Dia Film Review: Raw, Emotional and Prescient

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Official poster

I want to start off by apologising. Yes, the site has been left on the back burner. The reason for this is that both me and Nusair, have been struggling to get content out. Life happens sometimes, and your responsibilities get in the way of your goals. And sometimes, your mind cannot cope. The past month was rough. There was a lot to be done, little reprieve and essentially I was completely overwhelmed. And so, I couldn’t focus on reviewing Dia.  Which in my opinion is, arguably, one of the more exciting Pakistani movies of recent times.

But in a way, the fact that I am still coping with my own anxiety, makes this all the more pertinent. Dia is the story of a young woman, who is completely overwhelmed by her own state of mind. 

In the past, I have written about Dia, and Pakistan’s indie film scene as a whole. I was admittedly optimistic about both. Dia, I felt, was a topical film as it delved into how all-encompassing mental illness can be. And indie cinema, as far as I was concerned, reflected the untapped potential of our creative energies.

But, nothing could have prepared me for the experience that was this movie. It is a norm here at The Kollective, to score films. But in this case, I have to make an exception; I cannot score this movie. No one can. All of us, simply, have to watch it.

Breaking The Silence

In May this year, Dia was screened at the International Film Festival of South Asia. It was one of the shorts selected to tap into the topic of mental illness. And amongst a multitude of shorts documentaries and PSAs, Dia definitely stood out.

The short film by Hamza Bangash recounts the story of Mariam. A young student, who is crumbling underneath the claustrophobia of a restrictive personal life. Between an overbearing mother, conservative ideals and a bizarre online romance, Maryam’s mental stability is under siege. To such an extent in fact, that she slowly but surely loses all control.

Nida Khan as Mariam in Dia

Before watching the film, I could tell that it would be topical. Having seen it, I must say that it is much more. It is prescient. There is a plethora of unnerving truths, that Dia forces you to acknowledge. Not just about the taboos surrounding mental illness, but about Pakistan in general. Maryam’s mental frailty is evident from the onset. But, through excellent cinematography, team City Lights also ensures that the precarious realities of middle-class Pakistan are also laid bare.

If any budding filmmaker out there needs a lesson in optimally using their location, they should watch this movie. Every inch of the tiny apartment inhabited by Maryam and her family, is utilized to its full capacity. Awkward camera angles, shots of a family sitting for dinner, even a dingy front door, all of them serve a purpose. They work in tandem with the story. They elicit an emotional response.

An Auteur For The Times

When I wrote about Rang Raaz, I mentioned that Hamza Bangash films always have a tense focal point. There is a tension intrinsic to the worlds that he weaves together. And perhaps because of the subject matter itself, this serves Dia really well. For the runtime of the film, you are literally at the edge of your seats. Mariam is the kind of delicate, cautiously optimistic protagonist that you want to see happy.

But, very soon, you know that this story is not a happy one. Everything is on edge, and anything could tip the balance. In a way, you are waiting for the tipping point. And, when it finally does happen, it is nothing short of jaw-dropping.

While most filmmakers struggle with build-up, Hamza Bangash revels in it. It is amazing, how he is able to use minute details, like skin texture, to craft a narrative. And that too, so effectively that it arrests your attention completely, and even controls your responses. At a crucial point in the movie, I witnessed an entire theater full of people cringe in unison. And, at the risk of being overdramatic, that is cinema.

A Young Talent Shines

Watching this young filmmaker blossom into his own is quite promising. While his work never lacked excellence, it would be fair to say that recently, something has changed. Or rather evolved. The penchant for tightly woven narratives, and searing social commentary is becoming clearer. And as he progresses, the Hamza Bangash brand of cinema is making itself known.

In a nutshell, he tells the stories that strike a chord, in a way that transcends differences. Dia is a very Pakistani story, but it is also a very human story. And it’s message of frailty, helplessness and the need for empathy, cannot be limited.

In fact, when I asked him about the responses, the film’s universal quality wasn’t lost on the storyteller himself. “What I found really interesting,” he said, “was how the film manages to make an emotional connection across borders. From an elderly Swiss-German man approaching me post-screening in Locarno. Telling me that the film reminded him of his son’s struggles with mental illness. To the two middle-aged Memon women who spoke to me following our Karachi Capri screening. They told me they saw themselves in the character of the mom.”

It is an interesting position to be in, because his body of work is creating a reputation of sorts. And as such, the Mr. Bangash seemed humble enough to understand the weight of this. He said that the response to Dia made him nervous.  Because the film, “set a standard and expectations for the kind of work people can expect from me.”

I feel like one of those expectations is that he is the voice of a younger, more intelligent Pakistan. It’s not an easy expectation to meet. But I have faith in this bright, young star.

Laying It Bare

Perhaps my biggest take-away from the film was the honesty with which the story was tackled. It wouldn’t be fair to say that cinema hasn’t showcased mental illness. In fact, many films have had a main-plot to this affect. But here’s the problem; just because something is present in the cinematic zeitgeist, doesn’t mean that it is represented honestly.

Dia Poster

In the case of mental illness, far too often have films depicted it as a terrifying, almost unearthly evil. Reinforcing the stereotypes. We have seen obsessive stalkers. The multiple-personality murder sagas. And the ever elusive, ‘is it mental illness or demonic possession’ trope.

And far too often, what such narratives end up doing, is demonizing mental illness. At the risk of pointing out the obvious, but there is a reason why mental illness is such a taboo. In fact, many of the shorts screened alongside Dia delved into exactly this. There is a culture of dread and suspicion surrounding the topic, and many films have reinforced it.

And I suppose Dia’s greatest triumph is that it avoids this. Yes, it is an atmospheric, and gripping thriller. But, the thrills never come at the expense of the central message. When a particularly unnerving sequence is used, it is to showcase the isolation and confusion of Mariam’s reality. She is not an unearthly evil; she is a young woman struggling with a debilitating illness.

Supporting The Rebels

The ultimate tragedy of indie films in Pakistan is that their genius is rarely realized. I could so easily say this about Dia. On the one hand, no one who has seen it has anything negative to say about the movie. But on the other hand, many people haven’t seen it.

It is still on the festival circuit, and you should follow the City Lights Facebook page to stay updated about future screenings. I also hope that at some point, the film finds a home on a streaming platform, or even television channels. Because, this is one of those few films that has to be seen.

But apart from this one, exceptional film, I also hope that we can start a  broader conversation about indie movies. When asked about the kind of support such films get in Pakistan, Hamza Bangash was a bit disappointed. “Unfortunately there really aren’t any institutions or funds available to support indie cinema.” He said.

An honest answer, and one that cannot come as a surprise.

But, he also pointed out how creative talent in Pakistan continues to persevere. Stating, “many Pakistani filmmakers are doing their very best to put out content.” In return, he said that people in the country can help foster this spirit by supporting indie talent. He hoped that Pakistanis would attend screenings, buy tickets to indie films, and support crowdfunding efforts. Honing in the point, that, “the only way we’ll see diverse cinema in Pakistan is if that cinema is supported!”

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