WITHOUT SHEPHERDS is a feature documentary that looks beyond the headlines and breaks open the stereotypes of the most dangerous country in the world,” declares the movie’s press kit. It’s almost as if the American filmmakers crafted this description with the specific aim of exasperating a certain kind of Pakistani. The kind who, like myself, follow Western media coverage of the country, and have developed an almost knee-jerk negative response to what is known domestically, not without some derision, as reporting on Pakistan’s ‘softer side.’
“In the wake of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination as violent attacks ripple throughout Pakistan and tensions escalate with the West,” the film’s creators continue, “Without Shepherds offers a rare glimpse into real life in the shadow of the war on terror…a window for world audiences to look deep into the heart of this misunderstood country.” The film has yet to be released, but its trailer reveals that it will attempt to do this by shadowingfollowing six Pakistanis who lead very different lives: supermodel Vinnie, cricketer-politician Imran Khan, ‘Sufi-rocker’ Arieb Azhar, an ex-militant, a financially struggling trucker, and a female journalist on the Taliban beat. Male and female, privileged and poor, sexy and modest, liberated and oppressed, liberal and conservative, famous and faceless—the film contains all the right dichotomies required to grab the attention of newspapers and festival juries and to reach the shocking conclusion that Pakistan contains diverse people, as if that is somehow not true of every country in the world.
Shaping all of this is, of course, the persistent spectre of Islamic extremism. In their own ways all six protagonists are crafting their lives in response to it, or have at least been pictured by the filmmakers as doing so. Khan has to develop his stance on the phenomenon as a politician, and Azhar’s Sufi rock is rebellious “in a country where religion opposes music.” Laiba is a female journalist “reporting from behind Taliban lines,” and then there is, “perhaps, most importantly,” Ibrahim, who leaves his militant group only to return home to that incubator of extremism, South Punjab. Even lives seemingly disconnected from religious ideology, politics or militancy are somehow made to plug into it, no matter how tenuously; Vinnie “launched a clothing line and a fashion channel for television, and each project in her mind is a subliminal, subversive act of feminism,” and Abdullah the trucker becomes an expert on “what the US really wants” by virtue of travelling across the country for work.