Black Swan: If only all films were this good

Published: November 4, 2010

Black Swan portrayed the life of a ballet dancer discovering her dark side.

Do you remember the last time you left the cinema shaking with excitement? And not shaking because they put the air conditioning on too high (why do they do that)?

The last time this happened to me was when I left the cinema at midday without an ounce of guilt in my body, after watching a little film called Avatar.

What’s with the presence-or lack thereof-of guilt, you may ask?

Well, I had woken up at 8am, on Mothers’ Day no less, to sit all by my lonesome, in the best seat in the house at the IMAX theatre to watch Avatar. As I put on my large-brimmed 3D dark glasses, I became responsible for delaying our family’s ritual present-giving and annual love-outpouring to our beloved mother, who, incidentally, had to lie in bed for an extra couple of hours just to not break with our tradition of breakfast in bed, until my gleeful, un-guilt-ridden return.

When I sat down to watch the film, I was wracked by the ‘I’m a bad daughter’ conscience prick that middle children still claim ownership over, at an age when we’re definitely supposed to be old enough to know better. This guilt was completely vapourised once the film started, by the intense distraction that is James Cameron’s Avatar.

The film was exceptional, regardless of what people have said, or have repeatedly parroted film critics as saying. Almost a year on and I still get remarks like “Oh, it’s just like Pocahontas” and “Please, anyone could take $237m and make that film, except they’d probably make it better.” And then, as if to add insult to injury, the Academy gives it its biggest and most critical snub, by handing over the most coveted Best Film award in 2010 to Cameron’s ex-wife, Kathryn ‘I will make you Hurt’ Bigelow.

Now, I won’t deny that that film is excellent, but you have to ask why that award was given. Was it because Bigelow made a film that was going to have you on the edge of your seats because of its subject, namely a life-threatening job, or was it because of the topical subject and the guilt (that word sure does make the film industry’s world go round) felt by pretty much all Americans for ignoring their heroes dying in Afghanistan and Iraq? So, was it given for the subject or the subject? Tough call.

I digress.

Back to that feeling. That feeling, whichever film you last had it in, is the same feeling I got as I left Aronofsky’s Black Swan this week-and here’s why.

The film is what every film should be: just the right side of 90 minutes, it maintains suspended disbelief and invites audience subjectivity on the plot.

Before you obliterate my argument: yes, Avatar is the 162 minute long exception that proves this rule.

Black Swan has been described as a ‘psychological thriller’ and yes, it is an edge-of-your-seat rollercoaster ride of a film, but it is so much more.

Like Darren Aronofsky’s previous films, Requiem for a Dream (2000) and The Wrestler (2008), Black Swan focuses on psychological weaknesses that impact the characters’ lives, be they an addiction to drugs, fame or, in Black Swan’s prima ballerina’s case, to perfection.

You don’t have to read up that Aronofsky studied Anthropology (alongside Film and Animation) at Harvard to extrapolate something to that effect from his work. The guy makes brilliant, dark films by concentrating on what makes a film compelling: the characters. It is the characters in Aronofsky’s films that drive the story. They are set up with choices and it is the characters that decide their fate in the film, as opposed to characters reacting when situations arise. Perhaps this is what makes his films so hard to watch and so watchable at the same time.

Once I was (almost) done gushing over the film, my mind began to veer, as it always does, to the inevitable question. Why didn’t I make this film? And then to its ultimate resting place: why isn’t this sort of film being made in Pakistan?

At $10-12m, it is a low-budget film by Hollywood standards, but steep for any non-casting couch abiding filmmaker. But when we strip the film of its Hollywood elements (the stellar cast instantly springs to mind) a film like this could be made on a shoestring budget. Yes, we would need talented actors. Yes, there are ‘scenes’ in it that would be frowned upon by the non-designer beard wearing men, but the fundamental idea is still there.

Why can’t Pakistan make audience-engrossing, multidimensional, psychological thrillers?

I am not one for criticising our film industry and, besides, having lived abroad for over twenty years, what do I really know about it anway?

But what I will say is this: as our industry continues to grow, we need to move away from the staple subjects that are easily digested by mainstream cinema in the west. When was the last time we made a film that didn’t involve politics, religion or India? True, Hammad Khan’s debut feature, Slackistan, focuses on a seldom-explored side of Pakistan- one that we are all too familiar with and which the west is not.

But what does it prove?

What if we stopped proving things and wrote a real story? How about an engrossing narrative that makes the audience forget to question whether the filmmaker is from Pakistan or India? What if they forget that they’re even watching a film?

Too much?

They say an actor is truly brilliant when the audience forgets who he is, whether he is a Pitt or a Clooney.

Why not focus on the positive and get creative? We could make a world for ourselves.

aleyha.ahemed

Aleyha Ahmed

A London-based filmmaker. She has lived in Barcelona, St. Petersburg, Colombo and Karachi and writes on films. She tweets as @aleyhaa (twitter.com/aleyhaa)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Jamal Asfandyar

    Wow. What a boring piece. The “there are ‘scenes’ in it that would be frowned upon by the non-designer beard wearing men” comment illustrates that you have absolutely no idea, and most importantly, no respect for the traditions of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Recommend

  • Spam Robot

    I might watch the film. But Hollywood films are generally very deficient, seldom do they make you think. Even if they make you think, it is on the most trivial of issues. Films are just a form of escapism. Saying all this some films are very well made. I have watched the wrestler and I have just read a review of this film. To me it seems that if you strip it all down the theme is the same. But I will suspend any judgment before I watch it. Theater on the other hand I feel is a more thought provoking medium because you concentrate on theme rather than the theatrics if you may.Recommend

  • parvez

    Liked the write up, liked the thought behind it. Love watching really well made movies.
    Cinema is one medium that has limitless potential for growth in Pakistan.Recommend

  • Sahar

    @Jamal- so typical. You think this Islamic Republic actually follows the principals of Islam? Please. We exhume the bodies of dead people because we don’t agree with the religious beliefs they had when they were alive, we have maids taking care of our children when they’re as young as our children, we have the most corrupt politicians than anywhere else on earth. Women are raped, murdered, mutilated here in the name of Islam. People like you don’t get bothered by such things, it’s scenes in movies and posts on facebook that really get to you.

    Anyway, it was a good read and I hope you keep posting. Pakistan needs film-makers and it needs more women like you. Film, media, journalism, and literature are all ways people before us have used to break stereotypes about themselves. Plus, we really do need comic relief and creative thinking, it seems that we’re stuck in a rut and just going with the motions.Recommend

  • Spam Robot

    @Sahar:

    Haha. “Islamic Republic of Pakistan” really gets your blood boiling. I think Jamal has a fair point. For all you know he volunteers at a woman shelter. I am waiting to be stereotyped and categorized. Please don’t disappoint. Recommend

  • Jamal Asfandyar

    @Sahar:
    “You think this Islamic Republic actually follows the principals of Islam?” – No. But who said anything about whether the state follows the principles of Islam? My comment merely referred to the lack of respect from London based bloggers for our traditionally, conservative society. With all due respect, you seem to have rattled off a litany of injustices prevalent in Pakistan, which you strangely seem to blaming Islam for! If Zardari & Co. are kleptomaniacs, Islam is hardly to blame for.
    “Women are raped, murdered, mutilated here in the name of Islam” – One would need to be a bit nuts to assert that Islam condones rape, murder, mutilation. Which is not to say that they’re aren’t wackos out there who do/say exactly that – I agree.
    “People like you don’t get bothered by such things, it’s scenes in movies and posts on facebook that really get to you.” – That was a bit harsh! Contrary to what you may think, I actually DO get bothered by the injustices you mentioned and i’m actively involved in projects to try to remedy them. Shock, horror…I have views on other stuff too, which is why I commented on the author’s smug and arrogant “non-designer beard wearing men” comment. Peace :)Recommend

  • Sahar

    Typical, yet again.
    Obviously I wasn’t blaming Islam, anyone who is literate would have understood that.
    That’s pretty much the biggest problem with holier than thou people. If you disagree with them over anything, they’re all OMG! O_O! you disagree with ISLAM!
    How convenient.

    I’m blaming the people who don’t know a thing about Islam and walk around pretending like they’re authorities.
    My point was that nothing in Pakistan is done the way it should be in the the light of Islam. We don’t know the concept of cleanliness, honesty, hell we don’t even know how to get in line. No one tries to change all the above, but they throw such a hissy fit when something in a movie or on facebook offends them. There’s bigger fish to fry. Just sayin.

    Peace!Recommend

  • Jamal Asfandyar

    @Sahar
    I think I seem to have offended you – of course you weren’t blaming Islam – I specifically thought you ‘seemed’ to be doing so. Nonetheless, apologies for any (inadvertent) offense caused. The tone of this is getting slightly comical, so in the interests of my NOT being “typical” again, lets agree to disagree – over what i’m exactly not sure – since I broadly agree with you. Go forth, be strong and fry the (big) fish!

    @Spam Robot
    I don’t volunteer for a shelter, but i’ve been working for social projects for the past decade – most of them related to women’s advocacy projects!! Have you been stereotyped yet? lol I don’t want to see you disappointed!!Recommend

  • Sahar

    I’m sorry Aleyha, for ruining your thread with irrelevant bs. Hope you get a better audience next time. Recommend

  • Spam Robot

    @Jamal Asfandyar:

    I have been spared. I feel left out.lol..My only problem with Sahar’s post was the statement “people like you…….” I did not find a reason for her rant but then is there ever one.

    I like differing points of view and opinion.

    @ Sahar Have you seen the movie. What is your opinion? How can our cinema be a catalyst of change in your opinion? Recommend