July Issue 2012

By | Arts & Culture | Movies | Published 7 years ago

“Getting High on Occupy” and “How to Dress Like a Christian” are just a couple of recent articles from the New York-based Vice magazine. But don’t let the irreverent tone and often NSFW content fool you. The magazine regularly covers serious news stories and for the past few years Vice has been making documentaries on some of the most dangerous places in the world for its Vice Guide to Travelseries.

It is therefore unsurprising that after the likes of Somalia and North Korea, the magazine eventually made a pit stop in Karachi. And the documentary, which can be streamed on their website and YouTube, is 42 minutes of drugs and thugs, bad cops and mafia dons, crocodiles and Kalashnikovs.

The Vice Guide to Karachi may annoy you. The documentary doesn’t wax poetic about finding beauty in squalor nor does it look for local heroes to shower accolades on. Rather, it mainly consists of Vice co-founder Suroosh Alvi, a Pakistani-Canadian journalist, walking into some of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods and interviewing people in heavily-accented Urdu. There is an air of nonchalance, even arrogance, as Alvi and his team walk around with young men hurling Molotov cocktails in the streets of Lyari at three in the morning or as they joke about getting killed while the police search for terrorists in Orangi Town.

But again, don’t let the tone (or accents) fool you. Alvi may be new to Karachi but he has travelled extensively in Pakistan and he carefully breaks down the biggest conflicts in the city, making them understandable to not just foreigners but also to those Karachiites who know little of what happens outside Defence or Clifton.

Vice favours the ‘Immersionist’ school of journalism, which means that the writing is very personal with no pretence of being objective — a quality also found in its documentaries. When Vice, along with other camera crews from various news channels, is invited by the police to tag along on a raid, Alvi likens the experience to being in a cop movie “with buffoon cops nobody wants to work with.” And while local cameramen clamour to get the best footage, Alvi stands at the back and dryly summarises the strategy for the raid as, “No camera left behind.”

He interviews all the key players in Karachi from Faisal Subzwari of the MQM to Uzair Baloch of the banned People’s Amn Committee. The Vice team also manages to get a ride with PPP MPA Nabeel Gabol as he makes a rare visit to Lyari, in a bulletproof car of course, and they later sit with junkies shooting up heroin on a pavement in broad daylight. We meet a target killer who cannot sleep at night and visit a junkyard that looks straight out of a post-apocalyptic movie. And for naysayers who want more of the ‘positive’ side of the city, there is bonus footage which shows Vice hanging out with young underground musicians and aspiring graphic designers at the MAD School in Zamzama.

The handheld camerawork and candid commentary prevent the film from having the staged, overtly dramatised feeling other documentaries succumb to. And although the documentary is divided into various segments, the episodic structure works since it captures the energy and madness of the city.

This movie review was originally published in the July issue of Newsline under the headline “Of Vice and Virtue.”

Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.