Darling dares

November 10, 2019

What did Darling do right, and what can we learn from its coveted win at the Venice International Film Festival?

Darling, Lahore-based director Saim Sadiq’s short film about a young boy named Shani (Abdullah Malik) who falls for his transgender friend Alina (Alina Khan) while trying to help her audition for a dance show, recently won the prestigious Orizzonti Award for Best Short Film at the Venice International Film Festival. It is not often that we hear of such accolades being awarded to Pakistani works of art, particularly those surrounding progressive and controversial topics. So, what did Darling do right and what can we learn from its coveted win?

At first glance, this might seem like yet another attempt to appeal to a growing socially conscious audience. However, upon watching the film, you are proved wrong. The film does not take the predictable path of exploring Alina’s life and struggles as a trans woman, but Shani’s internal conflict with his own sexual ambiguity, as he questions the roots of his attraction for her.

At an exclusive event recently, I had a chance to meet Sadiq who said, "Our film wasn’t made to bring about any social change; we had other cinematic ambitions. The purpose of this film is to make you feel uncomfortable." To its credit, the film does this beautifully. We are taken on a journey full of wit and humour, and also discomfort and confusion, as we live vicariously through adolescent Shani’s sexual awakening.

In winning the international accolade, this 16-odd minutes long film tries to subtly reshape how trans people are represented in media. As an avid consumer of popular culture, growing up in the late ‘90s and 2000s, I found no shortage of inaccurate and downright horrific depictions of trans people in media. In Hollywood, two disturbing polarities existed: either they are demonised and portrayed as horrifying villains or they are comedic stereotypes with offensive, transphobic humour directed their way. Due to this constant reiteration of harmful myths and tropes, a sustained ‘othering’ became associated with the trans society and ingrained in the minds of those who grew up consuming this entertainment, where trans people were seen outside the realm of normality.

In recent years, there has been a positive shift in this ‘trend’. Critically acclaimed movies like The Danish Girl or Dallas Buyers Club, both of which won Oscars in their time, have been paramount in developing how we view the trans community. However, the problem persists, as both the movies feature a cisgender lead playing the role of the transgender. While having trans characters certainly contributes to trans visibility, a major part of integrating them into mainstream culture is casting trans leads, thereby providing them with equal opportunities in entertainment and introducing the audience to trans people they can look up to. That’s where I think Darling does it right -- the film marks Alina Khan’s acting debut!

Pakistan’s track record when it comes to the treatment of transgender community is abysmal, to say the least. With no official figures even existing for trans individuals, they are forced to live on the peripheries of society. From being denied basic human rights to being brutally abused and even murdered, finding steady work for trans individuals has hitherto seemed impossible.

The past few years have seen some strides for the trans community. In 2018, our parliament passed a bill that granted transgender people basic human rights, and outlawed discrimination from employers and private business owners. It also allows people to self-identify their genders on official documents, including national identification cards, passports and drivers’ licences.

All this is bound to do wonders for trans visibility. In the following months, we have already seen trans people running for parliament and even debuting as TV anchors -- a massive step up from the menial begging or sex-worker positions they’re often relegated to.

Introducing them to roles in film and television would further encourage them to seek out jobs. Sadiq expanded on this point by saying that he hoped to see more people cast Alina in their productions.

I would personally love to see her cast as a cis-gendered character, given how stunning, captivating and staggeringly talented she is.

Darling dares