The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced last week that it has received a record number of submissions to the Best Foreign Language Category. Eighty-three submissions to be exact.
While the vast majority of the Foreign Language frontrunners come from countries that have received more than one nomination in years past, the North African country of Mauritania is submitting a film for the first time, “Timbuktu.”
In addition to “Timbuktu,” there’s a record number of submissions from across the world, pointing towards an ideological shift, albeit small, against the legacy of colonialism in cinema, which has historically privileged the Western point of view.
Pakistan’s official submission to the 2015 Academy Awards, “Dukhtar,” was directed by Pakistani-born, Brooklyn-based filmmaker Afia Nathaniel and tells the story of a mother and daughter who flee their tribe in order to escape the daughter’s arranged marriage to a much older man.
Indiewire spoke with Nathaniel on the phone last month just after “Dukhtar” had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Below is an edited version of the interview in which she not only describes what it was like to make a film in a country with a film industry that had its growth stymied by the aftermath of colonialism, but also the long-term solutions she hopes to implement in order to help it get back on track.
Your name has been associated with the term “New Wave Pakistani Independent Film Movement” more than once. Can you talk about the origins of this movement and where it might be headed?
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I think for Pakistani cinema, the word “revival” has been used way too often and incorrectly. I think you need to have a critical mass of content before there is a true revival in any industry. So far we’ve been seeing [independent] films coming out of Pakistan once every [one or two] years. [I]t’s a great start but not really a true revival so to speak, and this term, “New Wave” has been hanging around for more than a decade and back home we’re all like, it exists but there is hardly anybody making feature films for global audiences.
We stand at an interesting crossroads. I would say that what really spurred this [notion of a] New Wave is the emergence of filmmakers from middle-class backgrounds. In India and Pakistan there is a big divide between various classes. Very often, the films or the voices you would hear [up until this point] were from filmmakers who came from well-to-do [backgrounds]; their parents had been in the industry, had money, set them up with production houses and so on. But I think [over] the past few years [we are seeing] filmmakers making films on their own terms and [getting recognized for] their own merit; not [just] depending on infrastructure or support from within the country. Those kinds of stories and those kinds of filmmakers are taking risks within the [Pakistani film] industry that I think will probably [spur] this movement forward.
What halted the development of Pakistan’s film industry?
Unlike India, where the cinema industry went through several distinct phases, cinema didn’t really evolve in Pakistan after Partition. We inherited the Bollywood tradition of filmmaking and that stayed on until the late 70s, the golden time in Lollywood, as we call our local industry. After that, there wasn’t really anything comparable to the movements in Indian cinema. Realism, neorealism, those aspects were missing from [Pakistani films] or have been missing for decades. [But] as I said before, Pakistan is at a very interesting crossroads, thanks to the emergence of voices from the middle class, which [have and continue to play a] key [role] in India’s art house and parallel cinema. When you have voices coming from a middle class background, that is when you see realism and diversity within storytelling culture and form. It is something we are seeing just now in Pakistan. I am really excited to see where we go from here because the time is just right to take risks and tell stories the way we want to tell them.
The tense political legacy of Partition hasn’t filtered down into relationships between Pakistani and Indian independent filmmakers, who frequently collaborate and support one another. Have you found that to be the case?
I think it’s very true and I think that the Indian festivals have played a very positive role for other South Asian countries by reaching out. For instance, I can speak about some of the South Asian festivals in the U.S. that have actively reached out to the Pakistani, the Bangladeshi, the Nepali filmmakers, whoever they could find, and bring them into the fold. It’s tremendous that they have taken the leadership to do that. I believe that the Partition animosity doesn’t really exist in entertainment. Entertainment is a different beast. You come there to celebrate your culture, you come there to celebrate stories, and I believe that at a very basic level, when you have these universal themes in films, it helps us connect in a much more visceral way than any political dialogue could do. I would love to take this film to India because I think there is a large audience that would love to see something like it.
As a filmmaker, how do you see your relationship to politics? Specifically, with “Dukhtar,” how did prevailing public and private attitudes towards women shape the way you approached your subjects and the story?
I think [that as filmmakers] we inherently have a responsibility to bring forth the reality in the country in some way. The good, the bad and the ugly — [we have] to embrace it. [We need to] give cinema a conscience; every nation has a conscience and it is really important to me that I see this conscience reflected in cinema.
For me, it [was] important to stay true to the real story that I heard [upon which the film is based]. [The] actual story is far more surreal and complicated, [but] I fictionalized the idea in order to portray a society that is caught between different worlds. In our country we are progressive, but at the same time, we have a deeply conservative side. There is a deep schism, but at the same time [these sensibilities] exist together in the same breath. [O]n one side you have a violent undercurrent, in terms of how women’s rights are viewed and dealt with. [A]t the same time, if you look at the character of the truck driver, he is a guy but not that violent. He left a life of violence to embrace his more romantic side. [The film is] not so much [about] showing one side of this patriarchal society, but [rather the] shades of gray. Even in the scene where the father is forced to give away his daughter, we see [him] struggle. He is [ultimately] forced to make [a] choice: to give away one life [that of his daughter] in order to save the lives [of many more]. It’s a situation fraught with a lot of difficulty [and] a lot of complications that are inherent in our sociopolitical set-up. People are trying to struggle to find answers or find a way to change it but sometimes you get sucked right back in. It’s tough to change the status quo.
What have you learned by living, studying and working in the United States that you couldn’t have learned by living in Pakistan?
[As] filmmakers, [it] is really important to [never forget] that we are in the entertainment business; at the end of the day we have to sell our films globally and that kind of understanding [that] only comes with being out[side] of Pakistan. [M]y time in New York has been great because I have really learned how the industry works over the past decade. Only then was I ready to take this film, make it and bring it to the world — because I know how the business side is going to work out for it. I think that kind of know how is very critical for any film to succeed, [especially] coming from such [a] modest cinema background. In India also, if you see how “The Lunchbox” did, it was [not only] a beautiful film, packaged amazingly [with a] great story [and] producing team, [but] the business side was [also] handled well. I think [in Pakistan] we need [that] kind of expertise — [on] how to connect the local industry to the global market.
What is your role in the future development of Pakistan’s film industry?
My next task is to promote and work on getting Pakistan to sign co-production treaties with France and Germany because I believe that is where our most productive business relationships can start right away. While I was working on my own film, I realized what a big loss it was for Pakistan to not have co-production treaties with these countries the way [that] India has [had them in place]. Pakistan can’t really tap into the resources the way other countries can because we are missing the agreements that can facilitate [this type of relationship]. That is where our responsibility lies — to make it easier for easier for other filmmakers and other producers from the country to work within a more global setting.