A lady who finds extraordinary in the ordinary

In conversation with Afia Nathaniel

2016-05-17T22:24:27+05:00 Faizan Hussain

The fate of Pakistani Film Industry is changing since experienced and qualified people are making films. Last year we saw many wonderful movies like Waar, Main Hoon Shahid Afridi, Chambaili, Zinda Bhaag etc which created vibes across the borders. This year we are again going make a big bang with the upcoming movie Dukhtar directed, written, screen played by Afia Nathaniel. She is a computer-scientist-turned filmmaker who loves working in the thriller, fantasy, supernatural and sci-fi genres. Asia’s short films have garnered critical acclaim at various international and Asian-American festivals. Her directorial debut Nadah had its World Premiere at the Rotterdam and nominated for the Golden Reel Award in Los Angeles together with her screenwriting debut of Butterfly. She has won numerous international awards including the Geri Ashur Screenwriting Award, Ezra Litwak Distinction in Screenwriting, IFP Market Best Screenplay “Emerging Narrative” and a Hollywood Foreign Press Association Award.

In addition to filmmaking, Afia has worked in an advisory capacity on several feature film projects and has mentored student filmmakers based in the US and Pakistan. She worked as an assistant editor on the acclaimed feature documentary Shame which premiered at Toronto.

Her upcoming movie Dukhtar, releasing on August 14, is moving story which highlights the sacrifice and courage of a young mother who is forced to flee her village with her daughter on the eve of the girl’s marriage to a tribal leader. A deadly hunt for them begins. In an exclusive interview with Sunday Plus Afia talks about her movie, Pakistani film industry and many more. Following are the excerpts of the interview:

Was it a conscious decision on your part to highlight certain social issues? If so, why?

The seed of the story was about the courage of a young mother who is forced to flee her village with her daughter. The social issue of child marriage is automatically part of the package because that is the reason she is forced to make the decision.

When I make films, I look for the extraordinary in the ordinary. And in this case, the motivations of the young mother are extraordinary as are the circumstances she is propelled into. The universal theme of the film is about courage and what we do for the people we love.

There are a lot of films coming up that have themes centered around politics, social issues, censorship. What has given filmmakers the courage to create films around these issues within Pakistan?

A film has to reflect the conscience of a nation. There is a lot of pent-up frustration in the hearts and minds of the common man. If the themes coming out are around politics and socio-economic change, it is but a natural reflection of what is on the minds of the common man.

In your opinion, what sort of identity is Pakistan trying to create through its cinema?

When you talk about identity in cinema, it is a complicated question because on one hand you have the item number type of films which are more about fulfilling the male fantasy in Pakistan rather than anything else. On the other hand, you have films that can be said to have social realism in it. Those kinds of films have a level of introspection woven into it. Audiences go to see those films knowing about the issue and wanting to discover its relevance. Then you have the films with the agenda of nationalistic messages which caters to yet another kind of identity for Pakistan; so Pakistani films are a mixed bag.

How has the film been financed?

During the development of the film, we were supported by the International Film Festival of Rotterdam with their Hubert Bals Fund and National Geographic’s All Road Seed Grant as well as UK’s New Genre Fund from WorldView.

In 2012, Dukhtar won a prestigious film production award Sorfund from Norway and became the first Pakistani feature film to win this award. This helped us secure the remaining financing to go into production. Once the film was in post-production, we won several other prestigious awards from Cinereach, Women in Film (Netflix), Adrienne Shelly Foundation, NYSCA. We’ve received tremendous support from film organizations and institutes like IFP and Tribeca Film Institute in New York and Film Independent in Los Angeles. No other Pakistani feature film has won so many awards from its development till post-production stage. This is a testament to Dukhtar’s international quality and potential as well as the filmmaker’s talent.

Have you marketed your films outside the country? Is there a market for it outside?

There is a huge market for Dukhtar outside of Pakistan. We will be begin by introducing Dukhtar at a major international film festival and follow it up with release in several countries via festivals and distribution deals. It is a long process and selling a film and marketing it to various audiences requires us to work hand-in-hand with that country’s distributor. We have exciting plans in front of us.

What according to you have been the ills plaguing the Pakistani film industry and what has changed in the last year?

The biggest ill which has plagued the industry is the lack of new writer-directors and producers coming in. Couple it with the lack of understanding of how the film business works outside of Pakistan; you have a situation where the industry has been stagnant. No real growth or revival has actually happened - only a handful of films and new filmmakers have come out in the last decade alone. There is no serious effort to finance new kinds of films and new kinds of filmmakers. We need diversity in our cinema and not the same song and dance routine. Unless there is a healthy mix of films and filmmakers, no cinema industry will prosper or grow.

Is the younger generation of artists, directors and filmmakers starting to come to fore?

They are coming to the fore. However, writing and directing for a feature film is a very special skill-set and not many filmmakers in this country actually understand it. You also need a life experience to tell stories as well as technical skills. Until you have experienced life and trained yourself over several years, it’s a very tough discipline to actually do justice to. It is very easy to call yourself a filmmaker but actually very tough to make a good film.

Did you draw inspiration, technical help from abroad or is the whole filmmaking process happening internally?

I only work with the very best whether it’s people recruited locally or from abroad. I am very proud of the fact that 100% of our crew and cast are local and not a single gora came to tell us what to do. There is no dearth of talent in the country. We worked with people from Lollywood, from the TV industry, from advertising industry. For post-production, our work was spread over Lahore and New York. We worked with an excellent New York based team which did all the finishing work on the film.

How easy/ difficult is it being a woman filmmaker in Pakistan? Are the expectations any different?

I was the only female crew member and 40 male crew members. We were on the road for two months in the northern areas to make the film and I really missed having women in the crew. I tried very hard to recruit some but because the nature of the shooting was very difficult and long and in areas where security was a major concern, I had great trouble recruiting any female crew members for the shoot. In Pakistan, it is a difficult experience because women at workplace and not just in the film industry are judged and scrutinised a lot more than their male counterparts. There are advantages to being a female filmmaker. For one thing, people are willing to trust you more. When I was doing the recce of the film with my crew, it was very easy for me to approach villagers and do my research and go inside people’s homes and meet with the women and children. There is an implicit trust that you build with people you work. In the Pakistani film industry being a female filmmaker-producer from a middle class background is a very isolating experience especially when it comes to feature films. However, once I’m in work mode on a set I don’t think about my gender and I just focus on getting the job done well and on-time. And I don’t think my crew has time to think about these things as well when they are in work-mode. On the set, I am very much like a mother to my crew even though I may be younger. I look out for them in ways that most male producers wouldn’t. To me the discipline on a set matters a lot. I am the first one to show up at call time on the set and one of the last ones to leave. So the respect I have earned in the local industry is because whoever has worked with me knows that apart from talent it is the discipline which counts and they trust me 100% when we go out to film. They know I know what I’m doing. 

How do you address critics that site your hybrid identity means you aren’t able to really capture what it means to live and breathe as a Pakistani?

There is a difference between a regular “critic” and those who are “critical”. I am very much a Pakistani who was born and brought up in Pakistan and I am interested in pushing the boundaries of storytelling and cinema. I want to make thrillers, sci-fi and supernatural films. For those who are “critical” of my work, there can only be these two reasons; first, they have no understanding of the diversity of storytelling within cinema, secondly, they are not interested in hearing a point-of-view other than their own.

Cast: Samiya Mumtaz, Mohib Mirza, Saleha Aref, Asif Khan, Ajab Gul, Samina Ahmed, Adnan Shah Tipu, Abdullah Jaan, Omair Rana

Directed By: Afia Nathaniel

Written By: Afia Nathaniel

Screenplay By: Afia Nathaniel

Produced By: Afia Nathaniel, Muhammad Khalid Ali, Muhammad Nadeem Nawaz, Cordelia Stephens, CarstenAanonsen, ShrihariSathe, NomanWaheed, Thea Kerman

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