Hira Nabi’s All That Perishes at the Edge of Land
Right from the first image of Hira Nabi’s film, we can position ourselves at a shore, at the edge of land, with wet sand at the bottom of the frame. Seen from a low angle, above us is a long chain anchoring a tremendously big rusty container vessel that seems to be threatening to squash us, to flatten us, under its weight. Yet, the danger it seems to threaten us with isn’t due to its movement, as it is stable and anchored. We can even see the waves of the Arabian Sea gently crashing on the beach, lullabying the ship steadily. It might be the oxidized hues of oranges and ochre, or even the sun’s fainted light barely managing to break through the cloudy skies that give us a sort of apocalyptic dread. Or, it can be the title, All That Perishes at the Edge of the Land, for to perish is to die, rot, decay.
Through this docu-fictonal work, Nabi takes us to Gadani, a coastal town in the south of Pakistan that is considered one of the world’s biggest graveyards of ships. Hira acts as the porte-parole of the conversations that happen between this ship (with a female voice over) and the voices of the male workers who take her rusty parts apart. They come on overloaded buses from all over the area, hunting down a day’s work to feed their families. We see them arriving to the bay, in their traditional, humble Shalwar Kameez, with washed out colours from the dust and sand. They accessorise it with the few safety equipment at their disposal. Goggles to protect their sight from the sun, wind and sparks of metal unhooking; a scarf to filter out the toxins they could be breathing in; and, rarely, a workers’ helmet to try and prevent their skulls from being crushed under flying parts of the dismantled ship.
As they sip on their cups of Chai, waiting for the arrival of work to their days, they start the film by commenting on the act of being filmed: “It’s those media folks, they are making a film.” They are asked by the camera crew not to break the fourth wall, not to gaze straight into the camera. Several portraits of the workers staring into the lens follow shortly after. We are reminded of the presence of the filmmaker in several other moments during the film. Hira is asked what she will call her film. Throughout the thirty minutes’ duration of the film, we are reminded of cinema’s affinity with workers leaving their workplace as seen in the by the Lumière Brothers’ Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory (1985) or Harun Farocki’s Arbeiter Verlasssen di Fabrik (1995). In Nabi’s film, the workers’ testimonials find themselves promptly ingrained into the dialectics of unions. They speak of their conditions as being squashed by the cruelty of the capitalist system, having their dreams and aspirations crushed. We see them holding on with force while high wiring on the anchoring chain, reminding us of Lunch atop a Skyscraper (1932) by Charles C. Ebbets. The lack of sync in the image and their stories make us imagine this unified interchangeable narrative of the worker and not as a singled out individual.
These men, these workers, came from families of fishermen. They all subsisted on the catch of the day. That same water of that same sea is now devoid of fish. The sea creatures have immigrated to safer waters, cleaner waters, away from all the oil and waste coming from those ships. And yet, these workers are put in a position of “Maj-boori”, مجبوری meaning helpless to come back, to work and to participate in the dismantling of this container vessel into their sea. It is out of despair that they are confronting death every day in the dangers of their labour.
The ship in question here, “Ocean Master,” tells her own story. She has been touring the world across oceans since 1995, reaching now her expiry date. She is facing her death, decaying, and abandoned on Gadani’s yards where she might be accompanied by some of the workers’ deaths. She prefers to still question them about their dreams, comparing them to hers to envision different parts of the world, like a sailor at sea. They answer her: “We, the uneducated, can only dream so much.” Their permissible dreams are to find an ethical job, a decent way to feed themselves, to survive. They pray for the jobs promised by her arrival, aware of how she is destroying their environment and hence their future livelihood. They feel obliged to repeat that until there is no horizon, no dreams, no hope.
Still from Hira Nabi’s All That Perishes at the Edge of Land (2019).
The juxtaposition between those two bodies, the organic one of the workers inscribed into their background, faced in the tones of the shot, and the grandeur of the rotting ship, highlights the scale of injustice, of helplessness in Nabi’s work. We bear witness to the Holocene extinction, the ongoing mass destruction of the environment during our epoch as a result of human activity. We are also reminded through their acknowledgements that the workers are not those destructive forces, that they are merely the other end of the chain. They live in a world that we are destroying. Against the diluting forces of globalization that try to hide themselves behind structures of power, we are made aware of the fact that we are not experiencing climate change at the same speed or in the same way. And Pakistan, amongst other countries in the Global South, is experiencing now more than ever the emergency of that change with the devastating floods that hit Karachi and Islamabad. Based in Lahore, Hira Nabi’s practice revolves around the environment, emphasizing the politics of bodies in their everyday lives. And as Judith Butler finely puts it, “for politics to take place, the body must appear.”¹ The scale of the workers’ bodies in the sea of pinkish auras in All That Perishes at the Edge of Land reminds us of where the weight of politics and change falls.
¹Butler Judith. Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street. Occupy and assemble, 2011.