most important role in striving for a society free of exploitation, alienation and oppression – started an era of undying art that was the outcome of the very basic philosophy their revolution was based on: Dialectical Materialism which has an inseparable relation with realism. The opposing forces of proletarian revolution saw their art - that reflected their liberation and motivated them to struggle - as one of their biggest enemies. But the artists, all over the world, who emerged after the revolution, were able to base themselves on a very rich and progressive tradition of Social and Socialist realism. Progressive Writers Movement is the Pakistani chapter of that internationalist movement of art.
"Women of the Kolkhoz," by an unknown Ukrainian artist
Consider a situation where entertainment no longer works as industries but only as activities necessary to human well-being. Art loses its exclusive and individual character under Socialism and becomes the ownership of all. It doesn’t only reflect the matter but plays its heroic role in changing that too. The masses, so long bound to submit in silence, find a new voice and witness a radical transition. An artist’s role is to fight for the economic emancipation of mankind to gain the lost soul of humanity. Art has played an important role since the birth of mankind and this role will not only continue but be greatly enhanced and glorified when art would become a cause to beautify life. That would be “humanity’s leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom” in the words of Engles. Diego Rivera, the Mexican Communist Muralist painter, concluded the aims of revolutionary art at the end of his Manifesto, which is the need of our times:
       “The independence of Art — for the Revolution.
                 The Revolution — for the complete liberation of Art!”