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Q&A: VICE Co-Founder Suroosh Alvi Talks the ‘VICE Guide to Karachi’
June 7, 2012
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The VICE Guide to Travel has been putting out documentary videos since 2006, taking their audience on virtual trips to North Korean labour camps, Chernobyl, Ukraine and the favelas of Rio, among other surprising and potentially dangerous spots. Now VICE has visited Karachi, Pakistan's most populous city where violence is a daily reality in some areas, while the thriving economy also makes the city a hot-spot for technology, fashion and culture. Suroosh Alvi, one of VICE Magazine's co-founders, is the video's host.

The 'VICE Guide to Karachi' features a visit to a massive garbage dump, an interview with a "target killer" who says he is paid to murder people, and a ride in a Karachi ambulance among other things (click the link to watch the whole doc).

Suroosh is doing the rounds to promote the doc, and he spoke to us about his experiences shooting in Karachi:

You spent so much time in Pakistan over the past few years - how did this experience in Karachi change your understanding of the country as a whole?

Well, over the last seven years, we've been filming all over the country. It started off with the original 'Gun Markets of Pakistan' piece, and then I went back and filmed two follow-ups to that. So I'd filmed in Peshawar tribal areas, Lahore, Islamabad, even Abbottabad after Bin Laden was captured and killed - I'd never filmed in Karachi. And I wanted to. And it felt like the country had been on this - in this kind of tailspin, and I'd said this before in one of my pieces: it feels like a powder keg that's ready to explode, and Karachi, after going there it feels like the detonator that could set it all off.

For a couple of years now I've been interested in Karachi, just from afar, reading about it and trying to understand why it is that there's just so much violence in this city. And if you look at the statistics it's crazy - there are more people getting killed in Karachi than in the entire tribal areas where the war on terror is happening. More people are dying violent deaths in Karachi than the rest of the war on terror in Pakistan combined, and I'm like 'what the f*** is going on in this city?'

But I also hear about - through my friends - that Karachi is the economic engine of the country, it's got tech startups, the fashion industry and this crazy underground party scene. Culturally there's a lot going on, there's a lot of bands, it sounds really amazing as a place and so we wanted to go there and see. And having now gone in and come out and made this documentary, and I think it does - it's what I thought it was going to be. It could potentially be the detonator or it is already detonating.

In the doc, you focus more on the violent side. How much did you see of the other side - the parties, the fashion?

A little bit - we just went to a couple of parties, and we actually threw a party while we were there: the 'Karachi Kills VICE' party. And that was - one reason was that we were just seeking some normalcy for ourselves on the shoot. It was getting deeper, darker, heavier, and more intense every single day that we were there, everything we were doing, and I was just starting to feel like, I just..

It was my birthday as well, and I was like, 'I don't want to spend my birthday in the largest garbage dump in the world', and then I ended up doing the interview with the "target killer" on my birthday, and I went straight from there to the 'Karachi Kills VICE' party, and from there, went straight to the ambulance scene, so we cut out the whole party sequence, it just really didn't fit in.

But we also wanted to show this whole other side to Karachi, that there are normal people playing music, and having a good time, there are guys and girls together being normal kids, to a degree, and we're gonna use that footage and cut other things out of it, but it just didn't make sense, and basically the whole doc got so political that it didn't fit in.

Suroosh visits Karachi's largest garbage dump:

When I was in that garbage dump, I just had this feeling, I was like, 'I don't know if I've ever seen anything as bad as this in my entire life', and I don't know where it goes from here, because it already looks like hell on Earth, and feels like hell on Earth, you see these children living in there, and at the rate that the city's growing, and the inability to put any systems in place to handle that amount of garbage that's being created, and lack of social services, and lack of electricity, and lack of education, and lack of jobs for the youth, it's like, 'well, where does this go?' It does explode at some point. Or implode.

You called Karachi a "powder keg". In your opinion, what could set it off? Is there a tipping point that you can see?

That's a good question, and I don't - and then there's the whole other side of the equation - the NATO supply route issue, from Karachi into Afghanistan, that's like a big issue between America and Pakistan right now, and then there's the whole 20 billion dollars that have been given to Pakistan over the last ten years to fight the war on terror, and it's... Pakistan has ended up fighting this proxy war. So America right now is saying, 'okay, why are we giving you all this money if we can't trust you?', and Pakistan is saying 'all this money is going into the military to fight your war, but we don't have much of a choice but to agree with this', and that relationship is entirely broken at this point, so I think that will play into this as well.

When America pulls out of Afghanistan in 2014, are they just going to flick a switch and leave? And then Afghanistan erupts into civil war, and then Pakistan - what goes on there, I'm not really sure.

The fallout from the war in Afghanistan has been extreme on Pakistan: the amount of heroin, and the amount of guns that have come in there, and the amount of NATO supply containers that go missing that are full of arms and whatever else, it's like - it's crazy. But this has been going on since the '80s, since the Russians were fighting the original Mujahideen. Not to go too deep into history here, but that's when this Kalashnikov culture kind of started in Pakistan, and it's just been getting worse and worse and worse and worse, to the point where now, I think the next couple of years are really critical.

All these factors combined together are explosive, and I don't know what's - I'm not going to make the guess right now on this call with you that this is what's going to be the tipping point.

Fair enough. In your experience, how does the media operate in Pakistan?

It's fascinating, this media explosion that's happened in Pakistan, there are networks everywhere, and it's like there's a country of 180 million news junkies that are watching all this stuff play out live on TV, and there's a real lack of media literacy there. It's like they can shoot anything and say anything and it goes on TV.

But they don't really have entertainment there in terms of their programming. Their "reality TV" in Pakistan is this news that's happening, these characters and these operations on the news, and it's a crazy thing to witness and to film that operation [a televized hunt for Taliban agents that Suroosh and his cameraman filmed] and to be like, 'well, actually wait a second, if I hadn't been part of this operation I would have seen this on TV and been like, 'holy f***ing s**t, this is like a crazy operation, they found the Taliban, and like, they're doing it', but when you're with them, you're like 'well this is a farce, it's totally absurd'.

But that's only my camera, and what I'm saying. If you watch it on TV there, you'd be like wow. And that's why people in Karachi couldn't believe that we were going into these places. There's so much fear being pushed out by the media that Karachiites are like, 'we can't believe you're going into Lyari, we would never think of going in there'. Now that said, it's a dangerous f***ing place. In Orangi town where we went the next day without the cops, I felt it, I felt the sand shift when I was standing in that road. Going there with cops is very different than going there solo.

Spending time in these dangerous places, do you ever feel like you're tempting fate?

I'm very comfortable filming in Pakistan, and I think you can see that in the piece. After having been there on the ground so much, Pakistanis are very hospitable and open. You have to really pay attention to what your fixer is telling you, if you trust your fixer. And in the Congo - I don't know if you saw the 'VICE Guide to Congo', but that was one of those really terrifying, the most terrifying thing I've ever done, it made Karachi look like a walk in the park, for me personally.

And then in Karachi, my fixer, I wasn't sure about him, something about him didn't feel right, but at the same time he kept delivering at a very high level, in terms of access and getting in with the politicians and getting in with the gangsters. But before I went and did the interview with the "target killer" I just had that feeling. I was like, 'what if - what if I'm getting set up right now?'

Because Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and killed in Karachi, and his - where he was kidnapped, the restaurant was directly across the street from our hotel. It was a constant reminder, and I had my cameraman Jason with me, a tall white dude, and I was worried about him. He's not blending in at all. And when we went to Orangi town, he didn't get out, I wouldn't let him get out of the car, the next day after the operation.

But with the "target killer", at a certain point, it was like, leap of faith here, and hopefully Allah will protect me here, and let's go for it. It worked out. But I'm not trying to push it, and I think I've done this enough now that I think I can gauge the situation with my understanding of where I am, who I'm working with, and listening to them. And when my fixer refused to get out of the car in Orangi town, I said 'okay, well, it's the middle of the day, we go out we do two quick things' - we were in a blacked-out SUV so people didn't know we were there really, but they were probably wondering who are these guys?

So we just did it really quick, but I'm sure if I'd stayed on the street for another five or ten minutes it would have been like a kind of kidnapping situation.

You and VICE have been making these documentaries for a long time. In 2007, you told Wired, "traditional journalism always aspires to objectivity, and since day one with the magazine we never believed in that. Our ethos is subjectivity with real substantiation". Does that quote still sum up what you're trying to communicate?

I think it still applies, I think it does. You know, before we even picked up video cameras, when we were in Montreal just publishing the magazine that quote would have applied. It's just we just didn't have any resources, we were broke, we couldn't afford to travel around the world and do what we're doing now.

And I think that still applies because it's resonating and it's working and people want that content, and there's a reason why this content is going to be on CNN.com tomorrow, or that the mainstream news media is coming to us for this stuff. Even though they can't say it like we say it, they believe that there is a certain place for it, because it's connecting with the audience.

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