Controversy around the Pakistani film Joyland: A land with no joy

joyland is an ironic title for a film that is actually about a country with no joy at all. This year, Pakistan received record rainfall that flooded a third of the country, leaving millions homeless, with diseases such as endemic dengue fever and rotting crops in the fields. One would think that the number one issue in the minds of Pakistanis would be economy and social welfare. Alas, it is the young filmmaker Saim Sadiq’s first film joyland which seems to be taking over the news cycle in recent days. The film is met with the wrath of homophobic and religious fanatics who, just by watching the trailer, feel that the film normalizes LGBTQIA people and promotes a “gay agenda”.

I was at the world premiere of joyland at the Cannes Film Festival this summer where it received the longest standing ovation I have ever seen at an Un Certain Regard screening in all my years at that festival. I immediately knew that this film could win the jury prize. It is a film about longing and family dynamics in a lower middle class family living in Gawalmandi district of Lahore. It is a sensitive portrait of men and women victims of patriarchy and a stifling tradition. Sadiq weaves a story of family dynamics, with sensitive topics not often depicted in South Asian films – especially not Pakistani films. There’s a deep honesty to the characters that audiences have bonded with, sometimes unwittingly.

At Cannes, I thought the film would only resonate with other South Asians. I was wrong. The movie theater rumbled with applause. The cast and crew of the film stood there, dumbfounded and surprised by the film’s reception; his honesty touched everything. The point is, anyone who understands the oppressive nature of patriarchy and the repression of desire can sympathize with it. The film features transgender actor Alina Khan in the performance of a lifetime, as well as notable and veteran actors such as Sania Saeed, Sarwat Gilani, and veteran filmmaker and actor Salman Peerzada. The incredible Rasti Farooq and Ali Junejo are the playful lead couple we connect with until the heartbreaking conclusion and even when we leave the cinema, forever moved after witnessing something that was always there but never so. well articulated on screen.

The film has screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, Sydney International Film Festival, Melbourne South Asian Film Festival, among others. Besides the Jury Prize and the Queer Palm at Cannes, the film won the prestigious Golden Pram at the Zagreb Film Festival. The film screened to packed houses at the Dharamshala International Film Festival in India, where some audience members gave moving testimonies of the film’s power and resonance.

In any civilized nation in the world, this film would be celebrated; not in Pakistan. There, the release was derailed and the conversation diverted from the film’s success and Oscar buzz, to channeled homophobic hysteria against the film’s perceived LGBTQIA agenda. Comedian Shehzad Ghias Shaikh summed up the situation by saying that “a Western fashion designer, an alleged wife-beater and a failing provincial government are leading the calls to ban a movie. This culture war is being fought for attention and cheap populism. You can’t attribute their hatred to anything other than pure transphobia.”

In 2019, I took my autobiographical documentary film Abu to Pakistan. The distributors told me from the start that my film would never pass the censor board because it contained the word “gay”. I didn’t bother to pursue the distribution any further. In 2021, the award-winning film Busan and MISAFF by director Sarmad Khoosat Zindagi Tamasha was also banned due to pressure from religious attire because the film dared to criticize the clergy.

Similarly, after major (and heartbreaking) cuts, joyland was finally approved by all four censorship boards in Pakistan – no small feat. It was then edited in accordance with their wishes and prepared for distribution throughout the country. After all, you would think that a film directed by Lahoris, with the name of an amusement park in Lahore, would have no problem gracing the nation’s screens.

Every year, hundreds of transgender people are murdered in Pakistan. Those calling for the boycott don’t care about the lives of LGBTQIA people. They want to maintain a culture of fraudulent piety where people are driven underground, sexual abuse is rampant, and all talk about sex or sexual awareness is suppressed.

A special commission has been set up by the Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, this time composed of representatives of the civilian and military intelligence services. Two days before it hit theaters, they came to the conclusion that the film should be released nationwide. However, this time the government of Punjab, which is led by the PTI party (former Prime Minister Imran Khan) maintained the ban in the province, ostensibly to antagonize the federal government. Prominent members of the PTI party have also been vocal opponents of the film, making them and their political stance very similar to the far-right Jamaat-e-Islami.

Maria B, PTI flag bearer and clothing retailer, vehemently opposes joyland and LGBTQIA people, confusing the artist community. “Give it a few weeks and Maria B and (preacher) Raja Zia will launch a collection of abayas,” says trans rights activist Mehrub Moiz Awan. According to researcher Hiba Sameen, most Twitter, Instagram and other social media accounts tagging #BanJoyland are bots. This leaves a big question as to who is really pressuring the government to shut down the movie.

The vitriol-spewing political parties did not actually watch the film. Pakistanis are not inherently homophobic, but the loudest mouth among them bullies others into silence and submission. They talk about Islam and use Islamic argument and of course you cannot question the word of God. Homophobia in Islam comes from the Judeo-Christian tradition and the story of Lot and Sodom and Gomorrah. Scholars argue that the story is about sexual abuse, statutory rape and inhospitality, rather than same-sex love. Yet Pakistani society ignores all other lessons of Sodom and Gomorrah and picks and chooses the LGBTQIA community for its religious anger.

In many ways, joyland is the opposite of a “gay agenda” film. It is very traditional in its treatment of LGBTQIA characters and if those who oppose it end up watching the film, they may find the conclusions in their favor in the sense that only a life of punishment awaits those who dare to step out of accepted cultural norms. .

Pakistanis are at a clear crossroads, politically, socially and religiously. In every nation, the pendulum swings from the extreme right to, sometimes, the extreme left. In Iran, the war for freedom has already started. With joyland, Pakistanis seek the freedom to decide for themselves what suits them or not. Does the government care about the hundreds of people who worked on the film project and those who invested in Pakistani cinema and do they plan to invest in the country’s independent voices in the future? Do Pakistanis care about the elevation of their cinema or are they happy with the status quo and the bloodbath of Maula Jatt and co? It may be time for Pakistanis to start the important conversation about religion and the rights of sexual minorities. It is time for religious and political groups to stop using minorities to draw attention to their agendas. So far, the regions where joyland was released had sold-out theaters and record viewing figures. People are raving about the movie and absolutely no one seems to complain about immoral elements in the movie. Hopefully a better future awaits Pakistani filmmakers and moviegoers, so that one day those who vehemently oppose film will understand that if you don’t want to see a movie, don’t buy a ticket to go. to see him. Don’t treat a nation of 250 million people as if it can’t make that simple decision on its own.

The writer is a Pakistani-Canadian director, producer and programmer