The plethora of swanky new movie theaters opening across the country has been a shot in the arm for Pakistan’s recently revived filmmaking apparatus. While these theaters afford the audience the opportunity to choose from a variety of domestic and international content and by and large are considered to be family-friendly zones, a recent incident at a theater in Lahore brought a more macabre angle to the whole business of screening movies. Couples were filmed by the theater in question using high definition night vision equipment, engaging in intimate acts – and sometimes, much more than that.
The recorded CCTV footage was leaked by theater employees and has been doing rounds over social media, being met with a diverse set of reactions ranging from outrage to approval.
The two perspectives…
Needless to say that the incident, said to have taken place at the upmarket Universal Cinemas in Emporium Mall, Lahore stirred quite a bit of controversy. While some were outraged by the sexual activities captured on film, others were offended by the fact that privacy of the moviegoers had been compromised by publicly sharing the racy CCTV footage. The very dichotomous discussion turned to be lacking any middle ground, with some social media commentators expressing strong concern that leaking such footage in high definition actually put the lives of the filmed individuals at risk.
Why this matters…
The manner in which a society conducts itself in public places is regulated by an unwritten code of social norms, the adherence to which is an indication of mutual respect citizens accord each other with. It has also been observed that the awareness of and adherence to these rules and norms is directly correlated to the society’s degree of advancement and civility. While it would be convenient to single out the theater-going audience in this particular incident, the fact remains that there are two parties to the issue: The theater management and the audience in question. Further complicating any discussion of the issue at hand is that informal social norms do not really exist in Pakistan, as evidenced by the behavior of men towards women in public places. Women in the country routinely express indignation at the no-holds-barred behavior that can include ogling and staring and in certain unfortunate cases, can go much beyond that extending into the realm of sexual harassment. Having said that, as is the case with western societies, indulging in sexual activities in a public setting is not considered acceptable in the country and is a standard usually strictly conformed with.
Dissecting the issue – A breach of citizens’ privacy?
Privacy and digital rights advocates consider the incident to be a significant breach of privacy rights. Public policy specialist Salman Sufi has spearheaded a campaign to press the country’s leading theater chains to post signboards/notices indicating their facilities are subject to being filmed via CCTV. In a message posted over social media, he said “This is NOT acceptable and is a violation of law. We demand that all theaters/Public places delete ALL video recordings that have no recorded safety threat ASAP.” He has also expressed his intention to launch lawsuits against the management of those theaters whose staff was involved in recording such videos.
Human rights lawyer Nighat Dad has been quite vocal about the subject too and is of the view that a lack of awareness and corporate accountability gives rise to such incidents. She has called for the establishment of a privacy commission in the country as well as the enacting of data protection of laws.
The other side….
The other angle to the issue dwells on the premise that there needs to be a society-wide awareness to respect the privacy of those around us in a public setting. Were the individuals engaging in sexual acts not aware that they were directly violating the privacy of other movie watchers with their actions, clandestine as they may have intended to have been? As a society that is rapidly developing and is overwhelmingly young, there seems to be a lag in getting people up to speed with the norms and nuances of behaving in particular social settings. Acceptable behavior say at a fast-food restaurant will be markedly different from that in a bar or a discotheque. The required social grooming is evidently not there and will still take more time to take root in a society that is still coming to terms with the liberties and social responsibility afforded by modernity. In the case of the Emporium mall theater incident, employees seem to have leaked audience CCTV footage to publicly shame them and send a message to their patrons to behave in a civil manner within their premises, however, the route taken is certainly questionable.
Filmmaker Hishaam Bin Munawar when contacted regarding the issue said “I definitely believe leaking such material is a violation of audience’s privacy.” Similar sentiments have been expressed by Senator Ayesha Raza Farooq who tweeted “Privacy is a right and not a privilege.” Filmmaker Saqib Malik when contacted offered a more nuanced take on the episode. “For me privacy is very important and shaming is shameful,” he said, adding “At the same time, a cinema is a public space, and intimate behavior in a public space is always risky.”
Choreographer and performance artiste Wahab Shah was concerned about risks posting such videos on the social media entails for the people filmed. "Leaking footage leads to further complications such as depression. suicidal thoughts and even potentially honor killings. It can have consequences not only for the individual but for the family and our community as a whole. In my opinion sex education very important from school onwards it’s only when we normalize the topic of sex in our mind is when we can talk about morality."
The campaign by privacy rights advocates urging movie theaters to put up signage regarding monitoring and recording of their premises seems to have borne fruit as well.
The Emporium mall theater incident serves to highlight the fact that the Pakistani society exhibits a somewhat erratic adherence to the unwritten code of social norms and rules that otherwise regulates behavior in more developed countries. In order to better enforce expected behavior from theater patrons, cinema management in the country needs to post required signage for CCTV monitoring, or even perhaps engage in more active monitoring via theater staff. Leaking audience footage over social media is at minimum an unethical route to take.