"Slackistan" director Hammad Khan is on a mission.
Pakistani by birth, Khan doesn't hail from a country known for its thriving film industry. Back in the 1960s and '70s, the biz was alive and well in Pakistan. Today it has all but vanished. Since first premiering at the Raindance Film Festival in London, and playing at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival earlier this month, Khan's first feature "Slackistan" has been surprising audiences and critics alike for its portrayal of Khan's home country. Set in Islamabad, the film contains no references to terrorism or war. It tells a simple story of elite youth, bored with society, and looking for something more in life.
"My mission is to create from scratch a portrait of Pakistan through a series of films," said a warm and engaging Khan while in Abu Dhabi. "I want to be able to take a country that has no film presence in the world, and give it one."
After living in Pakistan for a short while, Khan moved to London at an early age as a refugee once his father was discovered for being involved in political activism. Banned from returning to Pakistan during much of his childhood in the '80s, Khan recalled living a very unusual existence.
"My father had a pretty nomadic existence between the two countries," Khan said. "That affected me quite a lot. I had a difficult time figuring out who I am, where am I, and what am I going to do with my life."
Khan revealed that he found comfort in film, citing Martin Scorsese's classic "Taxi Driver" as the film that opened his eyes to what the world of cinema had to offer. Rather than venturing off into a filmmaking career from the outset, Khan instead chose to study law and became a lawyer shortly thereafter. But that urge to tap into his favorite creative medium continued to nag him. Khan made the plunge and moved back to Pakistan in his early twenties to gain inspiration.
"I wanted to express myself," Khan said. "But once I got back, I remember thinking, 'This is really weird. There is nothing to do in Islamabad. How am I going to be a filmmaker in this town?'"
It was this dilemma that fueled Khan to write the screenplay for "Slackistan," a film that in many ways mirrors his return to Pakistan following graduation.
"My experience forms the basis for the world of "Slackistan," but updated to 2010," Khan said. "In many ways I find it even more interesting. The difference being that now the kids are in a more global mode due to being tech savvy. Yet the town is actually becoming less progressive in many respects. That tension is what I found interesting - in an anthropological way."
Shot on a minuscule budget with hand held cameras, and amateur actors on location in Islamabad, "Slackistan" plays like an American '90s indie slacker movie, with a fun, free-wheeling vibe. What sets the film apart from its American counterparts is the unmistakable political subtext that looms like a shadow over the protagonists. Tended to by servants, and uninspired by their surroundings, the youth of Pakistan as envisioned by Khan in "Slackistan" are not the 'leaders of tomorrow.' The majority of them just want to migrate elsewhere.
For his next project, Khan wants to keep the focus on the problems in Pakistan, but make a film that faces these problems in a more head-on and explicit manner.
"There's a need for catharsis and for an unleashing of emotion in Pakistan about the state of things," Khan said. "Obviously "Slackistan" doesn't necessarily attempt to do that. My next film will aim to let it all out. I've said that if this is like an American movie, then the next one will be European."
"Slackistan" is playing at the South Asian International Film Festival on Saturday, October 30 in New York. To purchase tickets visit the festival's site.