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Joyland (2022): People are Assemblages of Each Other

This year’s Cyprus Film Days at Rialto Theatre features an exciting line-up of feature films that are diverse in language, genre, style, as well as a series of parallel events for film enthusiasts and film professionals alike. On Sunday the 23rd of April I had the pleasure of attending the screening of Joyland (2022) and by the end of the film I left the theater in tears. As I am writing this on a Tuesday morning, I fondly recall the film’s moments of implied sensitivity - of overt and covert sensibility, of its colors, its language and its light.

A bit about the film:

Joyland (2022) is a Pakistani film written and directed by Saim Sadiq and since its release the film has won several awards including the jury prize in the Un Certain Regard section and the Queer Palm award of Cannes Film Festival. The film’s Cypriot premier at this year’s festival gave the local audience an opportunity to experience a masterful piece of Pakistani storytelling and it was worth every single one of its 126 minutes.

Here’s a brief synopsis, acknowledging that is impossible to do justice to the complexity of themes the film is so beautifully navigating through:

Haider, the youngest son in a traditional Pakistani household, after a long period of unemployment, takes a job at a theater in Lahore, the second largest city in Pakistan. The middle-class family of Rana: a stubborn father, two sons (Haider and Saleem), two daughters-in-law (Mumtaz and Nucchi) and four granddaughters, is shaken after they find out that Haider’s new-found job is back-up dancing at the show of a trans woman named Biba at an erotic dance theater. The family’s structures are forcibly reevaluated while at the same time are illustrated against the backdrop of Pakistan’s strong patriarchal values, when Haider’s wife, Mumtaz, is forced to quit her job as a make-up artist and spend most of her time at home taking care of the family. Just like the severe patriarch of the family, Rana, first intended. Haider quickly becomes infatuated with Biba, his boss, a strong-willed trans woman who is trying to make a name for herself, and embarks on a rather short-lived journey of sexual exploration.

I would argue that the film’s success is built upon Saim Sadiq’s masterful portrayal of independent characters that don’t simply exist in a vacuum. These characters are part of a larger heterogeneous whole, a mosaic of interpersonal relationships whose flaws and strengths are informed by each other's affective interventions. For non-Pakistani audiences, there are of course nuances and specific references to Pakistani culture and its social strata that are either completely missed or are identified but understood through the kaleidoscopic lenses of personal and contextual biases. Joyland however, does not simply attempt to place familial or queer relationships solely within a Pakistani context. It attempts -and very much succeeds!- to appeal to what I would like to call the “ness-ness” of being: Through the challenging of the binary myths of masculinity/femininity, of the nuclear family and of heterosexuality, Joyland appeals to the universal familiarity of womxn-ness, not womxnhood, of human-ness, not humanity.

Throughout the whole film, the subtle portrayal of the common struggle for (womxn’s) bodily autonomy constructs a womxn-ness, that is complex and multi-layered. This complexity is sensitively implied from the beginning of the film and it cunningly spills through the heavily policed, and very cracked, concrete (de)fences of oppression. An emotional outburst by Nuuchi following Mumtaz’s death finally breaks the aforementioned concrete fences, lets the thus-far slow spilling of hinted sensitivity pour through, which finally forces the characters on screen, as well as the audience, to face the almost emancipatory reality of the consequences of their own actions.

Joyland by Saim Sadiq is a true testament of how people are not merely singular units of individual personhoods but rather they are ensembles and assemblages of each other’s person-ness. Although the film paints the picture of a family across an ocean, it still feels too-close-to-home. And that is because Joyland speaks to everyone’s ness-ness.

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