This can only happen in movies. Two films, which are very different from each other, received a great reception at the 75th year Cannes Film Festival. The applause standing at the end of ‘Joyland’, Pakistan’s first official entry, was gratifying; and Shaunaka Sen’s great documentary ‘All That Breathes’, which was screened immediately afterwards, was an equally big celebration.
The Cannes Film Festival seldom chooses a film that has already appeared at a major festival (All That Breathes not only was screened, but won an award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier in 2022). In an e-mail exchange in March, Sen confided that the film was selected at the ‘top European festival in May’, and here he enjoys the fruits of their greatest love work.
There are striking similarities in the many ways people in India and Pakistan crave male children and caress the patriarchal ego. Men and women are strictly limited to gender roles, and anyone who tries to escape is punished for their transgression. Saim Sadiq’s touching film begins with a woman (Sarwat Gilani), who is born after giving birth and has tears in her eyes with the news that she is a girl. Again. As a result, her fourth daughter and her husband and father-in-law are in a lamentation; only her brother-in-law Haider (Ali Junejo) sees her pain and understands it deeply. Each of these men like fathers, husbands and brothers offer a sharp commentary on masculinity. What happens when someone is gender-variable? Where is he or she going?
Joyland’s little family, in which it all takes place, seems familiar to you, even though you may never have been in Lahore. A father, confined to a wheelchair, still manages his household through an iron check. An older son (Sohail Sameer) counts the days before his wife gives birth to a son. Haider’s younger son is looking for a job and his wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) goes to work, which is a reversal of roles, the roots of which we will learn much later in the film.
Sadiq, born and raised in the city and now living in the US, created a living world of trans-dancers in his short ‘Darling’. In ‘Joyland’ he expands into this universe and explores the connections between those who live in ‘venerable neighborhoods’ and the pockets of public entertainment with their predominantly male patrons. Transwoman Biba (Alina Khan) stands on the periphery: when she performs with her dancers, she brings the same men joy; off the stage becomes the subject of contempt.
The growing proximity between Haider and Biba reveals entrenched attitudes: how much change can gender reassignment surgery bring? Haider’s own sexual imprint, never clearly mentioned, makes him the target of many jerky jokes. The dynamics of power between the two as they try to orient themselves in their worlds form the heart of the film.
The dark sky in Delhi, especially as the air changes from purely viscous to the dirtiest, is detrimental not only to humans but also to dragons circling over piles of garbage on the outskirts of the city in search of livelihoods. Sen’s “All That Breathes” acts as a short-distance journey into dystopia. It is a testament to the enduring aspects of the Indian capital: both its marginalized people, beaten by inhuman laws, and its majestic dragons have learned to orient themselves in their environment, looking for compassionate pockets.
Brothers Nadeem Shehzaad and Mohammed Saoud and their assistant Salik take care of the wounded dragons and other creatures in their basement. It’s overflowing with rusted metal parts, because bird meat is ground in a machine that breaks up. It’s a world like no other in which these wounded birds learn to submit to human hands that are raised just to heal.
We are worried about everything that breathes, says one of the brothers, and this statement immediately acts as a balm, especially in this polarized, hostile time. In one of those moments, which can happen by chance, the young man and the young dragon look at each other. Their eyes lock and we know they are helping each other. The bird flies again and the young man finds the purpose he is looking for.