In a recent VICE News short documentary, The Kohistan Story: Killing for Honor, producers Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Saad Zuberi, along with host Hani Taha, tell the story of five young women and three young men who were killed in Kohistan, KPK, Pakistan in an apparent “honour killing.” As VICE explains:
“In May 2012, a grainy cellphone video emerged in a remote and deeply conservative village in northern Pakistan. The video showed four young women singing and clapping in a room as two young men danced to the music. The village elders saw the celebration as a blatant defiance of strict tribal customs that separate men and women at gatherings, and a decree was issued for those in the video and their families to be killed as their actions were deemed ‘dishonorable.’
The women and one of their sisters, aged just 12, were allegedly imprisoned for a month and tortured before being killed. The men went into hiding but three of their brothers were shot dead.”
In the documentary we follow Taha as she travels to northern Pakistan to speak with one of the brothers of the men killed, Afzal Kohistani, about his quest to get justice for his brothers. The Tribune has a good summary of the film.
There is no doubt that the whole story is heartbreaking. Seeing the pain of Afzal and his family is very difficult and one can only pray that he and his family get justice, insha’Allah. However, as I watched the film I had a few nagging thoughts.
Who is this for?
Ok, so the answer to this is obvious. Since it’s VICE News, the target audience is mainly a Western, white, English-speaking audience. Not Pakistanis, not Muslims (though many would fall under the main audience umbrella, they were not the target audience). This documentary about brown Muslims and honour killings was made for the white gaze and that made the doc difficult and uncomfortable to watch. It came across as tragedy-porn for a privileged, Western audience to once again desire saving “helpless” brown-skinned women and not at all as an attempt to create social change within the society that needs it. And the ways in which language was used helped achieve this age-old narrative.
The film was in Urdu and English. Most of the interviews in the film were in Urdu with English subtitles, and Taha’s conversations with the audience were in English. The dichotomy of languages, and how and when they were used, made it clear who the intended audience was, who was excluded from the audience, and how the dichotomy of languages was being used to maintain a particular narrative.
When conversations were in Urdu, a language I speak, I felt like I was involved in the conversation. Taha’s switch to English was jarring as it was a sharp reminder that I, a multilingual Pakistani-Canadian, was not the target audience, despite having roots in Pakistan, including in KPK. It is obviously clear that I speak English, but the English comes from both my colonized (by the British) and Canadian identities. My speaking of English is associated with my Western identity, and that is for whom this documentary is intended. One especially jarring example was when Taha interviews Afzal’s brother and loosely translates his words for the audience, as his brother is uncomfortably kept in the shot, next to her, like a prop. This, despite the fact that subtitles were inserted while he was speaking. As if his words alone were not clear enough. As if he needed the help of this English-speaking, Western-focused host to communicate, incapable of explaining his own situation. As if it wasn’t clear enough that he did not speak English.
However, even the use of subtitles can be problematic if the translation is not done well. Take for example the scene in which Taha first meets Afzal Kohistani. She asks if they can go elsewhere to talk. His response, in Urdu, is “Haan, chalte hain, peeche ek hotel hai”, which translates to, “yes, let’s go, behind here is a restaurant.” (Restaurants are commonly called hotels in Pakistan.) The subtitle translates it to “Yes, let’s go to my hotel.” That means something very, very different to a Western audience. The English speaking translator is given the power to manipulate the narrative to the story they wish to tell. That made me weary of the all the translations.
How many times have we seen this dynamic? Brown and black peoples have consistently been excluded from forming their own narrative when confronted with a Western audience, especially those who are not fluent in English. English in a postcolonial place like Pakistan isn’t just a language; it’s a status symbol, accessible mainly to the privileged and a vehicle to greater opportunities and success. To be unable to speak it is a reflection of marginalization and, often, ridicule from those with power, while being comfortable and fluent in it is a sign of power and privilege. And that leads to my second thought on this film.
What’s the position of those who made it and why it matters?
Privilege. That’s the position. And lots of it.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is a famous Pakistani filmmaker known for her documentaries about Pakistan for Western audiences. She is also extremely privileged, not just because she is now a filmmaker, but also because of the opportunities she has had because of the class privilege her family enjoys in Pakistan. She was lucky enough to have the rare opportunity to come from Pakistan to study at a private university in the United States (Smith College) as well as Stanford University. She hails from the metropolis of Karachi and has connections to Canada as well.
All three come from a world very different than the people they speak to in the documentary. To properly understand and engage with the content of the film the viewer must be made aware of the lens through which the filmmakers are viewing and presenting the participants in the film.
It is to be expected that documentary filmmakers, because of the resources to which they have access, will have more privilege than the marginalized peoples they highlight in their films. (Academic researchers are usually in a similar situation). However, it is vitally important that the privilege be made explicit and that every effort be made to keep that privilege in check so that it is does not colour one’s work. The power and privilege of the filmmakers was made obvious to me, but unintentionally, through a demonstration of said privilege.
Take the scene in which Taha, who has reached the town in which Afzal Kohistani lives, exits the van in which they are travelling and immediately explains the stares from the men around the area as being due to her being a woman – because they’re not used to seeing women on the street. And that is most likely true. But they’re probably even less used to seeing a woman with a camera crew on the street.
Or let’s go back to the example of Taha’s interview with Afzal’s brother. Despite the subtitles, Taha translating his words for the audience, while he is kept in the shot, was a reinforcement of her power and privilege over him. Knowing what it means in Pakistan to not be able to speak English versus being fluent in the language, it appeared especially cringe-inducing to see Taha continually demonstrate (i.e., rub in) her privilege.
All this isn’t to say that documentaries on such topics cannot be made. However, all efforts must be made to ensure that the subjects of the documentary control the narrative and that the privilege of the filmmakers is always kept in check, from the planning stage to post-production. Those who are to be the subjects of the documentary must be involved in the planning the project – what is the end result they envision, what do they hope the project will accomplish, and how do they expect it will help their cause?
During filming the use of English around those who do not understand it should be eliminated, instead using English subtitles or voice-overs, if needed. This English commentary should only supplement the words of the interviewees, and not explain them.
Finally, in post-production, those who were the subjects of the documentary must be consulted about the final result to ensure they are satisfied with the documentary. Their input must to be incorporated if they request changes.
What about the women?
This tragedy is rooted in patriarchy and the misogyny so essential to its survival. That the women who were sitting and clapping while men danced were viewed as engaging in an act so dishonourable so as to deserve death (though local authorities deny this, insisting the women are still alive – a claim disputed by many, including human rights groups) can only be understood within the context of patriarchy. Patriarchy insists that women are the property of men and this demand is enacted differently in different parts of the world. The outrage over the video was that the women were in the same room as unrelated men, not that men were dancing in front of women. However, we don’t learn much about the women.
I was more sympathetic to this. I would imagine it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to speak with the women’s families. We do learn more about the process of trying to find the women (to determine if they are alive as their family claims) during Taha’s conversation with Haseeb Khawaja, the Pakistani journalist who has been investigating the case, while facing threats to his own life. However, I really wish that during that conversation they hadn’t shown the pictures of the women to the camera.
I would also imagine it would be difficult to speak to any women in the region. Many women themselves would most likely be very uncomfortable appearing in a documentary made for a Western audience. That discomfort is completely understandable and as such I’m not surprised with how limited the conversation on the women in the video was and how few women were interviewed in the film.
Violence against women is a disturbing reality of patriarchy and misogyny all over the world. We absolutely need more conversations about it, including violence against Muslim women, which is blamed on a woman’s supposed dishonouring of her family. We need more actions taken to end it and to protect all women. Documentary films can be a powerful tool in addressing the issue by starting or adding to conversations and demanding change. However, documentaries focused on violence against women, Muslim women, in places like Pakistan, that are aimed at Western audiences often end up serving as pity-porn or tragedy-porn, regardless of the intentions of the filmmakers and often because of the unawareness filmmakers have of their position of privilege. Therefore, it is vital that filmmakers be aware of their own privilege so that those who face the violence, and those who the filmmakers desire to help, may control their own narrative.