A provocative attempt at creative pragmatism

While the tech-age audience generally fails to grasp the context, it is the ostracisation of a certain class — an erasure of the ethnic lexicon – that indicts Midsummer Chaos as liberal propaganda in the minds of the majority

A provocative attempt at creative pragmatism

In episode four of Midsummer Chaos, a boy gazes at the mirror, tuned-out of the world, tuned-in to himself, creating his own identity. He’s discovering himself, bare. He’s reclaiming his childhood, the one he bemoans having lost to absent parents. He’s distant from everything else, the background recedes, until a figment of his imagination, a lady in white, emblematic of the Oracle of Delphi (played by Mehar Bano), appears and brings him back into the world. It’s as if he is Ali Baba, discovering a treasure-trove of secrets. His childhood is the ‘open sesame’ to the cave of his dreams: a happy family and contentment – expensive cars, a sexy girlfriend and the usual luxuries of his life notwithstanding. The possibilities are endless.

Writer and director Ahmed Sarym’s serial, available now on YouTube, is an indie production – a genre that I have always felt defines cinema. Indie efforts push the envelope of cinema, operating as they do outside of financial, social and technological constraints. Alas, the constraints here are creative. They are brutally wrought out by the directors, actors, editors, cinematographers and sound designers. There’s unity in this effort. I am not trying to put anything down. There is beauty in simply putting things in front of the camera, creating moving pictures out of them. This is a thing viewing itself. Cinema allows for us to do away with discourse, with the individual’s voice of it – for example, silence is a big motif in cinema. It reveals what a thousand pages of exposition might try to get at, but fail to achieve. Unfortunately, in this conflict, Midsummer Chaos is a propaganda film on behalf of exposition.

Naturally, the series is a failure, in so far as it betrays every rule imaginable in cinema, and not in the maverick manner of anyone acclaimed. It is pure artifice, and it bears the singular honour of being untainted by the whiff of any screenplay. At the same time, is it really fair to take this as cinema? Is it not a testament to the genre of Vlogs on a medium dedicated (mostly) to short films? On its own terms, Midsummer Chaos is an amateur attempt. It is an indie attempt at a film written in flowing capitals, with the luscious strokes of a filmmaker on the cusp of starting out. It finds itself on a platform bedecked with precedent, assailed from all sides with the work of creators commemorated already. And so, the first tendency is to try to play something new, or to “fan out” or to imitate without acknowledging the fragile mosaic of techniques and emotions of its antecedents. Art is as much a function of context, as it is a function of reality. And here, the afflictions of this production prove dastardly.

The lack of plot prevents the audience from underpinning anything in our uncertainty about the character. Ordinarily, the emotional trap stems from periodic conflicts that allow one to witness the expression of a character. When the characters are all expressed from the outset however, they are devoid of expression and thus, passion and beauty. Every time Haris (Mustafa Babar) looks at Alynah (Hiba Ajaz), the certainty that she is not in love with him is written on his face. The beauty lies in our uncertainty about Alynah’s feelings, but we are clear that it is as devoid of emotion as Haris’s. Thus, in Midsummer Chaos, there is no characterisation. We only witness two objects looking at each other.

Jealousy, contempt, affection and confusion are all viewed through the same lens. While this may be intentional, the natural movements of the interior life of characters change through conflict, which comes out with good direction, which is impossible without a good script. It would be useless to try to present something as it is, without taking us into the psychological morass of each character. Humans are not one-dimensional; even their perceived one-dimensionality is the result of coping mechanisms, complex impulses and socio-cultural practices.

Midsummer Chaos hit the YouTube stage and received massive attention, most of it negative, during the pandemic. Though the response was anything but muted, the show has continued to embody a provocateur’s tongue. To start with, the coming-of-age drama shows the characters, mostly upper-middle class, pontificating about identity and exploring their sensory parameters, with heady cocktails of accented English, “drinks” and “smokes”. These are young Islamabadis, living in luxurious and complacent suburbia, decadent farmhouses and frequenting trendy restaurants.

Close-ups abound and the visuals feel claustrophobic. The set design signals familiarity with Western pop culture; posters of James Bond hang on the walls of Haris’s house. These retro posters that bring to mind the family dramas of Baumbach, or a Brooklyn apartment, are obviously hampered by the pesky detail that the series is shot and filmed in Pakistan. This is perhaps a function of streaming services, which allow for the possibility of a global audience.

It also means that the series is strung away from any reminder of the country it was shot in. The roads are clean and carpeted, as the capital in any developed nation is bound to be. It could be San Francisco, or any standard, modern city. At the same time, “the woke” socio-cultural mindset is far from extracted. Ironically, it is a very primal show that peeks out at us from beneath this modern exterior: Sameer portrays a toxic mindset that is enabled by everyone around him, including his mother Maryam (Arjumand Rahim) and his conceding girlfriend, Ushna (Mamia Shajaffar).

Woke-ness does not come from an absence of the notion of accountability. On the contrary, it propels it to the centre of intellectual evolution. The power to recognise and comment on the fluidity of these narratives – toxic masculinity and misogyny – comes from a conservative family: a singular scene, which shows Ushna donning a headscarf before entering her house, is at the centre of the show’s commentary on freedom and femininity. Where on one hand, the debate over the Domestic Abuse Bill is creating waves in all segments of this society, some selective woke-ness is also more trigger-happy, which is why the idea of an “immoral” younger generation, influenced by the West, has become a counter-current to any progress. It is hardly a mystery, then, that the response to Midsummer Chaos is so harsh in certain sectors. While the tech-age audience, inundated by content from Netflix to Amazon Prime, generally fails to grasp context, it is the ostracisation of a certain class – an erasure of the ethnic lexicon – that indicts Midsummer Chaos as liberal propaganda in the minds of the majority.

Set in an insular, echo chamber of the upper class, it’s characters wear the visages of adultery, elitism and misogyny, perhaps reflective of the culture we are all part of and passive contributors to. However, it fails to provide any dramatisation to that effect. It feigns ignorance of the complex issues it claims to be addressing. It creates illusions and a logic of its own: Cheating on one’s partner is compared to “shopping” by Salman (Fawad Jalal), while Sameer displays contempt for everyone beneath his “status” as an Instagram star.

It is perfectly fine to have characters display realism; expressionist cinema was its biggest proponent, and we have examples of films refusing to disguise the moral quandaries of society, but none were as ridiculously and audaciously oblivious to their own project. Emotion in expressionism is used as a natural corollary to purpose, not impetuous, angsty passion that serves no purpose. Everything rings false then, and even Mehar Bano – hair wild, dress white, the archetypal grieving Madonna – becomes an eyesore. She prefers to present an alter ego to Haris, moving the plot forward by giving him straight answers to his straight questions: the conflict resolved, the doubts eliminated and the heart yielded without struggle. Unfortunately, there is no excuse for lazy storyboarding.

Those who have accused the contemptible in Midsummer Chaos do so mainly because of its lack of touch with the masses. Though the dialogues are unnecessarily bombastic, and their constant preoccupation with mirroring random scenes from Netflix’s Riverdale seems laborious, I applaud the team for their stylisation of attitude. There too, the camera and script defy reality. Why, here, is the familiar so jarring? The point of Riverdale, and other shows being put up as a defence for Midsummer Chaos’s chaotic segments, is that their freshness comes from the subject being the motive for the mise-en-scene, and not the other way around. Petty self-obsession is a risk we run when making anything creative, but here it risks the plot ending up nowhere.

Yet, I find myself enjoying the boxed-up visuals and closeted claustrophobia of this dim and intriguing effort. It is nearly a guilty pleasure, considering its reception from the audience. The eponymous struggle of this series, chaos, it does achieve; look at the stretches of barren roads, the grainy footage of the standard subscriber to new-age media and the un-tempered attempt by a group of people to flirt with art. There are possibilities, but they can only be explored once the screen enters the present, and enters what it knows, instead of going after templates and dialogues from a euro-centric context. This liaison with new forms is exciting. The shortcomings of this endeavour are not for lack of imagination, and the banishment of this source of frivolous pleasure is an unfair response. Midsummer Chaos has a certain chutzpah and an enthusiasm for creating what is more than a mere trifle.

The writer is a student of history and comparative literature at LUMS

A provocative attempt at creative pragmatism