News footage of the capture of a whale shark about 36 feet long and weighing a hefty 7,000 kgs provided the raw material for Pakistan-born director Shehrezad Maher’s Dimensions of a Fish (2013). The short film revisits the 2012 haul in Karachi by stitching together news clips that breathlessly reported on the bizarre event. Trampled upon by gawkers, measured and dissected by officials, and eventually purchased by a businessman, the gigantic corpse acquires a new life of sorts as an object of grotesque wonderment.
A touch of the macabre is also evident in Maher’s first full-length documentary, which will be screened at the upcoming The Bagri Foundation London Indian Film Festival. The festival will be held between June 20 and July 1 in London, Birmingham and Manchester, and will showcase a mix of contemporary and classic films, documentaries and short films from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Among the highlights are the international premiere of Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 and screenings of Anand Patwardhan’s Reason, Anjali Bhushan’s My Home India, Lenin M Sivam’s Roobha, Rohena Gera’s Sir and Praveen Morchhale’s Widow of Silence.
This Shaking Keeps Me Steady begins ostensibly as a narrative documentary about the experiences of two drivers who work for an ambulance service in Karachi. These drivers also appear as extras in television crime dramas that dramatise and re-enact crimes that have taken place in Karachi. Through her explorations, Maher explores themes of death and loss, the impact of violence on both victims and spectators, and the survival of the human spirit when confronted with mortality.
Maher was born and raised in Karachi, and now lives in New York City, where she works as an interdisciplinary artist. She explained the motivations that drive This Shaking Keeps Me Steady, whose title has been inspired by a line from Theodore Roethke’s poem The Waking. Edited excerpts from an email interview.
What was the starting point for ‘This Shaking Keeps Me Steady’, and how did the film evolve?
The work started with a latent curiosity I had growing up in Pakistan about the lives of ambulance drivers and the precarity of their invisible, poorly compensated labour upon which the city is so dependent. I was struck by a phrase that was often repeated in conversations with them: “I don’t know how to describe it”. The failure of language to match the intensity of their memories is aptly captured by Ayub in the beginning: “If we tried to talked about all this, it might take a whole month” (a month here meaning more like eternity).
Ayub is someone I feel particularly connected to, and talking with him is like navigating winding alleyways of changing widths, textures and wall heights and then suddenly making a sharp turn and coming upon the ocean. A phrase he often says is, “I don’t know how I went on such a tangent.” That energy guided the film into a kind of modular structure – blocks of colour, rhythm, sound and feeling repeatedly stacking and then collapsing from their weight, resembling the phrasing of a poem instead of a linear, essayistic report that is character or plot driven.
How did you shortlist the characters we meet in the documentary?
There are two ambulance drivers, Ayub and Mursaleen, and then there is Kailash, the caretaker of a Hindu temple who is a self-designated first responder for people who jump from a bridge into the holy water near his temple. I wanted to include Kailash because his labour is the least visible, and his rescuing of people who don’t necessarily want to be saved is a counterpoint to the moral clarity of the ambulance drivers’ missions.
With the drivers, I initially perceived the re-enactments productions as a project unrelated to them. But one evening, while speaking with Ayub about these production sets I was visiting, he casually mentioned that he sometimes gets called to play an extra. The two worlds were closer than I anticipated, and as I reflected more on these underbellies of Karachi, they increasingly fired off signals to each other.
The re-enactments of crimes in the TV shows appear to be dramatised versions of the death and injuries that the ambulance drivers encounter every day. What does this interplay between reality and fiction tell us?
Many of the re-enactments are supposedly based on First Information Reports. The shows purport to empathise with the people they were based on and create a kind of “double” of real-life occurrences. Paradoxically, they are a good example of when empathy fails to create compassion, but generates voyeurism and profit instead. Since finishing the film, these particular shows were banned, but similar melodrama is used when reporting the actual news, and a plethora of fictional TV dramas with resembling blueprints have filled the void.
The factual divergences of the re-enactments are less interesting than how the attempted facsimile fails. With bad acting, you can almost see the actors thinking through how an emotion should be referenced. Autopilot modes and improvisation in auditions can sometimes tell you a lot about the perceived consensus of what masculinity, grief or tragedy should look like. As a producer for one show says, while instructing a woman to sob over her comatose son in the hospital: “Look like you’re going back to a memory.”
In terms of coping mechanisms for the city, these reality-based shows moralise and neatly order things into forces of good and evil, the savior and the saved, victim and perpetrator, which can be a relief from contending with the senseless parts of violence. They help metabolise or soften the edges of a more chaotic and unruly reality.
The shows also entertain a fantasy of having the time and resources for grief, which, as we sense with Ayub, is contingent on class privilege.
In Pakistan, oral histories and mythmaking can be important ways of producing knowledge, frequently shaping histories and spaces that aren’t officially documented or archived. I don’t think I grew up with a strong sense of fact and fiction being at two extreme ends with a neat fence in between. I am not sure what that interplay could say about Karachi as a place on the whole, because the city is a messy, ever evolving collection of memories, experiences and subjectivities of my own and I’m less interested in representing it within any narrative framework or characterisation for others.
What did the drivers make of your narrative approach? They share their dreams with you, which are of a deeply personal and often painful nature.
The drivers work 30-hour shifts, with 12-hour breaks for rest. With the privilege of stealing a few hours from their schedule, I was compelled by the idea of capturing them in moments of pause instead of filming them on their missions.
The process was amusingly disarming to them – I had sought them out, invited myself to their homes, sat alone with them in a room (which is culturally and traditionally off-kilter), and wanted to know about their recurring dreams – something that usually comes further along in the process of knowing someone. There was an inverted result where a seemingly intimate subject was perceived as relatively inconsequential and made them less self-conscious than they would be in front of, say, a reporter. As breadwinners, there is also an oppressive, daily expectation of what their masculinity should look like, and that performativity is less forced when they’re not around their colleagues, bosses or family. Additionally, any gendered expectations for how a woman behind a camera should put a subject at ease is upturned a bit.
I am sure I made them feel self-conscious and uncomfortable at several points in the beginning. But sometimes, I think the very real messiness of communication, lack of common ground, or even tension can reveal the power dynamic between the subject and filmmaker, saying much about both their places in the world.
How challenging was it to make and fund the film?
The film was self-funded, which inevitably meant that it took much longer to make than expected. I had help from a sound mixer and struck up a great collaboration and friendship with Todd Reynolds, the composer, but mostly had to teach myself how to get the results I wanted in post-production. It was a steep but rewarding learning curve that has definitely prepared me better for future projects.