What if there was an app that could ensure mob violence was meted out with the ease of a right swipe? If the question sounds alarming in itself, then the answer is even more unsparing in the hand-drawn animated short film SWIPE (2020). Set in Pakistan’s technologically advanced but politically oppressive dystopian future, the 14-minute Urdu short features Multan residents hooked to “iFatwa,” an app that crowdsources religious death sentences. Unfolding over a day, SWIPE’s central protagonist is Jugnu, a 10-year-old kid whose addiction to the app ultimately ends in tragedy.
Behind the film is a group of 20 young Pakistani animators, musicians, and storytellers who comprise Puffball Studios, an interdisciplinary production house led by the multi-hyphenate Arafat Mazhar, who directed, produced, voice-acted, and co-wrote the film, in addition to scoring it. In an email interview with Hyperallergic, he described the film as “a plea for introspection of the world that we are leaving for our children.” SWIPE falls under a genre Mazhar terms as “cyberkhilafat.” An obvious play on the cyberpunk genre of science fiction, cyberkhilafat films are attuned to the social realities of Pakistan and meant to “explore how modern forms of Islam, technology and power are combined to dictate political and social norms that mute individual identity.”
SWIPE’s iFatwa mimics the language of extrajudicial violence, currently on the rise throughout the subcontinent as a by-product of a vicious strain of religious intolerance and unwitting adherence to the idea of protecting one’s honor. The app enables users to execute strangers via a simple gesture. Perhaps it’s no surprise that most of the cases on iFatwa are against women – a testament to an inherently patriarchal country’s pastime of suppressing the rights of women. (As per the Global Gender Gap Index 2018, Pakistan is the sixth most dangerous country in the world for women.) The victims range from a female anchor finding herself on the app for incorrectly draping her dupatta to an elderly woman getting right-swiped for being caught making posters for a women’s protest march. Although anyone can submit a case on the app, a person is only executed once their case has amassed 10,000 swipes-right (swiping left bestows clemency, used sparingly in the film). Meanwhile, users who opt to kill most often are rewarded with the distinction of becoming a ghazi (warriors). Bloodshed essentially becomes a video game.
Mazhar describes himself as a filmmaker intent on making unabashedly political films. Another Puffball Studio production is Shehr e Tabassum, a dystopian short set in a futuristic Pakistan where the Supreme Leader criminalizes all expressions other than a smile. What is most pressing to Mazhar is the possibility of creating a space to speak in the face of growing censorship and antagonism, “I want us to confront our own biases and all the ways in which we enact power over others,” he explained. “Our collective silence towards those in our community who suffer every day is also a form of violence.”
SWIPE (2020), dir. Arafat Mazhar, is streaming on Youtube.
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