If history is written by the “winners”, then where do the “losers” go to discover their past? Identity cannot be created/felt/experienced without a true understanding of one’s past, and if the past is brutally slanted against you, your only recourse is to internalize that loathing and damage yourself in every way possible.
As a teenager, I lived through one of the bloodiest periods of Pakistani history. Sectarian violence was rife, internal divisions were tearing the country apart, and 90% of the population was illiterate and closed to reason, logic and even common sense. In 1996, more people died in Karachi than in Bosnia and Kashmir combined. The kind of impact it made on the psyche of the country as it witnessed this trauma is still largely unrecorded. The impact of this era is still visible in the behaviour of our people today.
My artistic career has been marked by multiple moments that have revealed small parts of this puzzle to me at different times. As a pre-college teen, I wrote a 4,500-word dissertation (with accompanying illustrations) that led me to research one of the most influential Dynasty that ruled the sub-continent in the 4 centuries leading up to British occupation. As a senior in college, created a fantastical story based on a pivotal war between India and Pakistan, that is often mischaracterized in history as a loss for Pakistan. It was there that my research led me to speak to people who had actually lived that history, and it made me realize how long our history books could be. From interviews with people who actually fought on the frontline, to talking to people who had been government officials at the time, or witnessed firsthand the unfolding of said war, I was able to piece a compelling story that was made more exciting when I added a dollop of magic into it.
Fast-forward through a decade of my career progression: I moved to the US, earned a terminal degree and became a professor of animation. It was in my tenure-track progress that I was approached to help create a story for our local Seneca Nation based in upstate NY. We were commissioned to create an authentic representation of their story of creation, so that their youth would not lose touch with their religious beliefs. The Iroquois Creation story was created with characters designed to resemble actual tribes-members, with sound actors who were Native Americans who spoke with a “pure” accent.
The soundtrack was composed by an award-winning Native composer and featured live-action segments of actual dance rituals.
The ICS went on to show in almost 20 festivals, with 6 wins as best animation and many, many accolades for the soundtrack.
It was this film that reignited my previous confusions/angst about history, and the process of recording it. It occurred to me that my own mixed feelings about being a Muslim woman from Pakistan may have something to do with how my country is perceived and portrayed in the world. It also occurred to me that I may be in a unique position to actually change my conflicted self-narrative if I were to actually participate in the writing of the history of my people and my country, like the Haudenosaunee did with the Iroquois Creation Story.
My research led me to the writings of multiple scholars, most notably Sheryl Brown Graves, in the Journal of Social Issues:
“Television programming provides information about social groups in two ways: by inclusion and by
exclusion. When diverse groups are included, television content offers specific examples of the
physical, psychological, social, cultural, and economic characteristics of each group. However when
groups are absent from the television curriculums there is implication that the missing groups are
unimportant, inconsequential, and Powerless. Both types of information can contribute to the
development, maintenance, and modification of children’s thoughts, feelings, and actions towards
The idea that childrens’ programming can essentially direct racial and ethnic divisions and sow the seeds of future dissent is scary. Not only are “mainstream” races taught to be suspicious of the “unusual”, but the non-represented classes are taught to inherently see themselves as the enemy, or “the others” too.
In an attempt to consciously combat this disparity in “pre-programming” ideology, I co-created a project called The Character Mosaic Project. The goal was simple: create a variety of interesting and authentic characters of color, build them and distribute them to young and independent filmmakers, thereby enabling the less technically inclined to tell their animated stories. We felt that making these characters would allow artists with fewer resources to present their ideas and essentially help to even out the playing field. It may also spark other, bigger production houses to put more care into how they build their own casts in future films.
Yet, as I worked on Character Mosaic, I found myself impatient to write my own story and talk about my own culture. I’d spent so long waiting for a Pakistani filmmaker/writer/artist to present us in a way that shows us in a good light… and I suddenly understood what my professional mentors have always told me. “Make the film you want to see.”
Well, I’m not going to wait for another filmmaker/artist to come along, I’m not a helpless princess waiting to be rescued. I want to embrace my life, my culture and my history, to see my warts, but also to see my own beauty, because, I think, that is the only way I can truly thrive.
So I’ll save my own damn self. And maybe encourage others to follow suit!