Installation view from It was my discomfort that weighted the camera by Zinnia Naqvi
Given the central conflict in the 33-minute feature film, Farzana is about the virtue and question of honesty and trustworthiness from which other complex themes unfold, it makes sense to trace back the meaning of honesty historically. The web of how certain virtues came to be upheld through British colonial ideology is inherently linked to class. It’s worth tracing the virtue of honesty back to the Victorian era to see how this may have influenced the perception of class among immigrant communities that were colonized by the British.
Oscar Pyke, in a historical analysis of the dominant virtues and values of the Victorian period, writes:
On the heels of industrialisation, the bourgeoisie came to be more lauded than nobility. [historian Deirdre McCloskey] examines the very protean meaning of the word ‘honest’. Prior to the late 18th century, ‘honest’ was essentially a facsimile of the Latin ‘honestiores’, meaning ‘nobles’. As the 18th century drew to a close, however, ‘honest’ meant something different entirely. According to McCloskey, a collective consciousness in ferment (rapid industrialisation) birthed the ‘honest’ we know today; staying true to one’s word. ‘Honesty’ was no longer reserved for the landed gentry, but was reborn as the lynchpin of contract. This marks a radical shift in rhetoric. The very notion of honesty itself, was now distinctly bourgeois.
No longer did the ‘proudly leisured’ nobility elicit admiration from the masses. The leisured gentry was supplanted by the self-made man; the new role model.
This lineage and evolution of virtue and value placed on work and work culture meant that honesty cannot be detached from work, glorifying the “self-made”. With the industrial revolution came values such as working hard, responsibility, self-reliance, individualism which were linked to the meaning of honesty. Being individualistic as opposed to interdependent with community, working hard in order to be perceived as deserving, and virtuous. In Farzana, there is a boundary created between Charmaine and Nasreen. Charmaine complains to family members over the phone that Nasreen is not a good worker and leaves things out like the mop and bucket. With the picture of the hard worker in mind, Nasreen is therefore not seen as trustworthy. Many immigrants hold a perception that they worked hard to get to North America, moved through bureaucracy and worked their way up, and therefore do not see that other immigrants should have an easier transition. There is also an assertion behind closed doors among immigrant communities conflating “coming from a good family” with subscribing to work in a traditional sense and ties together with the logic behind who deserves to immigrate with that of honesty, truth, and virtue.
All of these distinctions separate one class from another and a falsified sense of superiority that relies on leaving certain groups out. The promise of the North American suburb is sold to immigrants via places like the Cullen Gardens in Naqvi’s piece “Keep off the grass” and targeted advertisements sent via text message campaigns. The promise and myth of the suburb is protection, safety, and the sameness in the suburban complex renders class differences non-existent in this place/utopia, the disorderly arranged into neat perfect squares without excess or lack.
In Ordinary Affects, Kathleen Stewart uses the term “circuit” to describe elements that feed into the ecosystem of the ordinary. In this case, “circuit” includes the promise of the suburb and all its associations: the myth of safety, privatization, and what she aptly names “sensible accumulation” and family values. The bits of information that Nasreen tells Charmaine about her life throughout the film, pierce through these neatly defined promises and values as reminders that there are always those who are left out of the idyllic picture. Each time, Charmaine responds with surprise and a tinge of shame, as if the information has only now come into her awareness.
The concept of circularity and circuit referred to in Ordinary Affects becomes a kind of ingrained seepage normalizing and hiding the systematization of class difference. The second film in the exhibition, made with original footage in Karachi is titled Translation is Approximate. The film insists on resurfacing and dissecting these elements of circularity by using the mirror as a visual device. Threading both films together, the mirror emphasizes Naqvi’s position as the witness and the voyeur. The mirror’s lightness contrasts the heavy device of the camera, and reminds the viewer that we cannot fully dissociate from the narrative, despite its fictionalization in Farzana. The mirror brings us into the fold as a reminder that no one is a neutral observer, blurring the lines between fiction and perception.
There is a tangible hesitancy and suspension of judgment between second and first generation immigrants. The latter face a different set of circumstances, taking on colonially ascribed virtues with a positive lens. This is a survival and often a trauma response. Naqvi’s narration continuously and delicately alludes to that translation of experience and reminds us not to rely on her interpretation of the event. For me, there has been an obsessive desire to separate what are colonial ways of knowing from what is ancestral. We can’t untangle all the elements that make up the root of how our society perceives class differences, because colonial influences among other factors are not a clean cause-and-result relationship, and both films demonstrate and sit in the discomfort of not being able to clarify that for us.
Marina Fathalla (she/her) is a multidisciplinary artist, programmer and access worker. She is currently the Director of Programming at Whippersnapper Gallery in Toronto.
Exhibiton response to 'It was my discomfort that weighted the camera.'
by Marina Fathalla