Reviewed at the 2010 Abu Dhabi Film Festival.
“Slackistan,” the first feature from Hammad Khan, belongs to that familiar breed of film about life as someone young, aimless and under- or unemployed, with too much time to fill in the company of funny friends — think “Reality Bites,” or “Swingers” (a film given more than one tip of the hat here), or “Kicking and Screaming,” or countless others. What sets “Slackistan” apart from the pack is the fact that it’s centered in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan and “the city that always sleeps,” according to our hero and sometimes narrator Hasan (Shahbaz Hamid Shigri), a would-be filmmaker who’s managed to obtain an HDV camera but has so far left it sitting in its box.
The post-collegiate twentysomethings in “Slackistan” are wealthy, and there’s no question in the movie that their standard issue quarterlife issues about identity, how to get started on adulthood and whether they really want to do that in the first place are luxurious ones compared to most everyone else around them. Their houses are staffed with servants, and the streets they roam are filled with the unnoticed laboring and less well-off. But Hasan and his friends are likable, recognizable types. There’s slick Sherry (Ali Rehman Khan), nice guy Saad (Osman Khalid Butt), unlucky in love Zara (Shahana Khan Khalil) and pensive Aisha (Aisha Linnea Akthar), Hasan’s best friend and longterm crush. (Most of the actors are non-pros, and some are more comfortable on camera than others.) The five classmates graduated a year ago, around the time democracy returned to the country, and their stagnation is paralleled to a larger national disillusionment felt in the aftermath of those raised hopes. Now they wander the city in different configurations, cruising in a borrowed car, stopping by cafes and restaurants and each other’s houses, congregating at the occasional party.
“Slackistan” has the ragged look and feel of a ’90s indie, with flat visuals, title cards announcing the start of each new anecdote and heavy use of music from local bands. But the slack style and pacing don’t get in the way of the fascinating locale, a place where the characters’ boredom legitimately springs from a lack of opportunities, but leaving also feels like admitting defeat. Hasan and his friends often have more in common with western culture than with the average Islamabad resident. They live in a comfortable bubble of financial ease, they drink, surf the web and speak to each other in a mix of English and Urdu, and the lure of getting out of town is ever present — Hasan’s brother lives in New York, and Aisha’s readying herself for grad school in Boston. Hasan feels increasingly despondent about what he should do next, and about his creative opportunities — the city has no cinema, and he can’t even locate a copy of “Mean Streets” at the DVD store (“There’s not enough piracy of ’70s movies,” he sighs).
Hasan’s malaise may be of the conventional post-college variety — he loves Aisha but can’t bring himself to tell her, he wants to make a movie but can’t actually get started, and he realizes and is frustrated by these things — and his voiceover observations more self-pitying than profound, but the realities of the country he lives add pungency to the narrative, because who else is in a better place to rebuild and to affect change than these intelligent, worldly characters? Getting out of town may be the obvious and easiest option as an individual, but, as “Slackistan” suggests in its ending, there’s a bravery and worthiness to trying to hack it at home.
“Slackistan” does not yet have U.S. distribution.