BFI Flare Film Festival Preview: Poshida (Faizan Fiaz)

It’s almost time for the BFI Flare Film Festival. Lee Williscroft-Ferris sits down to watch Poshida, a documentary by British-Pakistani filmmaker, Faizan Fiaz, which depicts the grim realities of everyday life for LGBT people in the South Asian nation.

My beautiful lover has come home.
Come and congratulate me, all of you.
My beautiful lover has come home.
The lover I have been seeking is the one I have found at last.
My beautiful lover has come home.
My courtyard looks more beautiful now.
The glow on my face is bright.
My beautiful lover has come home.

Poshida is the Urdu word for ‘invisible’. Visibility is a relative concept. In making Poshida, director Faizan Fiaz has shone a spotlight on the tenuous, divergent freedom accorded to members of Pakistan’s LGBTQ+ community. At just over 28 minutes long, it presents a moving, albeit curt insight into the everyday lives and challenges faced without indulging in melodrama or pornographic depictions of phobic violence.

The complexities of LGBTQ+ rights in Pakistan are conveyed through an engaging mix of personalities from across the spectrum of gender and sexual identities, and, crucially, from across the hierarchical strata of Pakistani society. This lends the documentary a well-researched, in-depth tone. Poshida does not stray into a predictable caricature of Pakistan’s  culture and people; there is nuance to be found – an ingrained acknowledgement of diversity of experience and a welcome sideswipe at an insidious colonial legacy.

Homosexuality remains illegal and taboo in Pakistan (“Gays are an evil of the west”.), meaning that lesbian and gay people avoid living openly for fear of rejection, discrimination and violence. There is a clear distinction made between the socio-cultural situation in which LGB people find themselves, compared to that of trans Pakistanis, the latter of whom ‘enjoy’ a modicum of very superficial ‘tolerance’. Indeed, as Fiaz highlights, trans people are a visible minority and have campaigned successfully for recognition of a ‘third gender’. Nevertheless, a timely reality check is delivered by Shafique, who laments the appalling lack of employment opportunities, constrained to ‘cleaning and begging’ and to project a cisnormative outward appearance.

As one might expect, religion lies at the heart of the issues. Fawzia Mirza, a Canadian-Pakistani actress, describes the relative freedom during a ‘golden age’ in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, prior to the dawn of conservative ‘Islamisation’. A fascinating flip side is revealed, however, by way of a brief yet insightful introduction to sufism, the inner mystical dimension of Islam; spirituality with which, according to our narrator, ‘same-sex love has always been intertwined’ in Pakistan. A sufi shrine dedicated to two men, readily described as ‘lovers’ by worshippers, provides enduring physical evidence of homosexuality’s lengthy history. Asim hammers the point home by accusing Koran-wielding bigots of warping the story of Sodom and Gomorrah ‘to further their own agenda’. Meanwhile, Zainab, complete with a fabulous mop of lilac hair, insists on the importance of her faith (” Some of my experiences have lead me to be closer to him.”)

That said, Poshida does not seek to depict Pakistan as a misperceived bastion of social, if not legal, acceptance. To the contrary, the country’s simmering tensions on the issue of LGBTQ+ rights are exposed at regular intervals; there is no dissembling. When Mirza touches on the topic of lesbian intimacy before an audience in Lahore, there is a mass exodus from the venue. Malik, a young trans man, breaks down in tears as he recounts his journey through being forced  by his family to split up with his girlfriend, running away together and eventually being tracked down by his brother and brothers-in-law who threaten to take Malik’s girlfriend from him, ‘dead or alive’.

poshida poster PR

Pakistan’s media clearly remains stubbornly hostile towards LGBTQ+ people, exemplified by its biased reporting of a spate of killings of gay men (“The media focussed less on the tragedy of three deaths and more on gay people”.) and one particular TV channel’s penchant for harassing trans women, invading their homes and reporting them to the police, all in the name of ‘entertainment’. Poshida is no more forgiving of the historical role played by the British colonial authorities in the oppression of diverse gender identities. Unwelcome interference from western nations continues to backfire on Pakistan’s LGBTQ+ community, often with the most heinous consequences. It is no coincidence that the aforementioned killing spree took place in the aftermath of a diplomatic furore caused by a ‘Pride’ press release published by the US embassy.

An accurate, adequate analysis of any social theme in this part of the world can not afford to omit class and wealth as key factors. While those from more deprived backgrounds speak of poverty, invisibility and ostracisation, a well-known talk show host, Ali Saleem, who self-identifies as ‘man/woman’, refutes the allegation that Pakistan is an ‘intolerant country’. The egotistical privilege hits the viewer squarely between the eyes. Saleem’s celebrity status has patently blinded them to the harsh realities of life for their LGBTQ+ compatriots (“The western world has it all wrong. Pakistan loves me. I’ve never received one death threat”.). Jannat, conversely, harbours a burning ambition to become ‘the most highly educated trans woman in the world’, to enable her to teach others. The disparate visions and experiences at play are remarkable.

Poshida is beautifully filmed, opening with the lines at the top of this post, spoken gently over stunning images of birds gliding over lush green mountainsides. The artistic decision to film the participants’ contributions in what appears to be their own environment adds to the core of authenticity. Furthermore, Fiaz succeeds in serving up a comprehensive illustration of LGBTQ+ ‘life’ in less than half an hour. Yet, the viewer is left wanting more, such is the thought-provoking imprint of the film. Poshida never shies away from the truth; it fearlessly confronts the mammoth task faced by Pakistan’s LGBTQ+ community while simultaneously refusing to permit the western viewer to smugly judge from afar.

As narrator Asifa Lahore, of Muslim Drag Queens fame concludes before the credits roll, “LGBT Pakistan does its best to survive”.

Poshida screens at the BFI Flare Film Festival on 19, 20 and 23 March 2016. Click here for more information.

Follow Lee on Twitter (@calamospondylus)

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