Anwar Akhtar: "The films in Pakistan Calling are manifestos for peace"

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Nov 12, 2014
by Jonathan Elbaz
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Anwar Akhtar: "The films in Pakistan Calling are manifestos for peace"

With "Pakistan Calling," Fellow aims to transform his homeland through eye-opening short films Anwar Akhtar speaks at the eighth Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change.

Pakistan is threatened by deep, systemic challenges, but not only by the ones you see on TV. Major networks repeatedly cover the Taliban and sectarian violence, yet fundamental issues like economic marginalization, the treatment of women, child labor and poor education are swept from the public’s view.

That’s why Salzburg Global Fellow Anwar Akhtar has committed himself to spotlighting Pakistan’s toughest challenges and bolstering organizations working to transform the country. He runs Pakistan Calling, an online project—in partnership with the UK’s Royal Society of Arts (RSA)—that shares films about pressing social issues and facilitates cooperation between people and organizations in Pakistan and the UK.

“A lot of the organizations we profile are often in crisis management,” Akhtar said. “If you’re running a disability charity in Karachi, or you’re running an orphanage or you’re a small cultural organization, you probably haven’t got a communications budget, an outreach budget or an international development officer.”

Pakistan Calling compiles films with a social message. Some films tell the stories of individuals like ambulance drivers (Driving Life) and impoverished street children (I am Agha), while others explore larger ideas of multiculturalism, identity politics and sustainable development. Most films are produced externally by NGOs or university students, and Pakistan Calling gathers their work in one location.

Akhtar said the project aims to engage and empower the huge Pakistani Diaspora in the UK and elsewhere. An estimated 7 million people with Pakistani heritage live outside the country, with 1.2 million in the UK alone. Akhtar hopes that after people watch some of the short films, they’ll be driven to volunteer, advocate on and offline, or donate to the organizations profiled.

“The Diasporas can be a force for conflict resolution,” Akhtar said. “There’s obviously the family and the religious and ancestry links. There’s obviously remittances, and lots of people sending small amount of money to help schools or an orphanage or a clean water project…We’re raising awareness of innovative social projects that people might consider sending money to or supporting.”

Akhtar attended a Salzburg Global session in April entitled “Conflict Transformation Through Culture,” returned for the eighth Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change, and returned again for the Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators. He credits the organization for widening his perspective as a cultural change-maker and for connecting him to key journalists and advocates around the world.

“I’ve now got access to a network of U.S.-based journalists and documentary filmmakers that work around human rights, social development and cultural progress in Asia,” Akhtar said. “As a British-based organization working on a budget of about £40,000, we would not have had the budget to go to Washington and find those people. And yet we found them, on a 90-minute flight from London to Salzburg.”

Akhtar’s background is not in journalism. He grew up in Manchester, England, selling t-shirts and jumpers from his father’s stalls, directing an arts and culture center, and working as a club promoter, before he founded The Samosa website. Consequently, his extended discussions in Salzburg with Media Academy Faculty Susan Moeller and Sanjeev Chatterjee—who have extensive experience utilizing media for social change—were immensely influential on his work.

So far Pakistan Calling has been instrumental in building links between people, communities and institutions. The success of I Am Agha has led some UK organizations to commission more films about the life of street children. The project helped spark an ongoing partnership between film students in Karachi University and London Metropolitan University (which Akhtar considers a “mini Media Academy”). And the Ajoka Theater, an organization first profiled in a Pakistan Calling film, will debut a production at the National Theater in London in April.

“What the films have shown is that there’s absolutely a large element of Pakistani society desperate to improve society and just want to improve their living environment, educate their kids, have a career and a secure society and country,” Akhtar said. “By focusing on that, rather than the Taliban or religious violence, you might actually address the latter issues. The films in Pakistan Calling are all by their nature manifestos for peace.”


The success of the RSA Pakistan Calling project is driven by audience engagement and peer involvement. You can view and share the films via the link: www.thersa.org/pkcalling You can read more about Pakistan Calling on the BBC, the New Statesman, the Huffington Post, the World Bank and the Guardian