London-based director William Williamson’s The Silent Conversation speaks volumes about the state of the individual in a country often characterised by its long history of violence and turmoil. It is interesting, then, that this short documentary’s focus lies not in the outspoken voices of the people Williamson met on his ten day opus through Lahore, but on a much more subtle form of expression. The clothing we wear plays a large role in the formation of collective cultural and personal identity – the uniform of the Lahore police force worn by a woman for the first time sends as strong a message as any political manifesto. As a country marked by the fallout of empire, Pakistan has faced many challenges on its road to define itself.
The ideology of Regionalism under Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, led to widespread separatist movements in the northeastern territories. The partition of Pakistan from India was intended to create a unified, centralised state but inevitably failed to draw a clean line along religious lines. The partition of Pakistan acts as another reminder of the arbitrary nature of man-made borders and territorial lines, which ultimately led to marginalisation, civil unrest, and violence. The diversity of Pakistan is breathtaking, in a country with a population of 179.2 million people, the multiplicity of voices present in over seven different ethnic groups and three different religions has thrown the country into a cacophony of conflicting ideas. But what is at once divisive can pave the way for sustainable collaboration, dialogue, and transcendence.
In the West the media carries echoes of intolerance, where 68 lawyers were charged with blasphemy for supporting protests against extremist groups, or where passenger planes are shot at from the ground. Yet the Pakistan Williamson and his crew discovered first-hand had little to do with these polarising media revelations, and more to do with tolerance, transformation, and the impact of an increasingly connected world. The power of filmmaking lies not only in its creative innovation and aesthetic appeal, but in its ability to transmit another kind of truth – one that rarely finds its way into our homes through normative media channels. Williamson’s keen observations highlight how the youth of Pakistan are attempting to create a new voice as the architects of their future, while simultaneously celebrating in the diversity of expression that comes from the clothing we chose to wear.
What is it in ‘The Silent Conversation’ that you are hoping to address?
The aim was to look at how dress plays an instrumental role in self-expression. The way we present ourselves sartorially is a core part of what it is to be human and I was interested in exploring this in a culture where I would, by definition, have the perspective of an outsider. I was fascinated by the idea that simply wearing a piece of cloth is common to all cultures, and yet we can own our identity through our dress. I love how it brings unity but also rebellion.
What originally motivated you to create this film?
This is the first time I’ve made what could be considered a ‘fashion’ film, so the challenge of working on an explicitly aesthetic project like this was of interest to me in itself. However, the main motivation was the opportunity to make something in Pakistan. I felt like it was a chance to break away from the usual media stereotypes that portray the country as being in a state in crisis. It seems that the majority of pieces – be they print articles, news segments or short films – depict women as victims. I absolutely recognise this suffering, and certainly don’t want in any way to minimise it, but I felt that this project offered a chance to add to the wider conversation and celebrate the role of women in Pakistan.
What do you find beautiful and inspiring about Pakistan?
I've found it difficult fully to process and summarise my experience in Lahore - even though I've been back for over month. The preparation for the shoot, and the shoot itself, felt more like an experience than a production and, in many ways, has become an entanglement of thoughts, memories and feelings which are yet to settle. The Director Of Photography, Will Hanke, and I were there for 10 very intense days and the organised chaos of the city was definitely reflected in our work. There is a madness to Lahore. It is fair to describe my expectations of the city to have been based on the prevalent media perception of Pakistan as a country in bitter turmoil. I know why this image exists, but saw no evidence of it in my time there, and now ask myself why I accepted this notion with such relative ease. For me it raises a lot of questions about our responsibilities as filmmakers to challenge accepted narratives about such varied people and places. The Pakistanis I met, and the locations I visited, have created very strong memories for me. Whenever I cast my mind back to the journey, I'm certain it was one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had. Multan road is possibly the most exciting road you can ever travel through – and the mango juice will blow your mind.
What affected you most while filming?
The Liberty Burger. Do not eat one.
In the film there is the phrase ‘clothes not only matter, they matter because they speak of how we live’. To what extent do you think clothing defines identity?
I don’t think clothing defines identity as such, but it certainly plays an important role in how we portray ourselves to others. I find it raises more questions – or perhaps suggestions – than definitions. Clothing often challenges cultural ideals, just as much as it can reinforce them. It can be used to make statements, to stand out or to fit in, to conform or rebel. I think that through clothing we can explore sensory experiences (colour, textures; these things can bring such pleasure to people) alongside a sense of self.
The phrase ‘society is becoming more accepting of change, our norms are being broken’ was poignant. In what ways do you see Pakistan changing?
I’m not an authority on Pakistan – I’m just someone who observed the city of Lahore for 10 days, so I feel a bit like a charlatan in answering how I see it changing. But my choice of characters in the film was based on change which is undeniably taking place in the country. The eunuchs were only very recently recognized as a group in society, and have been issued with identity cards for the first time. Their representative Almas Bobby is now a member of the National Assembly. The female traffic police officers in the film are part of the first group of female officers in Lahore. Their presence sends a message to the public that women can and should work in jobs traditionally considered for men. I did have many conversations about change with people I met there – which is why Samar is featured in the film. Sarah Javaid (whose words feature in the film) spoke of where change was coming from – the youth. Around 55% of Pakistan’s population is under 25. This incredibly energetic and youthful society has access to modern technologies and education in increasingly diverse fields of study, and you can see the results of this demographic change in the new lifestyles being led in the country. I was told that parents were generally accepting of this break from tradition, and were being supportive and equally tolerant of a change in attitude. As an observer, yes, this looked like change – but does it run deeper than what is superficially visible? I don’t know. I’m not a member of this society, but the sentiments of those who are definitely speak of change.
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