Yes, Mashal Khan’s story is a difficult watch, but it’s a necessary watch to keep us from forgetting
In April, a deranged mob of college students murdered Mashal Khan, an intelligent, curious, and outspoken journalism student, over views and comments that some regarded as ‘blasphemous’.
The mob-led murder caught the world’s attention after a shakily recorded cell phone video of the lynching went viral.
Just like that, the door had been flung open, exposing the sheer inhumanity and intellectual neglect that constantly simmers below the surface of Pakistani society, even within its supposedly enlightened institutions.
In these past few months, many minutes of prime-time were devoted to and much ink was spilled over Mashal and Pakistan’s notoriously inhumane and antiquated blasphemy laws. This week, the story is back on the world’s radar with the release of a BBC documentary, Murder on Campus.
Clocking in at less than 30 minutes, the documentary is a difficult watch. But this is what makes it worth the viewer’s while.
Admittedly, the BBC documentary chooses to start off on the strength of standard documentary-style fare, wide-angle shots of the college campus where Mashal lived, studied, and ultimately died.
A slow zoom-in on a grave covered in fresh dirt and flowers, a close-up on a crazy impressive amount of trophies in an untouched bedroom. However, the documentary does not mince words nor does it waste much time as it quickly slips into a grittier, gripping and eerier realm.
Without little warning, the viewer is thrust into Mashal’s final moments. We start at a dorm room where Mashal hid after being warned by friends that an angry mob was headed his way. The camera lingers lazily over dinner leftovers still sitting on a messy study desk letting one briefly imagine an alternate reality in which a prone-to-disarray college student has abandoned his meal and only just recently stepped out for class.
Any hopes of a different, more better reality are quickly dashed when we follow the heavily splattered trail of bloodstains – the remnants of Mashal’s final journey as he was dragged from his room into a hallway, shot two times, and then dragged down several flights of stairs into a courtyard where his body was stripped naked, spat at, and beaten with planks.
At this point in the documentary, it’s too late for the squeamish or weak-at-heart viewer to get off of the ride. The documentary sinks in its tenterhooks and then wastes no time in using the two powerful longstanding tactics of the advertising and media world – emotive imagery and shock value – to bring to life a situation that all of us have read about and imagined to be true.
We hear from Mashal’s family, from his best friend, and most unsettling of all, we hear from the father of one of the accused who calmly justifies his son’s barbaric actions.
Yes, the story of Mashal’s life and death is hard to watch. But by building a balanced narrative and by matching up images, people and places with what we have read, seen on screens, or imagined, the documentary manages to capture reality far more effectively than any amount of articles, photographs or even a few seconds of shaky cell phone footage ever could.
Anyone who has picked up the phone and sent money to Africa after watching a 15-second advert of a doe-eyed starving child knows that shock value can be a very handy tool to raise public consciousness and nudge people into action. And anyone who has turned on a television or read a newspaper in the last century knows that trying to protect the public from disturbing images is an editorial pipe dream.
Nowadays, people yearn to feel deeply about tragedies. We want to be able to match up images with what we have heard or read. Most importantly, we want to know what we don’t know. When we are made aware of a situation, we stop and wonder if there is anything else we are missing.
That is why this visual retelling of Mashal’s story is both timely and important.
By walking us through a still bloodied crime scene, by zooming in on the frail face of Mashal’s father, and by letting the words of a man reverberate in our living rooms as he justifies his son’s murderous actions, the BBC isn’t just trying to hit some arbitrary benchmark of increased revenue and viewership.
What we are seeing is a deliberate, mindful and calibrated play at using shock value and emotive imagery to get us to notice, to get us talking, and most importantly, to keep us from forgetting.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.