Pink LED lights, neon heart stickers and a projector on its roof – an autorickshaw ran through the lanes of Ibrahim Hyderi, a poor neighbourhood in Karachi. As the residents settled down for a screening, the evening was full of excitement.
The grainy movies screened on an empty wall were windows into the daily lives of its audience: the low-income illegal immigrants in the city. The plots included candid logs of how a woman spent Sundays (with her boring husband), a group trying to find the right scale to sing a song together, impromptu mushairas of Urdu poetry, small skits planned with great ambition. Occasionally, there was a solo meditation on nature or politics.
The rickshaw, a theatre-on-wheels, screened short films shot by the locals on their cell phones.
The public art project, Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema, was created to break the limited boundaries of art galleries, spaces which cater to elite classes and architectures which divide cities like Karachi by class, ethnicity and gender.
“Each film gave a sense of a city within a city,” said Yaminay Nasir Chaudhri, who first began the mobile cinema project in 2012.
Chaudhri studied architecture at Cornell University and then completed an MFA in combined media studio arts from the State University of New York at Albany. She began the mobile cinema as a response to the number of walls that she saw being erected in Karachi at public spaces like parks and beaches. These walls, hedges, barbed wires are a means to privatise space, a metaphor of separation and segregation which influenced the project.
The walls that serve as the projection screen for the cinema, are the walls of the people living in Ibrahim Haidery, built by the undocumented Bengali and Burmese Rohingya migrants in Karachi. The projections were a way to dematerialise the notion of walls.
In 2012, Chaudhri and other filmmakers and artists began to enter local neighbourhoods and form “tentative collectives” – a phrase that Chaudhri favours even when describing her own six-year-old collective, because of the political fluidity it implies. (Chaudhri’s team, the Tentative Collective. is called the Aarzi group in Urdu).
Each collective then worked with a diverse range of people to help them create amateur films with their mobile phones. Researchers, students, teachers, housewives, children, drivers, porters, photographers and fishermen – all from different parts of the city – dived into the project.
Chaudhri said she was deeply influenced by the idea of invisible cities, proposed by the writer Italo Calvino, when she thought up her mobile cinema project.
“The films are unfamiliar and outside the narratives of the city and public spaces, in the way we are used to seeing them.”
The Tentative Collective often chooses screening spots that are far removed from the face of global Karachi, the city that architects and urban planners envision.
“Some sites were literally peripheral like Ibrahim Hydari on the eastern coast, or Seaview beach on the southern coast,” she said.
When choosing a screening spot, the Tentative Collective must address other concerns too – the privacy of women and children, for instance. “Women don’t normally occupy the street in the same way as men do in many parts of the city,” Chaudhri said. “So we thought about ways of screening at smaller scales inside people’s homes which also had ‘public’ spaces for meeting.”
At Lyari, one of the oldest neighbourhoods of Karachi, the Tentative Collective took a different approach, interacting only with the children. The area which is notorious in the Pakistani press for being a high-crime neighbourhood, turned out to be filled with talented young filmmakers – some of whom were between the ages of eight to 12.
“Our events were a kind of break from the everyday, and that break primed unusual conversations,” Chaudhri recalled. The children were taught the concept of video storytelling at school, and built their stories over three months. Over the period of planning their films, Chaudhari said the team saw even the quietest children present unique and sensitive ideas, which helped them become more confident in classrooms and their homes. In contrast, any time that the Tentative Collective has tried to take Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema to posher neighbourhoods, people have been reluctant to participate.
“We wanted to use everyday tools and aesthetics in a different way, as a metaphor to playfully re-imagine everyday things that we take for granted,” she said. “For instance, how could a vehicle also be seen as a cinema, a phone also a medium to make art?”
The Collective’s most important screening to date, took place in 2014 when the projector suddenly stopped working at the Seaview Waterfront, a beach to the south of Karachi, where about 50 members of the audience had already arrived. One of the filmmakers from the Collective began to improvise with a poem, an audience member jumped in and sang a song badly out of tune.
“There was a full moon, we were projecting video on a giant concrete ship on the beach,” Chaudhri recalled. “It was surreal. These events were fuelled by a communal energy.”
The screening, their largest yet, was attended by Baloch and Pakhtun photographers, a Hindu research assistant along with Sindhi, Siraiki people among other ethnicities. The audience soon grew to over 300. By the end of the film, a pair of visitors presented the Collective with a plate of barfi bought from a vendors’ cart on the beach.