Interview: Afia Nathaniel discusses ‘Dukhtar’ and Pakistani Cinema

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Earlier this week I had the pleasure of conducting a Skype interview with writer-director Afia Nathaniel, whose debut feature Dukhtar was selected as Pakistan’s official submission for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. In this thriller, Nathaniel tells the story of a woman in the mountain regions of Pakistan who flees her home with her 10-year-old daughter, in order to save her from a forced child marriage. In our interview she went into details about the production of the film, as well as giving some interesting insight into Pakistani cinema in general.

Here’s the transcript of our chat…

Shane Slater: From reading some of your background info, I know that you have a keen interest in human rights issues and that definitely comes across in the film. What inspired you to tell this story in particular?

Afia Nathaniel: Well, for me the seed of the film really was in a true story that I heard many, many years ago while I was working with woman’s rights. The story was about this mother from the tribal regions of Pakistan who runs away with her two young daughters and the whole film unfolded as a story of this woman’s courage and dignity in the face of some very impossible conditions, and how she met those challenges. So really, it was about her courage and how she tries to find a new life. The actual story was far more surreal, far more difficult. But eventually, she does find a new life with her children in a strange city and she begins her life from scratch.

Pakistan is a very difficult country when it comes to telling stories about women, especially about female protagonists. For the longest time nobody was interested in financing a film with two women in the lead – a mother and a child – and no conventional hero, so to speak. Which is very different for a conventional Bollywood-driven industry. Also, the whole idea of doing a road trip film without a song and dance routine on top of it was something very difficult to fight for in our local industry.

SS: Could you perhaps shed some more light on what it was like getting the funding, casting and the process of shooting a film in Pakistan?

AN: Well, our film industry is not as well-developed as the Bollywood industry. So just to give you a sense of how we are…our golden era used to be in the ’70s and then there was a sad decline for many decades. Right now the industry is in “a spirit of revival”, so there are filmmakers taking a risk with new kinds of films, new kinds of storytelling and so on. So in terms of actors, there’s no dearth of talent because our TV industry is very strong and big. Our theatre industry is thriving also. So most of our actors were drawn from this pool of theatre actors and TV actors and in fact, the leading lady Samiya Mumtaz is a very seasoned theatre actess. I’ve known her work for more than 15-20 years now and I always knew her work would translate great on screen. This is probably her first feature film, she has never really agreed to do a feature film before. So she came on board as the first person several years ago, which was very crucial for us in terms of casting. Then everybody else followed once the money came.

The money as I mentioned very briefly, was always a huge problem. It took me 10 years to find the right sources and the right packaging, because the challenge was who would finance the portion that was going to be shot in Pakistan, the principal photography itself. We’re a very modest production, a small but ambitious cast and crew that wanted to make a film that could meet international standards and not be just a song and dance routine for our local audience. That reality actually kicked in once we won the Norwegian film grant (the SØRFOND), which was a brand new production grant set in 2012, given out by the Films from the South Festival. We became one of the seven grantees and they gave us €100,000, which is all we ever needed to go into production. Once that chunk came in, it was very easy to go around and make deals, local and international. As we went into post-production we added a few more partners to our journey. We won the Netflix post-production grant, the Adrienne Shelly grant and some more small pockets of money came about from other non-profits and film organizations to help us complete this film.

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SS: Now that you’ve completed the film, was this the culmination of a lifelong dream of being a filmmaker or was it something that you picked up recently?

AN: Well, I’m a trained a computer scientist but I left that life because I was always a storyteller. But we never had a film industry or film schools, so in Lahore I bought some screenplay books and taught myself to write screenplays. Meanwhile, I applied to film schools in the US and got very lucky when the chair of the film division of Columbia University said they’ll give me a Dean’s fellowship to come and do my MFA in Film Directing in New York. That phone call changed my life because once I landed in New York in 2001, I knew feature filmmaking is my forte. Within that, I love working in thrillers, sci-fi, fantasy, supernatural etc. I really gravitate towards these genres, I love films like Inception and I love Stanley Kubrick. So my inspirations run very deep within the industry and I want to do something different and original within these genres as well. For me, the stories and the storytelling are an inseparable part of my existence so I never consciously said “I’m a filmmaker”. I just think of myself as a storyteller and I go where that takes me.

SS: One thing that struck me while watching the film was the use of color, in terms of the clothing of the women and the truck vs the men and the mountain surroundings. I was wondering if this was something you were purposely trying to emphasize in the film?

AN: It’s interesting you ask that. I think we have such a colorful culture and palette within the country that I wanted to stay true to it. I didn’t want to drain it of any color. I see films where Pakistan is depicted and it’s always drained of color and I always wonder why that is, you know? Put the camera anywhere and there’s a burst of vibrancy and color. So even just the truck cutting through these mountainscapes and the roads – the truck itself is a bright symbol of any truck driver’s own sense of culture, poetry and art. He decorates the truck according to where he’s from, so within the film Mohib Mirza (who plays the truck driver) has a very checkered past but he’s also a romantic at heart. So you see the symbol of a tiger on the back of the truck. In Punjab, where he’s from, the tiger represents not just bravery, but also romance. He’s an idealistic, romantic guy at heart. In our poetry and in our culture, that symbol means something and people use color and symbols everywhere that they can. I wanted this film to be a celebration, even though the film is about a serious topic. The film celebrates the life and the courage of this mother and to me, the palette speaks very honestly about what’s happening. The landscapes themselves are like an important character in the film. It’s winter, but we have this beautiful sun coming out and suddenly the landscape changes color and texture. Even though it’s bleak mid-winter and it’s completely barren, you see the use of light and it informs the mood of the characters and the story.

The color red, I tried to use that sparingly. Red is used in celebrations. But it’s also a symbol of life, death, a bride, the deflowering of a young child. It represents these things, so it’s used like that in the film as well.

SS: Do you have any future projects lined up, or any ideas floating around for your next film?

AN: Well, I’m working on my next film. It’s a sci-fi thriller, a really crazy film. That’s all I can say right now. But it’s coming together, I’m writing the screenplay as we speak. I just need a few more months to get it polished so I can start working on it in a more formal sense.

Dukhtar is currently playing the festival circuit. Click here for my review of the film.