In the 1960s, the U.S. State Department intiated the Jazz Ambassadors program, sending jazz giants like Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington on tours to cities around the world, including Lahore, Pakistan. In Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken’s documentary “Song of Lahore,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year, a group of Pakistani musicians that form the Sachal Studios return the favor. The film follows the unlikely events that saw these musicians first become a YouTube sensation and then receive an invitation to play a fusion of jazz and traditional Pakistani music with Wynton Marsalis at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Once a musical haven, Lahore has been torn apart by ethnic division, constant war and Islamization for decades. With “Song of Lahore,” Obaid-Chinoy and Schocken hoped to preserve the voices of the musicians of Lahore, who share the difficult and often dangerous fight to preserve a space for creative expression.
The film sculpts vivid and memorable profiles of each of the musicians, who speak to their need to express themselves through music, the tradition of their ancestors, as well as their need to survive in the tightening cultural landscape of Lahore. When the musicians arrive in New York, the film rides its crescendo and bursts into life. Watching the initial clash of cultures unfold in the rehearsals in the days leading up to the Lincoln Center performance is equal parts exhilarating and terrifying, and it sets the stage for an irresistibly joyous conclusion.
Speaking to Indiewire following a special screening at New York’s Crosby Street Hotel on Tuesday evening, Academy Award winner Obaid-Chinoy and Schocken spoke to the power of music as a universal language and their attempt to paint a different picture of Pakistan through its people rather than its politics.
What struck you about this story and what inspired you to make the film?
Andy Schocken: Sharmeen actually began the project and worked on it for about a year on her own. She found the characters and she was the one who discovered the story originally. She brought me in about a year later when she was looking for a partner,and she reached out to a filmmaking colleague of mine that she had worked with before, Daniel Junge, who she had co-directed “Saving Face” with, and I had co-produced a film called “The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner” with him. Daniel recommended me and Sharmeen and I met briefly at a teashop near here. We spoke about the project and probably had about two conversations and then 10 days later, I was on a flight to Pakistan.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: I didn’t want to tell him too much in case he changed his mind.
AS: If I knew then what I know now. [laughs]
How did your two approaches differ?
SOC: Actually, I’ve done a number of co-productions and I’ve co-directed films and I feel like co-directing works. Especially if you’re doing a film in two countries and it’s a big project, you require an energy to bring financiers to put the film together. There’s just so many things that one does. As filmmakers, you’re not working on just one project, you’re producing something, directing something, shooting something, and so it becomes hard to do it by yourself.
For us, it worked out really well because we, in some ways, without even deciding who was going to do what, we figured out what each one of us could do. This film is very much a testament of both of us bringing what we have learned to the table, our own experiences and our own love. Obviously for me it’s something personal, but to bring Andy on to this project, the music resonated with him, the musicians’ lives resonated with him, and that’s why he came on board.
AS: It can also be helpful to have two different perspectives. Sharmeen is an insider, she knows the culture, she knows the music. I came in with a very different perspective from outside the country. It changes things, it changes your relationship with the characters in the story, and they treat me differently than they treat Sharmeen. When you have an outsider coming into a social milieu like that, they want to share with you, they want to open up, they want to share their music, they want to tell their stories, they explain things, which is important when you’re making documentaries — to be able to show your audience these things rather than telling them. The two perspectives were very complementary.
What were your aims in making a movie about music?
SOC: We started out by documenting their stories and their personal lives. The arc of the film was never very clear to us because we didn’t know what the trajectory of these musicians was going to be, we were just preserving their voices and documenting what they were doing. It’s fortuitous that all of these things happened. It’s every documentary filmmaker’s dream to start up a project and have it take its natural course — from Lahore to New York, from Sachal Studios to Jazz at Lincoln Center, to Wynton Marsalis to sold out concerts — that’s the stuff that dreams are made of.
AS: A lot of this was not planned out. We hadn’t necessarily planned to spend so much time on the New York section of the story, it’s just that when we got here to Jazz at Lincoln Center, it became this dramatic series of scenes. We ended up spending a good deal of the film in these rehearsals between Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Sachal Studios musicians because it becomes this dramatic turning point in the film, where as an audience member, you really don’t know what is going to happen. We as filmmakers didn’t know what was going to happen when they stepped on stage. It was important for us to keep our eyes open to the dramatic elements that we weren’t expecting.
To what extent did you seek to make a film about music and not about politics? How did you reconcile those notions and is it possible to divorce the two concepts from each other?
AS: This is first and foremost a film about people and it gets at issues of culture, social issues that run through this story, but at its heart it is a story about people. I think it’s a very different approach to telling stories. It’s something you are allowed to do when you’re working in a feature-length medium that you can develop these nuanced stories and you can follow their lives in depth and you can approach these themes which are important in a subtle way. Of course there’s politics buried in the film, but we’re not telling those stories front and center, we allow it to come organically through the unfolding lives of the characters we follow.
The film raises fascinating questions about the audience for this music. One of the members says that because there is no local audience for their music, they needed to first find a global audience that could be rooted in Lahore. Do you have an intended audience for the film?
SOC: The intended audience for the film is the world. Music is a universal language and this film is testament to the fact that you can have people who don’t speak the same language, who don’t share a culture, don’t share religion, live worlds apart, people who don’t read music, people who read music, who come together to just play music. When you play music, you don’t need a language. Music is a language. And when anybody watches the film, it resonates with them, whether you know Pakistan or not, whether you’re familiar with our politics or not, that language of music permeates and everybody relates to it.
AS: As I said before, in the West, we feel like it’s important to tell a different kind of story about the people of Pakistan that’s not ripped from the headlines, that’s not about violence, politics and conflict, and to present a story about the people of Pakistan. At the same time, we’re going to be releasing the film in Pakistan and for that audience, we hope to renew their appreciation for the cultural gifts that they have, for the heritage that they’re losing. So the film plays differently between those two audiences.
Are you hopeful that this cultural tradition in Pakistan can be revitalized? Have you noticed any shifts in the 10 years that the Sachal group has been playing?
SOC: It took a long time and a series of regressive policies by subsequent governments to bring Pakistan to where it is today, and it’s going to take a long time to bring Pakistan back to the Pakistan my grandparents grew up in. Having said that, you feel that with the music and the musicians and the kind of acclaim they’re getting, that they are revitalizing audiences, they are creating new audiences. It is going to be a slow and painful process, but at least they’ve taken one step towards that.
“Song of Lahore” will be released in theaters on November 13.