Joyland, cannes 2022

Director: Saim Sadiq
Writer: Saim Sadiq
Cast: Sania Saeed, Ali Junejo, Rasti Farooq, Alina Khan, Sarwat Gilani, Salmaan Peerzada, Sohail Sameer
Cinematographer: Joe Saade
Editor: Saim Sadiq

Joyland is the feature film debut of Saim Sadiq, one of Pakistan’s most dazzling and defiant directorial voices. In 2019, Saim’s short film Darling won the Orizzonti Award for Best Short Film at the Venice Film Festival. It was the first Pakistani film to be screened there. Joyland is the first Pakistani feature film to make the official selection at Cannes. Like in Darling, Lahore’s erotic dance theatre and trans actor Alina Khan play a key role. But Joyland is a keener, deeper and contrary to the name, more tragic exploration of femininity, masculinity, freedom and repression.

Joyland is the story of Haider, the younger son in a middle-class Lahore family. His wife, older brother, sister-in-law and their four daughters live under the shadow of his overbearing and demanding wheelchair-bound father. Haider has been unemployed for a few years. He’s genial and compliant and the default errand boy for the household. In many ways, he reminded me of Shutu in A Death in the Gunj. But Haider’s life takes a complicated turn when he gets a job as a background dancer at an erotic theatre and becomes mesmerized by Biba, a trans dancer who is desperately looking to establish herself as a hot draw at the establishment.

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The beauty of Joyland is that though it is Haider’s story, Saim’s screenplay skillfully weaves in the desires and wounds of several characters, including a neighbour – a widow who comes over, a little too often. The woman, who first comes off as a busybody, has a heartbreaking moment of confession, which gives us an insight into her abject loneliness. This is Saim’s superpower as a storyteller – his compassionate gaze humanizes every character in the frame. There are no villains here – even the father, ultimately, is a victim of the toxic patriarchy of this society.

Saim tells this story with stillness. There are several continuous tracking shots but mostly the camera stays static or moves stealthily toward faces. Almost as if Saim is urging us to probe deeper. He is keenly observant of the deep-set biases we carry and the harshness with which we judge each other. In this social order, women are clearly subservient but that doesn’t stop them from looking down on a transwoman. There are hierarchies within the hierarchy.

Joyland isn’t shrill about its concerns. The actors – Ali Junejo, Salmaan Peerzada, Sarwat Gilani, Sania Saeed and Alina – deliver emotionally resonant performances. With poetry and abiding melancholy, Joyland creates a poignant portrait of a splintered family.

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