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Meet the 2015 Tribeca Filmmakers #25: Pakistan Keeps Classical Music Alive in ‘Song of Lahore’

Meet the 2015 Tribeca Filmmakers #25: Pakistan Keeps Classical Music Alive in 'Song of Lahore'

READ MORE: Meet the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival Filmmakers

Song of Lahore,” from filmmakers Andy Schocken and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, is a documentary about a group of Pakistani classical musicians. Before the late 70s, the Pakistani city of Lahore was famous for its music; following the Islamization of Pakistan, many artists struggled to maintain their creative professions in the turbulent society. 

But the musicians profiled in “Song of Lahore” refused to give up, kept playing, and eventually attracted listeners from around the world. 

What’s your film about in 140 characters or less?

“Song of Lahore” follows several Pakistani classical musicians, and asks if there is still room for them in a society roiled by conflict.

Now what’s it REALLY about?

For two years, we followed the lives of a group of Pakistani musicians who were brought together to keep their classical music alive. Most of them came from “Lollywood,” the once-thriving Pakistani film industry that has nearly disappeared in recent years. After putting out a number of traditional albums that failed to earn much attention, they recorded an unexpected album covering Western jazz standards with South Asian instruments like tablas and sitar. To everyone’s surprise, it became the #1 jazz album on iTunes, and they were invited by Wynton Marsalis to perform with his orchestra at Jazz at Lincoln Center. We follow their remarkable journey to the stage in New York, and ask whether there is still a future for musicians in Pakistan.

Tell us briefly about yourself.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: I was born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan and fell into the world of filmmaking at the age of 21, fresh out of college armed with a degree in Economics! Since then, I have criss crossed four continents to make a dozen films that focus on human rights and marginalized communities. From the Taliban to the fighters in Timor Leste and the women in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I am driven by a desire to talk about issues that often land me… literally in hot water! Song of Lahore is my first feature documentary film after receiving an Academy Award for Saving Face. I moved back to Karachi a few years ago to ensure that it features on Lonely Planet’s destination of choices in the coming years!
Andy Schocken: I grew up in Seattle, and got my start in documentaries at the Seattle PBS affiliate KCTS. I was lucky enough to have some great mentors there, like Sam Stroum, Enrique Cerna and Greg Davis, and we had some memorable adventures on the rivers, backroads, and mountains of the Pacific Northwest. I moved to Brooklyn in recent years, where I’ve focused on producing and cinematography, having worked on films like First Position, Gerhard Richter Painting, and The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner. Song of Lahore is my directorial debut.

Biggest challenge in completing this film?

There were a lot of unique challenges in producing the film, such as the logistical issues inherent in producing a long-term verite film in Pakistan, dealing with Urdu and Punjabi dialogue with an English-speaking editor, and all the difficulties in recording, editing, and clearing so many music tracks. But the biggest challenge overall was narrowing down the complex narrative elements into a clean, straightforward story, while maintaining a sense of the cultural context that makes the film special.

What do you want the Tribeca audience to take away from your film?

Western views of Pakistanis are typically shaped by front page headlines about terrorism and sectarian fighting. By giving our audience intimate access to the lives of these musicians, we hope to raise awareness of the region’s beautiful cultural heritage, and present a more nuanced portrait of its people. As one of the film subjects, Nijat Ali, says in the film, “God willing, the entire world will see that Pakistanis are artists, not terrorists.”

Any films inspire you?

SOC: The films that inspire me are the ones that reveal the resilience of the human spirit. A Beautiful Mind, more recently The Theory of Everything…Growing up I loved Gone with the Wind and the strong female characters it had…
AS: I was sad to hear about Bruce Sinofsky passing away recently, as his film (along with Joe Berlinger) Brother’s Keeper was one of my formative influences. Brother’s Keeper and Alan Berliner’s Intimate Stranger were the first documentaries that really captured my attention, and demonstrated how powerful nonfiction storytelling can be. And I still keep a VCR in good working condition so I can watch my old VHS dubs of Les Blank’s incredible work.

What’s next?

SOC: I have been working on an animated feature film “3 Bahadur” (3 Braves) for the past several years. It will be Pakistan’s first animated feature and will be playing in festivals, so keep an eye out! I am also co-directing a feature with Geeta Gandbhir about the world’s first all muslim all women peacekeeping unit.
AS: I have a feature documentary in development, and I’m continuing my producing/cinematography work for indie docs and corporate clients.

What cameras did you shoot on?

The majority of the film was shot on a Sony F3, but there were also scenes shot with a Canon C300. The climactic concert scene at Jazz at Lincoln Center was shot with Panasonic Varicams, and the house robocams.

Did you crowdfund?
If so, via what platform. If not, why?

No. We raised our funds from private donors, family foundations, and investors.

Did you go to film school? If so, which one? 

SOC: I didn’t go to film school! Everything I have learnt has been on the field on location and from the school of Hard Knocks!
AS: Yes, I attended the Documentary Filmmaking MA program at Stanford.

Indiewire invited Tribeca Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2015 festival. For profiles go HERE.

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