“If you’ve never been to Karachi, you’ve never been killed,” says an Edhi ambulance driver whose job it is to patrol the city to pick up after its violence. The unnamed ambulance driver delivered this cynical yet apt line to Suroosh Alvi, founder of Vice Magazine, whose forty minute documentary attempts to show a side of the city that flies under the radar of the mainstream media in the west.
When watching any of the Vice Guides to Travel one should be aware that the language is not sanitized, the format is free from television’s stifling constraints, the opinions flow freely throughout and those are all good reasons to watch their guide to Karachi instead of the six o’clock news.
Alvi whose magazine is based out of New York City, has filmed in at least eight different countries which are known for their volatile nature, says that Karachi is totally unique.
“It’s an enigma of a city. When I went to the dump in Jam Chakro and saw the scavengers, I have never seen anything like it. The only thing close, which I don’t think was as bad, was the Congo,” says Alvi who was speaking over the phone from the US after completing the film. “It was an emotional rollercoaster.”
Alvi is seen often throughout the film commenting on the scenarios he is reporting on along with fellow filmmaker Basim Usmani. The film introduces its major subjects in an almost Tarantino-esque manner.
Uzair Baloch as Public Enemy No. 1, Hamza Khan of the ANP as Number One Son , Faisal Sabzwari of the MQM as the Zealot, Nabil Gabol as the politician, Chaudry Aslam as the Bad Lieutenant and finally, The Target Killer.
The filmmakers go on different operations in Lyari and Orangi Town that are meant to wipe out criminals out but as is often witnessed on local television they aren’t exactly Navy SEALS operations.
“It was ridiculous and shocking to see, what a farce it was,” says Alvi incredulously of a police raid in Orangi Town meant to be targeting members of the Taliban and a raid in Lyari going after Uzair Baloch, “we got to catch the absurdity of it all.”
Alvi said that in some ways Karachi compared to parts of Jamaica and said he rode along on a similar operation there, but said the only difference was that in Jamaica they actually caught their target, whereas in Lyari Uzair was sitting comfortably in his home.
One of the more interesting parts of the film that will appeal to a local viewership and seemed to scoop the local media is that during an operation in Lyari, Alvi and his colleagues managed to get an interview with Uzair and Zafar Baloch, the Baloch Brothers as they called them in the film, inside their palatial home in the heart of Lyari’s slum. The film gives a small tour of his “Scarface-like” abode; an empty indoor swimming pool, gaudy fountains and ponds and flashy furniture throughout. All topped off with Uzair Baloch’s characteristically defiant rhetoric.
The gem of the film comes in its last segment where Alvi managed to interview a target killer. “It was intense and didn’t really know what to think.” During the interview the killer, fittingly speaking from under a motorcycle helmet, confesses to killing 30-35 people and says he got into the business because of unemployment and can’t sleep at night because of it. The million dollar question that goes missing in the conversation was who the killer works for. The miss is forgivable because questions like that can get a journalist into trouble but tellingly the killer does admit that 80% of killings were political and 20% were mafia related.
Muttahida Qaumi Movement MPA Faisal Sabzwari and PPP MNA Nabil Gabol come off as pure politicians in the film who don’t stray for one moment from the party line.
“Most people we spoke with were honest and I love filming in Pakistan because you can get access high up very quickly. The politicians spoke as if they had their agenda and they stuck to those.”
Alvi admitted to being tense at many points in filming even though a lot of the film takes on an almost satirical tone which may turn some people off but is also one the film’s best qualites. For all the violence and turmoil that this city goes through, as a journalist you discover that a lot of it is at times staged and carried out by harmless people and rented protesters. On the other hand, there is an underbelly of danger around every corner which is not easily captured on camera and Vice does a good job of capturing both of these scenarios.
“It’s a city of contradictions and a city of extremes. It’s like you have a bunch of disenfranchised people living on one side of the bridge and the 1 percent live on the other. What’s to stop those people from coming over onto the other side of the bridge?”
Alvi says they don’t do grand geopolitical analysis but do give an unpolished truth in a creative and different form. The one contradiction in the project is that Vice claims to show a side of a city that the mainstream media misses, but the film features mostly on violence, which is what most of the mainstream media is guilty of. But that is also what makes Karachi, and the film, intriguing.
Shorter version published in The Express Tribune on June 11, 2012 click here