Set in Gwadar in Balochistan, Zaraab offers an unflinching look at lives blighted by poverty and lack of opportunity, exploring child labour, disability, unemployment and aspirations for a better life.
Visiting Gwadar after ten years, Bahraini filmmaker Jaan al-Balushi was disappointed to see that there were still few opportunities for locals, despite developments touted to transform the city into the “New Dubai” through Chinese investment. Zaraab is an unfiltered look at the harsh realities of poverty in Balochistan through the struggles and dreams of common people. The film serves as a social commentary on issues of unemployment, disability, care of the elderly, child labour, drugs and economic migration in the context of sparse opportunities and ubiquitous poverty, while also highlighting the integrity and solidarity necessary to even survive in such difficult circumstances.
Elderly and frail porter Mama lost a son to the sea, who left as an economic migrant and never returned. He spends his days outside a wholesale grocery kiosk, hoping to be sent to deliver orders in his wheelbarrow, and is told by the owner of the shop that it’s not surprising he doesn’t get much work. “Those days are gone when people asked for porters. Nowadays people have cars and motorcycles. They help themselves.” When he has a fall trying to start off pushing his wheelbarrow for a delivery next to the shop, the financially struggling owner lets him go, telling him that he is causing him to lose too much money by ruining produce, and that he can’t sustain such losses as he is not doing well himself.
Child labour is an ongoing problem in Balochistan with many children not attending school as they must work instead due to poverty, with the literacy rate estimated to be 25%. Zaraab throws light on this social issue by showing its reality in the story of a young boy called Barkat. Wishing for something more substantial, Barkat tells his disabled dad when he gives him a meagre breakfast before he heads off to school “Father, just wait I will grow up and buy you a hen.” After school he goes to his work in a garage alongside other child labourers, and we see his hands covered in oil as he works on menial tasks before returning home with his small amount of pay. His father meanwhile has run out of credit with the pharmacy, who refuse to give him any more medication to manage his condition without payment.
Meanwhile petty criminal Bakshi dreams of escaping his straitened circumstances with grandiose visions of his future. Complaining that he has let them down by arriving late, Bakshi tells his fellow fishermen, who are struggling to sell enough fish to buy feed for their donkey. “Actually you people are idiots… Who sacrifices his precious sleep for wages? Actually you are small people. Small people’s thinking is small too…. you will get old but not rich.” Bakshi half jokes with them about his own aspirations “I am thinking to build something even higher than buildings. Next to PC hotel soon there will be a skyscraper …. named Burj Al Bakshi Albalushi.”
Woven through these seemingly disparate scenes is the haunting tune of a beggar dervish, as he wanders the streets singing a Balochi melody. The music for the film by Mohamad Murbati is evocative and moving, and the cinematography offers a raw and unembellished view of the reality of urban poverty, contrasting with some spectacular views of nature in sweeping shots of dunes and the coast of the Arabian Sea. Zaraab is an eye-opening and thought-provoking film that succeeds in conveying the desperate choices living below the poverty line presents people with and the need for everyone to pull their weight and support the weight of others in such difficult circumstances.