Hira Nabi on the technique of slow cinema to narrate the human cost of development

The Pakistan-based filmmaker’s slow-cinema tells a compelling story on human life laced with the question of survival in the face of single-minded acts of growth and progress.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Feb 16, 2021

Removed from the logic of an adrenaline rush, the essence of slow-cinema lies in its ability to patiently let the viewers watch, absorb and observe the moving scene. The exercise is akin to the flow of the words knitted for a delightful read, it seeps in and settles to remain in the readers’ minds for a considerable period of time. The visual language of Pakistan-based filmmaker Hira Nabi’s short film, All That Perishes at the Edge of Land, brings to the fore a similar kind of expressive adroitness to narrate the ordeal of migrant labourers working at the shipwreck yard Gadani, in the Pakistani province of Balochistan. In a close to 30-minute documentary, Nabi invites the viewers to gauge the enormity of the sea and the ship and the perilous voyage workers undertake to dismantle the ships. After a three-minute of visual walk through the shipwreck beach and the community of the workers, the array of labourers articulate the hardship of their profession devoid of social security and rights. The exchange of conversation between the anthropomorphised Ocean Master and the migrant workers lay bare the truth of dreams and aspirations, emotive filial relationships, and the fragile state of the economy of Pakistan. As the Ocean Master confesses, “There is no end, there is only progress,” the movie acutely traces the human cost of making a journey punctuated by development and expansion.

It is this art of slow cinema, practiced by Nabi, which opens the ways to closely critique the crisis within the framework of historical agency, in an effort to avoid bracketing the catastrophe to a single-time occurrence.

In an interview with STIR, Nabi, who recently won the 2020 Next Generation Prince Claus Award, talks about her proclivity towards slow cinema, the making of the All That Perishes at the Edge of Land and the creative purpose of her art practice.

All That Perishes at the Edge of Land | Hira Nabi | STIRworld
All That Perishes at the Edge of Land Image: Courtesy of Hira Nabi

Dilpreet Bhullar (DB): The low-angle opening shot of All That Perishes at the Edge of Land, in slow-motion, gauges the colossal size of the ship and the enormity of the Arabian Sea. The technique of slow-motion lets the viewers observe and absorb the visual magnanimity of your cinema. The visuals of the cinema rest in the minds even when the movie is over. Would you like to take us through your affiliation and interests in slow cinema? 

Hira Nabi (HB): I like this notion of visual magnanimity, thank you for describing my work as such. Cinema should offer visual magnanimity to its audiences. I like long, lingering images, where the image and the after-images remain with audiences for some time. And I would hope that those images provoke questions, and instigate inquiries for my audiences. I had a professor in grad school, Sam Ishii-Gonzales, who introduced me to the seductive wonders of slow cinema. I remember a class where we focused on long takes in Michael Haneke’s films. Around that time I was also watching films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Lucrecia Martel, and Pedro Costa, which were revelatory and beautiful, and entirely captured my imagination. In 2016, I met Abbas Kiarostami, and worked on a short film under his tutelage: it was a 12-minute short film, with an opening shot that lasted for two and a half minutes. I was starting to trust my own instincts to feel or sense my way through cinematic time and space: asking questions about tone and tonality, mood and feeling, how a scene or a shot breathed when captured on camera. I was making visual experiments, playing with duration and rhythm, and thinking a lot about framing, and everything that lies outside of the frame, and how it may be allowed or denied entry. I would like to think that these shots allow us to settle into a space, move through it, appraise it, allowing the visuals to wash over us and soak into our senses. Of course, if that feeling of comfort is later disrupted, it makes it all the more enjoyable and exciting or shocking.  

I think that cinema is about observation, and slow cinema allows you to intently and very intensely observe life. When you slow down you begin to notice everything around you that much more vividly and deeply. Previously unheard sounds make themselves known. You start to pay attention to shifts in light and begin to discern small movements. You watch and wait, for something to happen, for nothing to happen – your senses are heightened and you become more alert. I had a great time chilling on the beach by a ship some afternoons, watching the tide come in, filming the interaction between the ship and the sea, just me and my camera on a tripod hanging out with some marine fossils. Those were some of the best and most free, most revelatory moments during production.

1 mins watch The docu-fictional work, All That Perishes at the Edge of Land | Hira Nabi | STIRworld
The docu-fictional work, All That Perishes at the Edge of Land Video: Courtesy of Hira Nabi

DB: The engaging conversation between Ocean Master and a series of labourers working at Gadani shipwreck beach maps the journey undertaken with and without home, family, and desires. The conversations and original sound of the site Gadani add a layer to the power of images. Could you tell us about the exchange of ideas with Qurratulain Hyder before the final script was added to the cinema? 

HN: I don’t know if I would call it an exchange, you see, I have never actually encountered Qurratulain Hyder, at least not in person. I have only encountered her through her writings. I was reading Aag ka Darya (River of Fire) by her, while I was working on the film. At the same time, I was also reading this fantastic book called Slow Violence by Rob Nixon, and various poems by Faiz Sahib that I often carry around with me in an anthology of his works. And so, invariably these works slipped into guiding and moulding the form of the film. I used some of the text from Aag ka Darya to help build the mystique around Ocean Master. Who better to rely upon for the poetic musings, jaded cosmopolitanism and vulnerability of a decommissioned container vessel now being taken apart? Then there were conversations that I had with my mother who I often read novels or short stories with around tone, language, and point of view that Ocean Master could take on, especially because at some point I would like to believe that the container vessel is speaking on behalf of the fish, the waters, the air, the shoreline, and all the elements of that region that should be seen as important stakeholders in this industry. And so, when you begin to consider all these beings as essential, as I grew to consider, it then became very important for me to try to construct a conversation about capitalism, about violence, about destruction, vulnerability, and precarity to be had between the workers and these other voices. 

Artist Hira Nabi | STIRworld
Artist Hira Nabi Image: Courtesy of Hira Nabi

DB: The compelling visuals and intimate revelation made by the labourer community indeed remove the lid from the lesser-known facts on the dire conditions in which workers stay to incessantly contribute to the economy of the country. How did you approach the community to let them open their heart to you? 

HN: I kept going back. I wasn’t there on a news deadline, I didn’t have to rush to get everything I needed in one day, or even one week. I was lucky in that I could take the time that I needed, without the pressure of finishing a film before I felt it was ready. That’s really it, it’s quite simple, you have to show up, again and again. Nobody trusts you immediately or instinctively, why should they? Around my fifth or sixth visit, when I had become somewhat of a familiar sight, some of the workers began to talk some more with me, and began to share more. I was also there with the union, and I think that helped enormously in providing me with access. 

Deadly Affairs, installation view | Hira Nabi | STIRworld
Deadly Affairs, installation view Image: Courtesy of Tomas Uyttendaele

It’s a balancing act: I had to learn when to put the camera away and when to take it out, and when to keep rolling. Sometimes people just want to talk, they want to share their lives with complete strangers. Sometimes they want to believe that sharing their struggle with someone with a camera might help them in some way, and that then transfers a sense of responsibility upon the receiver of these narratives - to do right by them. 

I also worked with a very small crew. Most days I would just be there by myself, some days, it would be me and a camera assistant, and a sound recordist. I think perhaps that helped. We weren’t too imposing or overwhelming.

A still from All That Perishes at the Edge of Land | Hira Nabi | STIRworld
Still from All That Perishes at the Edge of Land Image: Courtesy of Hira Nabi

DB: The voyage of human life and annihilation of ecological balance are two motifs that punctuate your works – All the Perishes at the Edge of Land and El Retorno – to raise an incisive inquiry into the notion of “progress”. Could you elaborate on the importance of these key ideas in your cinema? 

HN: That’s very nicely put, I like it a lot. I have in the past tended to think of these two films, one following the other as a darkening of my mood and palette, sort of like my response to the darkness of the times we live in, and a dystopia that inches closer by the minute. But you are right, it is also in a sense about the voyage of human life and annihilation of ecological balance. I think, like everyone else, I am curious about the world that we live in. And I am both alarmed and fascinated by the directions that we are headed in, the paths towards destruction and “progress”, which seem entwined. I am reminded of this wonderful quote by Bertolt Brecht, “In the dark times will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times”. I don’t want to preach and make didactic work, so instead, I move towards narrative and fictional possibilities of imagined futures, and even imagined pasts. Ecological histories or witnessing of time have always been of great interest to me, this idea of listening to or viewing or sensing a history told from a different perspective, from a different species, from perhaps a different starting point even sounds marvellous. Some of our notions of history are so set, and the idea of time is so set, and then you realise that maybe we actually know very little after all, and just maybe if you could access a forest’s records of timekeeping or learn how bees have survived extremities of temperature, or what glaciers have trapped in their frozen crevices you would have learned so much. So maybe it’s the voyage of human life, but acknowledging that this voyage is a collective one, with so many other-than-human perspectives to be heard from. 

In this short documentary, 'Ocean Master' a container vessel is anthropomorphized, and enters into a dialogue with several workers at the Gadani yards | Hira Nabi | STIRworld
In this short documentary, 'Ocean Master' a container vessel is anthropomorphized, and enters into a dialogue with several workers at the Gadani yards Image: Courtesy of Hira Nabi

DB:  Against the inevitability of human decay, it is imperative to live with dignity and not just survive. As a practitioner, do you think there is a subtle rise of the artist community, especially in the Global South, which is sensitive to talk about the importance of the need to exercise human rights and practice labour law and social security - a discussion that is constantly absent from the political sphere? 

HN: I am inspired by ongoing work being produced by artists that is made collectively with others be they labourers, or farm workers, or workers in the service industry, or factories, or domestic workers and I think the important thing to note and stress here is the emphasis on collective creative control, or collaboratively working. I recently saw Honeyland directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov,and Time by Garrett Bradley, which are both so beautifully crafted, and thoughtfully made. Closer to home, I have been contemplating the practices of friends and peers like Zahra Malkani and Shahana Rajani’s work on development and erasure, and Fazal Rizvi’s work on marine bodies and violence. I have also been witnessing Salman Toor’s work, and mulling over conversations over the years about his practice that make visible discomfort, alongside ways to ease into it, and locate brief moments of security. Artists cannot be truth-tellers by themselves. I learned a great deal while working on All That Perishes, from the many workers at the Gadani yards, and especially from Chacha Afzal, an old man from the north who had been working in the shipbreaking industry for the last 40 years. We spoke on and off during the many months of filming, over periods of unemployment and temporary employment for him, and while he was self-deprecating in his assessment of his own abilities: he described himself as uneducated, and hence unable to dream big dreams, his understanding of structures of power, of solidarity, and collective bargaining and fighting for the rights of the workers was profound and deeply thoughtful. This industry is not kind to its workers, especially not to those who are now old, and have spent their youth, and are now left with frail health and bodies. What happens to working class people when they get old? This is a conversation that is vital and very necessary to have, and not just with the workers (who know very well the precarity of their situations) but with everyone. I am also very interested in not just collaborative and collective artistic or academic work but also in a sense of shared ownership. So for instance what happens after? The way that I think about it, my film has two roles: one, as a film, a work of art, and two, as a form of activism, as a means to achieve some kind of palpable change on the ground, at Gadani. And currently, it’s the fulfilment of the second role that I am really more interested in.

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