What makes a story true?

A Sundance film imagines conversations between a ship berthed at Gadani and the labourers who come to break it


STORYTELLERS HAVE LONGblurred the line between fact and fiction, setting into motion myths, legends, and tales that have trickled down through the centuries not because they are real, but because they are true. When it comes to reportage, playing with facts, which inform and can protect or empower an audience, is dangerous. But in other forms of storytelling, facts can only go so far—they deliver what is visible to the eye, what is quantifiable, what can be known, yet they often elude the perspective of what is inanimate, or the emotions that lurk beneath the surface, driving everything. In contemporary times, there is a renewed necessity to this blurring—in her 2020 Clark Lecture in English Literature, Arundhati Roy wrote that fiction is uniquely positioned to challenge fascism, because it “has the capaciousness, the freedom and latitude, to hold out a universe of infinite complexity”.

There is, however, a responsibility that comes with the freedom to imagine, itself a privilege, making the enterprise of telling stories that are not your own an increasingly delicate matter. As populist governments seize control of societies across the globe, there is a surge—both of policies designed to cause harm to already marginalised populations and of grassroots, citizen-led protests against these policies; it is a time of oppression and uprising in equal measure. Against this backdrop, there is a growing interest in the stories of the so-called peripheral, as well as an urgent debate about who has the right to tell these stories. Nothing encapsulates these trends better than the furore around the outsized reception to American Dirt, a novel about a mother and son who flee Mexico for America that has been derided by critics as ‘trauma porn’, exploiting another country’s pain. Fiction “requires imagining an “other” of some kind,” Parul Seghal wrote in her review of the novel in The New York Times. “The caveat is to do this work of representation responsibly, and well.” 

IN ALL THAT PERISHES AT THE EDGE OF LAND (2019), a work of docu-fiction that recently screened at Sundance, Lahore-based filmmaker Hira Nabi blurs the line between fact and fiction. Set in Gadani, Balochistan, one of the largest shipbreaking yards in the world, the film zooms in on the labourers who dismantle these vessels, while receiving unsatisfactory safety gear and a meagre wage.

“The one thing I was willing to trust was my body. The first time I visited, my head started hurting within an hour.”

Gadani is complicated, and Nabi navigates these complications through several key choices. The most notable of these is the anthropomorphisation of Ocean Master, the bulk carrier vessel dismantled over the course of the film, and whose story is narrated by a female voiceover. It’s a style that can be described as magical realist—infusing an “unbelievable” element into a realistic setting, creating a surreal overall effect—but Nabi hesitates to box her film into the docu-fiction category, preferring to see it instead as a documentary driven by narrative, an effort to create a cinematic experience that immerses its audience to the point where they forget where they are. Giving the ship life was a strategic way to achieve this effect, but it simultaneously allowed Nabi to remove an element she did not want present: herself.

Stills from All That Perishes at the Edge of Land (2019) | Courtesy Hira Nabi

Earlier iterations of the film featured Nabi recounting the stories she had heard while visiting Gadani, but also speaking about the effect it had on her. Statements and testimonies differed: if the facts at hand live on a sliding scale, whom do you trust? “The one thing I was willing to trust was my body. The first time I visited, my head started hurting within an hour,” said Nabi. “The air was heavy, but not in the sense that I was struggling to draw breaths. It was heavy with metal, and it settled somewhere. There was something at the site that was producing a reaction in me, that was producing pain. I could get into a car and leave, but what about somebody who has to work there and has to deal with it, somebody who can’t leave?”

“What Nabi records is a result of time spent with a still camera, waiting for an image to reveal itself, the way a fisherman waits for his catch.”

The labourers liked this initial version of the film: they were used to being unheard, but had faith that a woman from the city, with a full education and a different language, would be listened to. This is where privilege is useful: when it is deployed after consent given, laced with hope. But that was still too easy for Nabi, who wanted to create something more multifaceted than a didactic film: “These workers, though just hours away from Karachi, are completely forgotten. But at the same time, nobody is thinking about the fact that there are no fish in the water, or testing the sand, or how the air has changed. [These elements] are completely mute.” Giving Ocean Master a voice was an epiphany that came suddenly: why not remove herself, and put into conversation two forces that were destroying each other, and neither of their own free will? 

What resulted was far from a direct conversation, orchestrated through a neat exchange of experiences. Instead, the film is collectively narrated by a cacophony of disembodied voices, that play over footage that is meditative, that capture both chaos and calm, the violence of the ship being hacked to scraps and the constant tranquillity of the water that buoys it. Nabi’s approach to documentary-making is to witness and to archive, in a way that is acutely sensorial—what she records is a result of time spent with a still camera, waiting for an image to reveal itself, the way a fisherman waits for his catch. All That Perishes was shot over the course of many months, beginning in January and ending in September. It is an archive of seasons and of returns, of efforts to find and settle on a form, of showing up and winning trust. 

The slowness of this process reveals Gadani’s unexpected beauty—which Nabi saw on her first visit, when the massive silhouette of the ship blew her away. Her reaction is understandable—it is almost impossible not to feel awestruck when confronted by the sheer size of the vessels, the rusting shackles that anchor it, the fraying sandals of the workers, the unyielding rhythm of the sea, all of it arresting and incongruous at once. The relationship between the site’s physical beauty and the havoc it wreaks is complicated: how can a place that harbours such harm be beautiful—and more critically, who is seeing this beauty and why? 

“Humans… are enamored with ruin porn,” Kate Wagner writes in her essay, Staring at Hell. Quoting Edmund Burke, she continues: “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” 

“How can a place that harbours such harm be beautiful—and more critically, who is seeing this beauty and why?” | Courtesy Hira Nabi 

It is not just Gadani, with its rusting maritime murder, that constitutes a “sublime ruin”—these are everywhere in Pakistan, in so many more forms than just architectural or urban. Ruin, or visible destruction, is everywhere, for people are everywhere in greater numbers than can be sustained, causing infrastructure to crumble, and bodies to collide in messy and furious ways. Nabi’s striving to capture the sublime is an effort to capture the scale of ruin in all its grisly glory, but it is equally an effort to reveal the nuances of ruin, the humanity within its folds: the moments away from the shackles and the sparks, when the water is chasing the shore, when the sky wears the universally forgiving lavender of dusk, when a thread of birds cuts across the horizon—these belong to the labourers before they belong to the camera. 

“We do not see his face … a choice that gives the labourers privacy—in a landscape where they are anonymous, this feels like an ironic gift of dignity.” 

Through taking the time to see the beauty in the landscape, Nabi’s film takes the time to see the beauty within the people who inhabit it.  “To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed,” Susan Sontag wrote in her seminal On Photography. “Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder—a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.” 

“Perhaps in a year or two, or four, we may reach a stage where our children will have lives in which they will not suffer like us,” one of the labourers says before breaking into sobs. We do not see his face, neither when he is speaking nor when he is weeping, a deliberate move: both to protect identity, as well as to reiterate the condition of alienation, of each day bleeding imperceptibly into the next. It is a choice that gives the labourers privacy—in a landscape where they are anonymous, this feels like an ironic gift of dignity. 

The majority of the labourers at Gadani come there from elsewhere, according to Nabi, which transforms it into a site heaped with longing, filled with men who have travelled the length of the country to do back-breaking, life-threatening work. It is nobody’s home, but everybody there is working to serve, to preserve, the home they have come from. And in that effort, that striving to survive, they are themselves breaking down, inhaling and absorbing asbestos that will crumble them from within, shaving years off the span of their lives. For what? “They leave behind so much, make these sacrifices, for this idea, for hope and optimism. Let me go work there and something will come out of it.”  It is less a film about suffering than it is about the desire to be emancipated from it, even if the coming of that freedom takes time. 

ALL THAT PERISHESis not explicitly angry, perhaps because it’s hard to know whom to blame first. The labourers are dismantling the ship, but the ship is releasing fumes that will, in time, dismantle them. Together, they are poisoning the water in which they stand, chasing away the fish that have swum there for centuries. And yet, neither the labourers nor the ship want to be where they are: “I might even claim your life,” the ship narrates towards the end of the film, addressing the labourer. “But this is not my wish. I am not cruel, nor do I harbour ill will.”

The film derives its power from how it manages to implicate, through replicating an ecosystem in which every figure is effectively powerless, players that are absent. “There is something sinister happening here,” Nabi says. “These ships are toxic. They sail the world, are part of marine economies, capitalist routes and trade, and when they are not fit to sail the ocean anymore… they come to these places, with desperate workforces.” Whose fault is it? The economies that refuse to accept responsibility for disposing of their own waste, or the economies that accept this waste at the cost of the health of its most vulnerable citizens? In November 2016, at least 14 people were killed and 59 burned when gas cylinders exploded on one of the ships at Gadani. To this day, the roads leading there are unpaved, making it impossible for an ambulance to reach a burn unit in time. “It’s not always clear who the bad guy is. There are many of them, at every level of the hierarchy, scattered all over the world, collectively implicit.”

“What a revolution that would be… if the labourers and the ships united, and refused to engage in the act of violence that is destroying them all.”

The fragmentary nature of the film, its abundance of disembodied characters, is a rejection of the need to point fingers. Instead, it is a bold proposal to imagine the unseen solidarities that emerge in an ecosystem where none of the characters have any control, and where everyone is either transient or dying. “What a revolution that would be,” Nabi wonders when explaining why her film went down the path that it did—if the labourers and the ships united, and refused to engage in the act of violence that is destroying them all, as well as the environment they inhale, and every other creature it houses, from the fish under the water to the birds on the horizon. This is a film about the forgottens, both animate and inanimate, who have their bodies and their lives on the line. 

“If we want to grasp an event we must not show it,” wrote the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. “We must not pass along the event, but plunge into it, go through all the geological layers that are its internal history [and not simply more or less distant past].” Nabi’s film moves away from the painterly quality of documentary, by shattering her frames just so that they can be resurrected in fresh ways. Call it documentary kintsugi, a film glued together by its boldness to depart from the realm of the believable, only to reveal the many invisible strands that make up the web of any ecosystem, all of which are a fundamental part of its truth. ■

NATASHA JAPANWALAis an educator and writer from Karachi.
Header illustration by MARIUM ALI

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