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Afia Nathaniel: Passion and compassion

Updated September 28, 2014

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There are no traces of jet lag or exhaustion on Afia Nathaniel’s face as she greets me in the hallway of The Crew Films’ office. Having returned from Canada barely 24 hours prior to our meeting, it is clear that she is still riding the high of a successful world premiere for her debut film Dukhtar at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). She is exuberant and enthusiastic, and her love for what she does is immediately apparent in her demeanor.

“While I was (studying Computer Science) at LUMS, I saw people in my class who were completely passionate about what they did; they’d wake up wanting to write lines of code. I never wanted that. I always wanted to be a story teller. So it was a natural progression. I realised then that one should always do the one thing that you’re excited to wake up to do.”

Her journey to becoming a filmmaker was a roundabout one, to say the least. Her inclination towards telling stories led to her becoming a copywriter at an advertising agency where, as she puts it, she enjoyed the challenge of making a viewer change their opinion about something in 30 seconds or less.


Afia Nathaniel talks about challenges during the filming of Dukhtar, the dearth of female feature film directors and breaking new grounds in cinema in Pakistan


Once she realised the power of the medium of film, and the sheer amount of time 90 minutes affords to reach out to an audience, there was no looking back. A Deans Fellowship to Columbia, and five years of feature filmmaking towards an MFA degree later, she became the first ever Pakistani filmmaker to show a film at TIFF. The fact that she is the first female to do so is just the proverbial cherry on top.

There is a dearth of female feature film directors in the industry — that much is obvious. When it came to making Dukhtar, Afia had to surmount multiple challenges even before she could get the cameras rolling.

“The biggest challenge with Dukhtar was in the lead I have two women, a child and a mother, and that was the longest and hardest part of the journey — how do you convince an investor in Pakistan to finance a film that neither has an item song nor a conventional (male) hero? That is why Dukhtar is an exciting film for us to have made because we’ve broken new ground in cinema in Pakistan, for the kinds of stories that can be told.”

The story that inspired Dukhtar was one that Afia heard when she was working for a non-profit in Europe; one of a mother from the tribal areas of Pakistan who goes on the run with her two daughters. It planted a seed in her mind that she was unable to shake for years. “She was living within four walls all her life, and something happens that propels her into the unknown, and there’s a strength and a dignity in this story that became the seed for the story of Dukhtar.”

While the characters in Dukhtar are fictionalised, the inspirational nature of the real-life story has been preserved, and it is one that stirs deep sentiments within the director.

“I have a daughter who’s seven, and I can’t imagine a child her age having their life taken away so brutally. That’s one upside of being a female filmmaker that you do tend to tell stories that bring women to the fore, regardless of whether it’s a social issue or if you’re making a sci-fi film or a thriller.”

The lead protagonists of the film are played by Samiya Mumtaz, who plays the mother Allah Rakhi, and 15-year-old ingénue Saleha Arif as Zainab. Working with child actors is tricky, but Afia says that Saleha, who was 14 at the time of filming, was everything she could have dreamed of in her young female lead.

“Saleha is a completely natural actress. The camera loves her face and her presence. There’s a fearlessness in her and an innocence at the same time that was a complete joy to watch on the set. I didn’t have to do much work beyond casting her.”

The part of Allah Rakhi was rewritten for Samiya once she came on board. An actress whose work Afia had been following for years, she was sure that she wanted to work with her well before any of the other cast members were finalized. She describes Allah Rakhi’s character as the moral center of the film.

“She represents the dilemmas that are inherent in our concept of morality, and Samiya captures that really beautifully.”

The reluctant hero of the film is played by Mohib Mirza — a truck driver who unwittingly finds himself caught up in the series of events that unfolds once Allah Rakhi flees with her daughter.

He is an unconventional savior to say the least. He is crude, brash and has a past that audience becomes privy to as the film unfolds.

“Mohib’s character is very interesting. Because of his ex-Mujahid background he comes with baggage and there’s a romantic side to him that got buried underneath that past. What you’ll see with his character is a guy who has qualities that you will question, and also qualities that you will relate to.”

The film has now officially been released in Pakistan, but Afia’s work is far from over. She has a packed October ahead — from the Busan Film Festival in South Korea, to the BFI London Film Festival for Dukhtar’s European premiere.

“We’re also headed to Films from the South in Oslo, Norway. They’re the ones who actually gave us the production grant and that’s what jumpstarted this so we’re very grateful to them.”

The decision to schedule the world premiere in Toronto was done from a strategic point for better positioning on the festival circuit, and one that came about quite unexpectedly.

“Toronto we had no idea about. It was a blind submission and one day I got an email from Jane (Schoettle) who was super excited about it. It was quite a few months before the actual festival and she said ‘We love your film’ and we were jumping for joy, but we had to keep the news under wraps until they announced it officially.”

She calls the experience as “a privilege” and was bowled over by the audience response. “Our shows were completely sold out well before Mary Kom (A Bollywood film starring Priyanka Chopra) so we were excited that a small film from Pakistan came to Toronto and was openly embraced and loved.”

So did she have a star-struck moment during the TIFF?

“I saw Al Pacino! I was like ‘Yayyyy, Al Pacino I want a picture with you’! but he had bodyguards that formed a human chain around him and you just can’t get past them.”

While she doesn’t want to give the ending away, she says that it struck a chord with the festival goers, despite the language barrier or the foreign subject matter. “Whoever has spoken to us after seeing the film has been extremely moved and some have had tears in their eyes. To actually see that and experience that with a real audience, that’s when you realise that the words on the paper that you wrote meant something.”

As for the audiences back home, Afia is keeping her expectations in check. “Once a film is out there it belongs to the audience, and whether they embrace it or not that’s really their call. I have full faith in the film to put people in the seats, and I can only hope that it does well.”

The next film she has started working on is a “sci-fi” adventure that she plans to shoot in Europe because of the landscapes that it requires. Given that she has already successfully navigated treacherous mountain roads, below freezing temperatures and tense security situations to shoot Dukhtar on location in Hunza and Gilgit, Europe can hardly be a challenge. It is clear that she is looking to push the envelope with the films that she makes — with the subject matter as well as the genres she explores.

“This film is about finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, and you can do that in any genre. My next film will be in between genres, much like this one. Dukhtar is a road trip film, a thriller and a love story. I don’t necessarily see myself closeted into one kind of filmmaking.”

She maintains that the film industry in Pakistan is at an interesting crossroads and at this point in time is capable of making a huge leap forward if the right balance is struck between the issues that should be highlighted and what the audience wants to see.

“If you look at the TV industry, we have a very strong one that is not afraid to tackle social issues. When you look at cinema somehow that gets lost in translation or there’s a slight hesitation in combining entertainment with social messages, but I believe films should do that. Let the voices speak and the stories be told, and let the people decide.”

After seeing Dukhtar, and what Afia has done with its story, perhaps it’s time that we gave both our filmmakers and our audiences a little more credit, because it is certainly due.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 28th, 2014