The first 40 seconds of the roughly 14-minute-long short film SWIPE are dedicated to crows, a species endemic to any city in Pakistan. Crows are to Pakistani skies what dogs are to its streets. The crows of SWIPE, however, serve as ominous symbolism, a foreboding of sorts: we see them perched on electric transmission lines witnessing – no, spying – on the passersby below. When they eat the carelessly strewn bits of food on the streets, it is as if they are vultures capable of feasting on the human condition, given the leeway. Needless to say, the crows represent the thousands of users of iFatwa, a new app on the block that has become a rage amongst teenagers and octogenarians alike.
SWIPE (2020) is a dystopian, hand-painted animated short film by the Puffball Studios, which, a few months prior, blessed us with Shehr-e-Tabassum – a similarly disturbing portrait of future Pakistan, where the toxic mix of technology and extremism has produced less than savoury results. The influences there were clearly cyberpunk, inspired by Blade Runner 2049 and other futuristic Hollywood films. SWIPE, however, is singularly desi, not just in the premise of the app but more strikingly, is its accurately vernacular milieu. It is as if a Black Mirror episode got a Pakistani makeover with a literal 'trial by social media' as its premise.
iFatwa works like a basic tender app. Instead of attractive humans, you get potentially blasphemous cases; anything from a paan-eating bride to a rejection of Ajwa dates is game. Some cases that made me chuckle involved a man accused of not forwarding a religious WhatsApp text and another, for disrespecting the hurs (beautiful women) of heaven by limiting their waist size to 30 inches. The app design comes alive with these authentic touches. The usernames on the app are equally fitting and hilariously appropriate, with names like 'daler devil' and 'baji barkat' scoring high on the Ajar Board – a result card where users with the most points (the most right swipes) are awarded the title of Ghazi. Swiping right, you guessed it, means passing a religious death sentence for the person involved in the case, rendering him or her Wajib-ul-Qatl – a term so self-consciously authoritarian that its contrast with the juvenile layout of the app and the puerility of its 'judges' passing the sentences feels unsettlingly idiotic. Clearly, swiping left, or granting clemency to the accused, is the less popular option reserved only for the sissies.
Each frame of SWIPE is a sensory overload of information. I had to freeze each frame to fully grasp the depth of environment design on display. The family pictures in the house of one of the users reflect the all too relatable progression of a middle-class family: a young couple made up of a skinny wife and a thick-haired husband transforming into an enormously proportioned mother and a balding father, a few years and two children down the line. The sound design by Biiro and Umer feels like the duo recorded every sound in my gully and used it for the film. Everything from the din of hawkers to engines revving, from horns to the nostalgically familiar ice-cream truck tune, adds to the lived-in-ness of the world of SWIPE. Even the outdoor scenes reflect the thought put in by the designers (most of them women): public spaces are mostly occupied by men while female users of the app are mostly relegated to interiors of bedrooms and rickshaws to send their nemeses to the gallows.
The film is animated, scored, voiced and designed under one roof: Puffball studios. Arafat Mazhar, the brain behind it, is credited with directing, producing, conceptualising and writing the film. He also sang two songs that bookend the film: Ahmed Faraz's 'Mat Qatal Karo Awazon Ko', which provides a lilting lyricism to the whole scenario, and his own composition, 'Ye Kaun Hai', a pseudo-rap lament that scores the end credits. Mazhar, if it is not already obvious, is a renaissance man; someone this writer had the good fortune of briefly interacting with at the screening of Shehr-e-Tabassum last year at the British Council, Lahore. While the lockdown hasn't allowed this film to tour around the country like that one did, SWIPE, by its timely subject matter and plea for empathy, has found relevance nonetheless in the lockdown era of excessive social media consumption. It has been featured on Hyperallergic, an international art magazine, with a rave review – and rightly so.
The physical bandwidth of shorts is, by design, not equipped to explore socio-political complexities of deep-rooted cultural epidemics like religious intolerance. What we see, and must be content with, is a filmable resolution (or the lack of one). Very few shorts can evoke the sense of a history to a problem, let alone an entire culture of mob madness. A dramatic awakening or a blanket solution, thus, are not only fruitless to attempt, but these devices also dilute the whole buildup of the short. Important does not always mean good. Cultural conversations around blasphemy laws and the growing misery of lower middle classes are the need of the hour. SWIPE, thankfully, avoids such pitfalls by not going down the rabbit hole of social message posturing, but instead sticking to its primarily audiovisual grammar to grant us, the now queasy viewers, a soothing way out, through the reassuring poignancy of Faraz's words. Music, indeed, heals when all else fails.