London 2022

Joyland review – powerful and dynamic study of living authentically

Saim Sadiq's life-affirming drama, gorgeously shot and acted, shines a welcomed light on patriarchal structures in Pakistan

There’s something striking about moving out from your family home to pursue your own independent life. That nervous excitement that refuses to relent as you walk out the door, keen to live on your own terms, free from the stifling familial expectations. In Pakistan, such an occurrence is far less common, as families tend to remain together as a large unit, gaining new members in the form of partners and grandchildren along the way.

The family unit is at the core of Saim Sadiq’s Joyland, a powerful, dynamic study of family – specifically, the effect of traditional family expectations, which are ultimately shaped by society’s patriarchal structures, and the way these expectations weigh on those failing to meet them. Haider (Ali Junejo) struggles deeply under the suffocating nature of his parents' expectations. Unlike his brother, Haider doesn’t have a job, nor does he have any children with his wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq). The shame he feels is palpable, as Sadiq’s camera frames his characters tightly, reflecting his feeling trapped within this amorphous nuclear family.

For Haider, his fortunes are about to change, as a stroke of luck lands him a job working as a background dancer for Biba (Alina Khan), a transgender performer. There are a couple issues with this: first, a dancer is not the kind of profession Haider’s parents would be proud of. Secondly, working with an out and proud trans woman is considered highly taboo. Haider is risking great shame upon his family, but he finds himself completely drawn to Biba, and is willing to risk his stagnant life for a chance at something greater – following his own path.

Joyland is a gorgeous, meticulously shot film that dives deep into the suffering people feel living within a patriarchal society, particularly the way it impacts women and queer people. Sadiq’s film possesses a wonderfully intimate understanding of its characters. Relationships feel authentic and lived-in, especially that of Haider and Mumtaz. Feelings of sexual frustration are clear, and watching Mumtaz’s joy be erased by her husband in a crucial family dinner sequence is genuinely harrowing.

Where Joyland really shines is its female characters, particularly Khan’s performance as Biba. Her fearless dancer is a powerhouse, informed by a lifetime of being disrespected and mocked for striving to live a life of authenticity. It’s beautiful to see Biba refuse to let anyone stand in her way, rejecting the notions patriarchy has placed upon her. Sadiq’s script (co-written by Maddie Briggs) understands Biba and her journey in ways that never feel exploitative and inauthentic. She's able to rise above the tremendous heaviness of societal expectations to live in a way that is true to herself. It feels revolutionary and uplifting, but what really elevates Joyland is its acknowledgement that while Biba may be able to break through, other equally vital voices are left behind.

Joyland was screened as part of the BFI Film Festival 2022. It will be released in UK cinemas on 24 February 2023.

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