After Sabeen remembers Karachi's beloved activist, who supported the arts and paid a price for freedom

After Sabeen does not ask its subjects to speak of the political volatility that preceded Sabeen Mahmud's demise. The film focuses instead on grief, on the memory of Mahmud herself — illustrating how, at the end of the day, the price to be paid for freedom is individual

Manik Sharma October 14, 2019 09:01:18 IST
After Sabeen remembers Karachi's beloved activist, who supported the arts and paid a price for freedom
  • Roughly a decade after Sabeen Mahmud began hosting free discussions on ideas and art in Karachi, she was murdered

  • The film does not ask its subjects to speak of the political volatility that preceded her demise, and in so many ways continues to persist around them

  • The film focuses instead on grief, on the memory of Mahmud herself

On one night in the April of 2015, Sabeen Mahmud locked the doors of The Second Floor (T2F), a café in Karachi, Pakistan and got into her Suzuki Swift to head home. Host to a number of significant cultural events, T2F had just held a vibrant discussion on the Balochistan conflict, an issue that is controversial enough to merit the tag ‘alternative’, if one wants to even debate it. As Mahmud headed home in her car, she was fatally shot down by assailants on a motorbike.

Roughly a decade after Mahmud opened up Karachi’s heart to free discussions on ideas and art, she was murdered. Four years on from that bloody night, German filmmaker Schokofeh Kamiz has put together a stirring documentary about Mahmud’s death, titled After Sabeen. Most effectively, Kamiz’s film focuses more on the cost Sabeen paid for freedom, rather than what that freedom must look like.

After Sabeen remembers Karachis beloved activist who supported the arts and paid a price for freedom

Kamiz, incredibly, never met Mahmud, but was touched by her story nonetheless. “I never met Sabeen. The first time I heard about her was the day she was killed, and that's also how the film starts. I wanted to convey both my fascination for her and my attempt to understand this impressive woman who cared about everyone, especially the youth,” Kamiz says. Though she was known mostly as a human rights activist, Mahmud brought life to Karachi’s corners by supporting art and free discussions. Mahmud’s mother Mahenaz says in the film that it would be narrow-minded to categorise her as an ‘activist’.

Kamiz’s film includes interviews with Mahmud’s family, friends and the Pakistani novelist Mohammad Hanif. But the film does not ask its subjects to speak of the political volatility that preceded Mahmud’s demise and in so many ways continues to persist around them. Perhaps, it has even gotten worse.

The film focuses instead on grief, on the memory of Mahmud herself, which presented the filmmaker with its own challenges. “A key challenge had to do with interviewing people who were still in the process of grieving her. I didn't want them to feel pushed. So it was crucial for me to prepare my questions carefully,” Kamiz says, “then I had to earn enough money in order to finance this film truly independently. So I had a full-time job (and still do). Also, I was in the process of becoming a mother. To be working on all three projects together without neglecting any of them was my biggest challenge, I would say.” Neither Kamiz’s camera, nor her conversations exploit the emotional state of her subjects. A beautiful scene shows Mahmud’s sister nourishing an amaltas tree that she planted at the spot Mahmud was shot and killed. ‘It grows bigger every year,’ she says.

After Sabeen remembers Karachis beloved activist who supported the arts and paid a price for freedom

Hanif’s presence in the film is quietly philosophical. His dissection of Karachi as the city ‘that never thinks of the future’ is prophetic, considering how it continues to grapple with modernity and the fact that women are gradually taking control of their own lives.

Kamiz ensures her film sidesteps references to political history that would require not one but many documentations of deaths over the years. “I am a filmmaker and not a journalist. Also, I am an outsider. So I don't think I was the right person to make a film analysing in depth the political situation of Pakistan or its complexity. That was never my aim. In fact, it allowed me a more neutral position to interact with the people grieving in the wake of Sabeen's death. Yet, I do think that the film is very political. The personal is indeed political! A film about a woman with such strong views and actions can only be political. And also, throughout the film, the subjects make subtle but strong statements on social classes, violence against women, the absence of public spaces and infrastructure or access to education,” the director says.

After Sabeen remembers Karachis beloved activist who supported the arts and paid a price for freedom

Watching After Sabeen is both humbling and painful. Kamiz's choice to focus on the personal illustrates how, at the end of the day, the price to be paid for freedom is individual. Towards the end of the film, a friend of Sabeen's claims that despite the loss, ‘...both mother and daughter wouldn’t have it any other way’. These words are the epitaph of the modern world, where free space is contentious, and its whispers even more so. “Human social life is based on coexistence. We need to create a space for that. For understanding each other, we need to discuss, we need to exchange, we need to listen to each other. So, in my opinion, we are talking about a basic need, like any other. These places are essential. We can't do it on the street or in a stairwell. And that is again true all over the world,” Kamiz says.

All images are stills from the film

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