Sarah Jahaan Khan belongs to the school of filmmakers who believe they are empowered to challenge norms and change mindsets through films. She is a young documentary filmmaker who took inspiration from her mother Samar Minallah Khan. At the age of 15 she started to highlight positive initiatives by rural women of Pakistan to address the impact of climate change and made her first documentary film ‘Harvesting Hope’. Her second film ‘The Ripple Effect’ (which is about how to access clean water) won the second award at the Girls Impact the World Film Festival Awards at Harvard. The film was the finalist for the Austin Film Festival, Princeton Film Festival, Barcelona Planet Film Festival, NOOSA Film Festival in Australia, Women Delivers' Art Cinema Corner 2016 in Copenhagen and was recently screened in Dhaka for the Asian Development Bank Judicial Roundtable on Environmental Justice. Sarah has also been featured in BBC’s list of the Top 100 Women of 2014 for her advocacy and filmmaking. She is a true inspiration for all those who wish to do something extraordinary. In an exclusive interview with Weekend she talks about her career, inspirations and future aims.
Tell us something about your education?
I just finished my A levels from Headstart School in Islamabad. I’ve received an offer and 800th Anniversary Scholarship from Cambridge University for my undergraduate studies, which is quite exciting!
When did you make your first film and what it was about?
I made my first film ‘Harvesting Hope’ at the age of 15 and it was about the health complications women cotton pickers face due to the excessive use of chemical pesticides. Cotton is Pakistan’s largest export yet people remain unaware of the kind of negative occupational effects on the health of young cotton pickers. I saw how it caused painful rashes, different kinds of cancers, and even reproductive complications such as miscarriages, in addition to the chemicals contamination of entire villages.
How do you research for your films and how long does it normally take?
The interviews and research are always time consuming compared to the actual editing. I research the issue in depth and speak to experts and this process takes a long time.
What is the main focus of your film making?
My short films have always been focused on the relationship between women and environmental issues. Rural women have issues like collecting water from far off areas due to shortage of water, picking cotton, ensuring food security for the family etc. Because of their dependence on natural resources, women are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Pakistan is the 5th most vulnerable country in terms of climate change, therefore preventing its negative ramifications through adaptation methods is especially pertinent.
Why did you choose film making as the medium to highlight these issues?
I’ve always enjoyed writing, but to convey the issues of women and girls as effectively as possible, filmmaking was the best option and the most powerful medium. Because of these films policy-makers in Asia took measures to restrict the activities which posed serious threats to the health of women and girls.
What is the one aspect which you focus on most in your films?
When I make films, I make sure to highlight solutions addressing the issue at hand. To make progress we need to focus more on telling stories about those who are innovative and creative. There’s so much to learn from Pakistani women and their indigenous methods. We face problems as a nation, but it is crucial to highlight the countless stories of hope and solutions rather than continuing to lament the problems.
What are some of the challenges you face being a documentary filmmaker in Pakistan?
The process of documentary filmmaking is quite difficult, but I think it becomes easier once one gains trust of the people who are being interviewed or documented. For my first film there were apprehensions that the negative impact of our country’s largest industry is being projected. But at the same time solutions can only be made by highlighting the issues. Then there are technical difficulties and lack of resources. So for the time being, I focus more on content than the technicalities of the film.
Who has had the biggest influence on your life?
My mother has had biggest influence on me. I have my favourite memories from childhood of travelling to remote areas of Pakistan with her. She had to make these trips for her filming work and during those trips I learnt so much from the women she worked with. I got the chance to experience Pakistan’s vibrant spectrum of cultures and people. I have also come across women like Irum Ahsan, who is a champion of sustainability and plays a key role in organising the Asian Development Bank’s Judicial Roundtable on Environmental Justice every year.
What do you do for the solutions of the issues highlighted in your films?
I make sure to bring awareness to the maximum audience. For instance, I recently developed a workshop model aimed at equipping rural women and girls, who are on the frontline of climate change with the knowledge and methods necessary to deal with the issues at hand. It incorporates four basic, affordable and simple methods, such as organic farming or rainwater harvesting. It was attended by over 70 women in Mardan, and each was enthusiastic to incorporate these methods in their everyday lives. On a larger scale, leading sessions at the Asian Development Banks Judicial Roundtables has allowed me to inform Presidents, Chief Justices, judges, lawyers, and environmental experts about such solutions.
In what way your work is different from your mother’s work?
Our work is somewhat similar in the medium, but the issues we work and focus on are different. I primarily focus on environmental issues, and climate change adaptation and mitigation, while my mother has been focused on child marriages for over 25 years.
You have big achievements at a very young age. What do all these laurels mean to you?
It has been incredibly humbling to win a prize at the Girls Impact the World Film Festival Awards at Harvard for a film I made with no formal training in documentary filmmaking. I am grateful for these experiences, and for being invited to places like Harvard, Princeton, Paley Centre Manhattan, LUMS to speak about creating social change through film, but I think having the chance to speak at the Asian Development Banks Judicial Roundtable on Environmental Justice was the most special for me.
What is next for Sarah Jahaan Khan?
I hope to continue telling stories that matter.