The title Eating Grass refers to and questions a remark made by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in regards to Pakistani development of a nuclear bomb. Bhutto stated that, should India develop nuclear technology, Pakistan would go hungry, would eat grass or leaves if necessary, in pursuit of its own nuclear arms. The two countries – with so rich a shared past and so conflicted a shared present – are today pitted against each other and as such, Syed seems to say, the only possible result is to the detriment of each. At a more personal level, the film and its title can be construed as referring to the diasporic experience of living in two cultures at once, of negotiating between two worlds and multiple identities. Its pace emphasizes the permeability of identity, and of the instability of the zone of “multiculturalism.”
Filmed in London, Karachi, and Lahore – one city, Syed has said, falls into another – Eating Grass is organized around the five daily prayers of Muslim traditional practice. Syed, who is also a poet, compliments this pace of the day as punctuated by calls to prayer with an underlying poetic and lyrical rhythm. As per a 2012 interview with LACMA assistant curator Julie Romain, Syed originally wrote a short story in relation to the early morning call to prayer, inspired by her realization one day in Karachi that the call she had originally taken to be the traditional one of a muezzin was actually a distorted tape recording. She then went on to write four additional short stories that relate to the remaining daily calls to prayer; together these five visual and audio vignettes comprise the film.
Calls to prayer, Syed has stated, serve as access points to memories. The stringing of these memories together in and through our daily lives results in a feeling of continuity; it is this flow she calls upon in the film. In an October 2, 2012 guest lecture given to art history students at UCLA, Syed suggested that the viewers allow themselves to “feel” the film, to follow it in a dream-like manner, rather than attempt to intellectually trace or decipher its meaning. Such instruction frees from viewer from attempting what tends to come naturally – finding a pattern or inventing a story – and allows him or her to instead give in to nuance and impression. Visually, the film has a “ghosted” appearance – a result of her filming and processing technique – that emphasizes a realization of the very real presence memories have as they juxtapose themselves in our daily lives. The lyrical rise and fall of the audio – comprised of English and Urdu voice-over – follows its own cadence. The two languages are not quite direct translations, do not quite line up either in meaning or in pace, and therefore portray both the disconnect and the complexity of language.