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IFT’s Neil McCartney on Pakistani cinema, SIFF and film festivals

Updated February 27, 2014

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Neil McCartney. – Courtesy Photo
Neil McCartney. – Courtesy Photo

It’s not every day – or year – when major film events happen in Pakistan. A couple of weeks ago was one such exception, when the first Sindh International Film Festival (SIFF) was unveiled to the public. Although a haphazardly set-up event with many inconstancies (including a lack of press and public information), SIFF is perhaps one of the more concrete steps towards strengthening the foothold of Pakistan’s emerging film industry.

One unanticipated aspect of SIFF was its partnership with the Raindance Film Festival – one of the most recognized, independent minded film festivals in the world – and The Independent Film Trust (IFT), a local charity from the UK, closely aligned with Raindance and the British Independent Film Awards. SIFF also had the honor of inviting Neil McCartney, the chairman of IFT as a judge and representative of Raindance at the festival.

During Mr McCartney’s stay, I was fortunate to have been in constant touch with him during and after the festival, thanks in no small part to Mr Zaid Aziz, who took the initiative to help create the opportunity of this interview.

How did you get involved with the Sindh International Film Festival?

I first became aware of the festival somewhere in cyberspace in late December 2013 and that led me to contact them because I am always interested in hearing more about festivals that I have not encountered before – especially in countries outside Western Europe and North America.

However, we see very few films from countries such as Pakistan. Last year we did get a submission from the producers of the Pakistani feature Good Morning Karachi, directed by Sabiha Sumar, and we were very happy to select it and include in the festival programme. Most of the times, films are not submitted to us because the film-makers have not heard of our festival or because they are discouraged by the need to pay submission fees. On the other hand, we are always looking for potential partners who could help us to raise our profile among local film-makers and in some way encourage them to consider making submissions to us.

So I made contact. Then, slightly to my surprise, I got a swift and positive response from the festival director Assad Zulfiqar Khan. The fact that I received such a response (which does not always happen) encouraged me to look further into what was being done and the wider Sindh Festival as a whole. And things developed from there. But we all had to run very quickly, given the tight timetable.

The fact that the Sindh Festival as a whole was backed by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, told me that it was a serious initiative.

I could see that they had a challenging timetable given that the festival was due to start only a few weeks after it had been publicly announced. This meant that there was not as much time as one would normally have.

The association with Raindance is a big step for any festival, first time or otherwise. Is Raindance always this open for collaboration with film festivals or markets, or was this an exception?

The Independent Film Trust and the Raindance Film Festival are both very open to new associations and partnerships, and we share something of a common mindset. We like making things happen – as far as we can. Most of the organisations with which we come into contact tend to be more conservative, partly because they very often have institutional structures for all sorts of understandable reasons. In this case we got a very swift and positive reaction from Assad and were able to come to an agreement very quickly. It is very rarely like that! Of course, this is one of the very significant positive aspects of working with a new festival, as opposed to the obvious and predictable negatives I have mentioned. (With new festivals) there is no existing way of doing things that people feel the need to stick to and defend.

You’ve brought a select number of features and shorts to showcase at the festival. Can you tell us a little about them?

We brought eight features – five documentary features and three fiction features. We did think about bringing some shorts as well, but in the end there was no time to do this. The process of selection, getting permission and getting a screening copy can take as long for a short as it does for a feature. We started with features because we felt that these ought in any case to form the spine of the Raindance Selection.

We started out by making a selection of features from among the prize-winners and nominees at the most recent edition of RFF in September/October 2013. But some of these films we had to rule out, because the producers, sales agents or distributors of these films already had other plans for their screenings in Pakistan. So we also looked at the prize-winners and nominees from September/October 2012 and other good films of which we were aware and eventually settled on the documentaries Fall and Winter (USA), Powerless (India), Finding Family (UK/Bosnia and Herzegovina) – I was one of the executive producers –, Body of God (Finland) and Everybody Street (USA). In Fiction, the selected titles were Season of Mists (UK/Russia), The Empty Home (Russia/Kyrgyzstan/France/UK) and Jail Caesar (UK).

Have you seen any Pakistani movies or Shorts before, or in your stay?

I have seen some Pakistani films before. I remember seeing Blood of Hussain, by Jamil Dehlavi, on its release in UK cinemas more than 30 years ago. But not many Pakistani films reach us these days. At this festival I have seen the short film Gul. I wanted to see more but there always seemed to be a clash with something else.

I would have liked to have seen Zinda Bhaag, Waar, Lamha, Josh, Heer Ranjha, Anima State, Talking Walls of Lahore, Our Daughters and City by the Sea – but I had a lot of Q&A and interview work to do and you can’t see everything in two days. I hope someone can arrange some DVDs for me.

Your trust, the IFT, is about encouraging emerging filmmakers. In your brief stay here, what potential do you see from Pakistani filmmakers to expand and showcase their talents to the international markets?

I have met a number of film-makers and aspiring film-makers since my arrival. So clearly there are plenty of people who want to make films. And from what I have seen, tells me that some of these film-makers are very talented. I am aware that the production sector has been going through a very difficult period. But as I understand it as an outsider, the situation has improved in the past few years, partly because of the possibilities opened up by the wave of multiplex development.

As a producer yourself, do you still see a strong market for independent films internationally? Especially now that finding finances for production or avenues for distribution are still proving to be a challenge?

The answer to the question partly depends on what you mean by "independent". The nature of the film business now is such that some Hollywood films could be said to fall into this category since they are made outside of the traditional studio system. But they are still plugged in to one of the big US-owned distribution networks.

If we are talking about films made without the involvement of the Hollywood distributors then I dont think the (UK) market is particularly strong.

How important is it for film to be supported by governments?

In most countries some sort of government support – such as production subsidies, tax relief or quota systems – is necessary for the survival of a system to sustain the production, distribution and exhibition of national films. Their national film-makers usually find it difficult to compete for attention and audiences with the products of big production centers such as Hollywood, where classically the cost of actually making a film is recouped in a big domestic market, making it easier for production companies in these centers to raise production money and to penetrate foreign markets.

You have quite a bit of experience with the film festivals, how does one actually go about setting a film festival? Is it a necessity to collaborate with institutions? What should be its short and the long-term goals?

I would say that just about the first thing to be done is for the people involved to decide on whether they are aiming to achieve a one-off or a repeatable event.

(Some of the questions one should ask is that): Is the festival intended to celebrate the work of a particular film-maker, or type of film-maker? Or a particular type of film? Or to celebrate the films and/or the film-makers of a particular country, region or time period? Is the idea to showcase the work of established film-makers? Or emerging film-makers? Or new film-makers? (for instance, by showing the work of first-time directors). And should it be competitive or non-competitive? Or a mixture of both? And should it include fictional and/or documentary films? Shorts and/or features?

There can be other purposes. For instance, the Sindh International Film Festival forms part of the wider Sindh Festival which has been created to celebrate Sindh and Pakistani culture. Last year I was involved in a film festival in Russia that was set up to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad, and the organisers are hoping that this will evolve into a regular annual festival of films about war.

As with any event, the organization of a film festival requires weeks and months of planning – for instance, selecting the venues for screenings and other events, deciding which films, film-makers and other guests should be invited to take part, taking care of the associated requirements for travel and accommodation and so on.

By the time that the festival actually starts, the number of people working on it will have swollen enormously because additional people are now needed to carry out all kinds of tasks, such as taking receipt of the films (in whatever form, for instance, DCPs – the files that play in digital cinemas – or DVDs) and testing them in the cinemas where they will actually be shown.

However, for the festival turn out – whether it is a success or a failure – it is important for the core group to meet within days of its ending, while memories are still fresh, to discuss what went right and what went wrong, why this was, and what can be done to make sure it does not happen again. If the group does not do this then it has no collective means to recognise failings and learn from its mistakes. So it will almost certainly repeat them the following year.