Notes on Empathy: An Analysis of Zinnia Naqvi’s films: Seaview, The Translation is Approximate, and Farzana

4 November 2023

By Nawang Tsomo Kinkar

Toni Morrison wrote that fiction “is a product of imagination—invention—and it claims the freedom to dispense with what really happened, or where it really happened, or when it really happened, and nothing in it needs to be publicly verifiable, although much in it can be verified.”After watching Seaview (2015), The Translation is Approximate (2021), and Farzana (2021), three short films written and directed by Zinnia Naqvi, I found myself at a crossroads, unable to distinguish right from wrong, true from false, or fact from fiction. 

We are taught the importance of empathy at a young age in hopes that it is carried into our lives so that we may become kind and compassionate individuals. However, along the way, empathy can become entwined with pity and ego, yet, it can also bring out other moral emotions such as compassion. Which virtue comes first, which is more “pure,” and which is on the verge of demeaning the ego? Must one have to be visibly and outwardly suffering to generate empathy? To have to seek for common ground through personal experience which validates our ability to demonstrate compassion for others feels insincere. Must we have to be able to personally relate with suffering individuals to empathize with their behaviour, choices, and patterns? Similarly, Zinnia Naqvi’s films probe these often blurred lines of morality, where the film’s characters are entangled in stories in which truth is seldom so easily traceable. 

Image: Still From Farzana, 2021. HD Video 33:44. Directed by Zinnia Naqvi and Zehra Nawab. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Farzana is the last work in the series of films, which Naqvi found inspiration for while making Seaview, whereas The Translation is Approximate, the second film, was made “almost as a study film for Farzana.”2 The sequence of the films was conceptualized before production, which diminished the tendency for me to write about them chronologically. A key scene in The Translation is Approximate, which depicts an interaction between Naqvi’s chachi (aunt) Atia, and a recently hired domestic worker Farzana, introduces the central narrative of  Farzana. Unaware that Naqvi is recording the conversation between the two women, Farzana, who is sitting on the floor, weeps to Atia about a nephew who has run away with her family’s hard-earned money. Atia appears relaxed on an armchair listening, and offering half-hearted words of encouragement advises Farzana to have faith in Allah to resolve her misfortune. With her camera placed at a low and awkward angle in order to remain inconspicious, Naqvi films the encounter from her hip. Aware that the conversation is tense, yet simultaneously unaware of the specifics of what she and the camera are witnessing, she remarks, “the camera had never felt heavier to me than at that moment.”3 Later, Naqvi learns that Farzana had lied about her misfortune, and Atia, aware of this all along, continued to listen. Even with this insider knowledge from her aunt, Naqvi’s film questions the truth we don’t have visual access to. Naqvi confirms this when she tells me she still wonders about “the truthfulness to [her] aunt’s story.”4 Struggling to make sense of the event and her voyeuristic role in it, in The Translation is Approximate, she leaves the camera momentarily, turning to draw in an attempt to trace the connecting lines between Farzana, Atia, herself—and by extension, the camera with all of its limitations and provocations. Here, we see Farzana as though a camera herself, driving the film’s narrative, concealing parts of the truth, fabricating others, and ultimately deciding how she wants to be portrayed. 

Atia’s nonchalant reaction to Farzana’s misfortune, however untrue, offers a glimpse into the class tensions that have led up to this moment. Poverty and crime are undeniably present in Karachi, Pakistan, and this reality largely desensitizes people. Naqvi tells me that her aunt’s behaviour seems more suited to someone who has become numb or “hardened”5 by the realities of Pakistani society. At the same time, the film asks the viewer to consider the circumstances which led Farzana to fabricate such a story in the first place. Issues related to class and a woman’s role in society, both in public and within the household, are further explored in Farzana, a fictitious film derived from this original footage. Charmaine and Nasreen, characters based on Naqvi’s aunt Atia and the maid Farzana, are situated in a North American setting. The mistrust between Charmaine (an overworked psychotherapist and mother of two small children), and Nasreen (a recent immigrant mother and newly hired domestic worker to Charmaine) unravels throughout the film, creating a psychologically tense mood. Within the moments of affection and understanding in their shared womanhood and motherhood, suspicions arise from their distinct socio-economic standings. As the narrative unfolds, Naqvi leaves the audience yearning to know what is not shown, what is being assumed, and what is hinted at. The final scene is a heart-wrenching depiction of Nasreen admitting to stealing from Charmaine, ultimately leaving no resolution to the story. Charmaine struggles to decide whether to call the police—perhaps feeling a mixture of empathy and pity for Nasreen’s own family and their unconfirmed permanent residency status. As the audience, we propel the plot forward, becoming involved in minute details akin to murder-mystery-true-crime style, as though we could truly understand all the pieces of the story. Naqvi says, “someone once told me, you’re trusting your audience a lot.”6 At the end of Farzana, we are left desperately seeking concrete answers and searching for closure where there is none.

Image: Still From Farzana, 2021. HD Video 33:44. Directed by Zinnia Naqvi and Zehra Nawab. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Evidence of Nasreen stealing from Charmaine is given at the film’s end, but such a justification still fails to bring the narrative to a close. Throughout Farzana, Naqvi questions our capacity to empathize with both women, and as the narrative unravels it carefully reveals their dependence on each other. The exploration of domestic workers in visual culture is uncommon, even though Naqvi assures that “in many countries around the world, it’s normal to hire permanent staff to help with the domestic labour and running of the household.”7 For example, in Bangladeshi photographer Jannatul Mawa’s series Close Distance (2013), housewives and their maids are pictured sitting together. Clothing and jewelry, or lack thereof, are the visual clues distinguishing the housewives from their maids, but facial expressions and body language further hint toward their class differences. Mawa explains that in these portraits “the maids are ‘close’ to the housewives but ‘distant’ at the same time.”8 

My own childhood in India can attest to this distinction. Domestic labourers were always around. Our neighbours knew who worked for which household, whether they were live-in or not, and how long they had worked for each family. All of this was enough to treat them as family members with loyalty and commitment as the forefront of their job descriptions. Growing up in a middle-class home with aging grandparents, I’ve seen a handful of domestic workers pass through, but I’ll always remember Bunnu. Only a few years older than me, Bunnu was my companion, sometimes big sister or best friend, who in the same breath was my chaperone and caregiver, all the while being a dutiful labourer to my grandparents and our home. The difference between her and me was clear—even at that young age, even if unspoken between us. Our relationship had a hard limitation: a contract with an end date. 

Image: Still from the Translation is Approximate, 2021. HD Video 10:33. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Though Farzana is explicitly defined as fiction, Naqvi has been straddling the delicate lines between fact and fiction since the making of Seaview. At the time of filming the original footage of her aunt and Farzana in 2013, she was interested in documentary photography. When reflecting on this, she says, “we see the material, but we have a tendency to forget about the camera, the tool itself. It takes effort and confidence and decisiveness to lift the camera up to eye level.”9 While her initial intention was to include the footage in Seaview, she admits that she did not possess the tools to unpack such a complicated event at the time. Despite this, the understanding of the latter two films is firmly grounded in the first. A work that originally emerged from a photography project, Seaview lays bare the contradictions of the camera and the act of photographing through a diasporic lens. Towards the end of the film, a young Naqvi grapples with images she took in Karachi. “What am I really saying about this place?”10 she asks. We see her computer screen change, and several photographs from her Karachi trip appear, bearing the familiar travel and documentary style prevalent in mainstream media and visual culture. After completing her undergraduate studies in photographic arts, she returned to Pakistan with aspirations of becoming a photojournalist and to connect with this part of her identity. Referring to an image taken by Ali Khurshid, a photographer whose sublime images of Clifton Beach she first saw in a Time Magazine issue as a child, she contemplates, “it’s amazing to me that it was a picture like this that made me want to make pictures.”11 Dazed by how his picturesque sunset-clad rendition of the often crowded beach challenged Naqvi’s childhood memories of the place, she expresses, “for the first time, I became aware of the persuasive power of the camera.12 

Image: Still from Seaview, 2014. HD Video 11:59. Photo courtesy of the artist.

So much of living in diaspora is tied to translation. An individual estranged from their mother tongue knows this too well, how we rely on quick English summaries from a relative or friend fluent in the local language and find our understanding there. The end becomes our beginning, and we search to pave a path back to the original words. We always start at the summary, at the gist of things, and hope for an eventual return to the true meaning of a story we never knew to begin with—an impossible feat. This is why I reserve my empathy for the storyteller, the filmmaker, the witness, a woman of this diaspora: Naqvi herself. In Seaview, when she practices speaking Urdu with her family driver and fumbles over the word rishwath (bribe), it feels like an early indicator of the lies, fictions, and fabrications to come later in the form of Atia, Farzana, then Charmaine and Nasreen, all of whom seek validation from the camera which hides itself under the guise of “objectivity.” In their search for validation, they yearn to be seen and heard by the camera, by Naqvi, and by us, hoping their wholeness is not reduced to their actions. Their lives are translated to us by the artist, whose own truth derives from the fragments she collects while balancing her Western and Pakistani worldviews. 

The danger in empathizing too much with the artist is that we might easily forgive her. Naqvi is strikingly aware of this: “The real story [if it exists] is just my experience. I’m taking some risk and I’m also prepared to be shut down.”13 All three films begin with self-doubt, weaving into one another and disrupting the assumption that the camera sees all and knows all. What we see daringly accomplished in these films is how space and time, while held within the frame, is made uncontainable, released delicately and painfully across geographies that bound these four women. Their digressions, along with the films’ non-linear elements of storytelling, have a pace that is haunting yet affirming, and encourages the viewer to examine the empathy within themselves to forgive the characters for their flaws.

Our ability to empathize is often linked to the discomfort associated with our attempt to understand the unfamiliar or the unrelatable. When Naqvi took the original footage, shooting from her hip and unable to lift the camera to eye level, she admits, “it was my discomfort that weighed the camera.”14 As viewers, we are also implicated in each film’s narratives and share her discomfort. This feeling lingers, staying with us despite the aftermath, leaving our thoughts scattered, and questioning our position as viewer—as voyeur—in their stories. 

  1. Toni Morrison, “Site of Memory,” in Inventing Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir (Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995), 93.
  2. Zinnia Naqvi (artist) in discussion with the author, May 2023.
  3. The Translation is Approximate, directed by Zinnia Naqvi (2021), vimeo.
  4. Zinnia Naqvi (artist) in discussion with the author, May 2023.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Jannatul Mawa, “Close Distance,” Invisible Photographer Asia, 2104,
  9. Zinnia Naqvi (artist) in discussion with the author, May 2023.
  10. Seaview, directed by Zinnia Naqvi (2014), vimeo.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Zinnia Naqvi (artist) in discussion with the author, May 2023.
  14. The Translation is Approximate, directed by Zinnia Naqvi (2021), vimeo.

Feature Image: Still from the Translation is Approximate, 2021. HD Video 10:33. Photo courtesy of the artist.