At New York University, mid-2017, with the retrieved cans: (Left to right) the writer, archivists Marie Lascu, Bonnie Sauer, Ben Moskowitz - Photos courtesy the writer
At New York University, mid-2017, with the retrieved cans: (Left to right) the writer, archivists Marie Lascu, Bonnie Sauer, Ben Moskowitz - Photos courtesy the writer

About 42 years ago, in 1976, a film made by this writer screened in the country and at overseas film festivals. The English version of the film was named Beyond the Last Mountain (BTLM). An Urdu version was called Musafir. The film, which had shunned offers of financing from the state-owned National Film Development Corporation (Nafdec, then led by an exceptionally cultured managing director, Khawaja Shahid Hussain) in order to avoid any possible official control of content, and from commercial financiers only interested in profits, managed to complete a combined 25-week Silver Jubilee run in cinemas.

Majeed Ahmed, now deceased, my immensely gifted partner-art director in our advertising firm, MNJ Communications, had sportingly agreed to co-invest in the film with me. Our goal in making the film, was to score several “firsts.” BTLM was the first Pakistani film in which talented women from diverse disciplines, who had never previously acted in a film, essayed the lead roles. The mode was low-key and realistic instead of the melodramatic, high-pitched norm. Spectacular action in some scenes, requiring complex logistics in production, was also effectively achieved.

Distinctive background music included the first-ever use in a Pakistani film of a harpsichord specially imported for the film from London. Of three musical sequences, Urdu lyrics were lip-synched on screen in only one to celebrate a pre-wedding mehndi. Filmed entirely on location, BTLM was able to reflect the look and feel of Pakistan in the mid-1970s with the introduction of a new cast of gifted actors and dozens of lay citizens rather than professional extras in group scenes. Other firsts included a young new crew behind the camera, some innovative features in filming techniques and promotion, portraying some social, cultural practices no longer publicly seen in the country.

However, over the past four decades, almost all of the celluloid prints of the film have either been lost or damaged. This was primarily due to my own indefensible negligence, and some other reasons better left unnamed. Only about 75 percent of the film was transferred on to video tape for preservation.

A small number of American volunteers are striving to preserve, restore and digitize the only complete print of the English version of Beyond The Last Mountain

But in 2018, a small number of American citizens, who have no prior association with Pakistan or this filmmaker, are voluntarily striving to preserve, restore and digitize what is possibly the only complete print of the English version, which has survived intact. They personify some of the finest virtues of the vast majority of the American people — warm, friendly, helpful.

How this has come about is a story in itself.

Found in the vaults

In January 2017, shortly after being appointed to her present position, Bonnie Marie Sauer, Director, Archives and Records Management of the Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts (LCPA), New York asked intern Becca Bender, an NYU film graduate, to examine all the stored material. 

The diligent intern spotted cans labeled with the English title of the film from Pakistan along with the producer-director’s name, company name, and a now-invalid Karachi address. Bonnie Sauer consulted Marie Lascu, archival consultant of LCPA, presently audio-visual archivist at Crowing Rooster Arts. They ascertained that the film had been received for possible screening at the Film Society or at the 1976 New York Film Festival. Back in Karachi, the absent-minded filmmaker had become so pre-occupied with travel and successful festival screenings in Tehran, Bombay, London and Mannheim (Germany) that he had completely forgot this one print, exiled and carelessly abandoned.

In New York, the film cans gradually descended into virtually invisible archival depths. Until their rediscovery in 2017. Rufus de Rehm, Programme Operations Manager at the LCPA Film Society, accidentally found the website of The Citizens’ Archive (TCA), the innovative initiative founded by filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, and passed on the contact details to Ms Lascu. In Karachi, TCA’s Aaliya Tayyabali responded promptly to the query from Marie Lascu and facilitated contact with this writer. Of course I was delighted to learn about the print’s survival — and the thoughtful efforts by complete strangers far away.

Reexamined by an expert

From the film’s publicity material: Usman Peerzada & Shamim Hilali
From the film’s publicity material: Usman Peerzada & Shamim Hilali

Following initial exchanges between my daughter, filmmaker Mehreen Jabbar — who divides her time between New York and Karachi — and Bonnie Sauer and Marie Lascu, a crucial introduction was provided during a visit by this writer to New York in mid-2017 to Ben Moskowitz of the Media Preservation Lab and supervisor at New York University’s Bobst Library.

After examining some reels, his expert evaluation was that, despite deterioration in colour and degradation of sound during the 40-year period, the film’s original production quality could be restored through application of relevant technical processes, leading to a permanently non-degradable condition through digitization. Regina Longo, archival researcher and specialist in film restoration in the western Balkans and Italy, Dan Streible, associate professor, cinema studies at NYU and, recently, David Nearney, manager of the Media Preservation Initiative at Whitney Museum of Modern Art in New York, have also joined the group to provide crucial advice.

Dedicated archivists

These eight remarkable Americans typify the exemplary values of archivists — a profound respect for the creative heritage of humanity, regardless of location, nation, language, medium, date of origin et al. If the content of a retrieved item contains minimal relevance, archivists make all possible efforts to preserve and protect the material from the ravages of time to make it accessible for present and future generations. Their perusal of only some scenes of BTLM persuaded them that it is worth giving their valuable time and professional advice on a voluntary basis. I am indebted to them for their interest.

The film’s story

So what is the film’s story? In the early 1970s, young Hamid Ahmed returns to Karachi to resume life with his widowed father who, taking initial steps into politics, is assassinated by a vengeful political leader earlier defied by Hamid’s father. The son begins to search for the killer’s identity. He encounters a range of characters and conditions, empathetic as well as deflective. They mirror the ambivalence and the ambience of a Pakistan aspiring to rebuild and renew itself after its disintegration in 1971.

Yet old ghosts of menace and violence still abide. The narrative is framed through the upper middle class that frequently uses English and is westernised in some respects — but remains distinctly Pakistani in its persona. Each of the four women Hamid meets on his journey are educated, self-willed characters who take decisions and make choices irrespective of what the central male character feels, or does. The system is too elusive to provide justice to Hamid. He finally confronts the enigma of whether reality resides in recognition of unchangeable human and social traits, or should revenge be catharsis.

Worth saving?

Is it worth the cost and effort to restore and digitize BTLM for permanence? Perhaps the comments of some critics indicate a possible response. David Robinson in The Times, London, had written at the time that “[BTLM] breaks new ground in the Pakistani cinema.” Kevin Meade in the Tehran Journal had said, “… for Pakistan, this is revolutionary in both content and technique.” The eminent Indian film icon Raj Kapoor had commented about the film’s “freshness in style” and also called it “an intelligent film of contemporary cinema.” A.R. Slote, veteran film critic in The Star, Karachi, had dubbed it “a landmark in Pakistani filmmaking … a great film.”

As it stands, at the moment, a leading American specialist film laboratory has provided a modest cost estimate for the restoration work. The merits and potential of crowdfunding for this have been strongly advocated to me. The process of requesting foundations and individuals, including overseas as well as resident Pakistanis, to consider contributing financial support, begins with this article.

To reach a new horizon, Beyond the Last Mountain, explorers could begin by sending an email to namakfilms@gmail.com.

Stop Press: Like a bizarre yet beautiful bonus has just come a nugget of information. In a Kabul in the 1990s being ravaged by the Taliban out to burn and destroy alien books, paintings, films et al — a now nameless brave Talib managed to secretly store a complete print of Musafir, the Urdu version of BTLM, along with other parts of the archives of the Afghan Film Studio. As of December 2018, the fate of that sole surviving Urdu print is unknown, although I have been told that Germany’s Goethe Institute provided crucial support in recovering the archives after the fall of the Taliban regime. But thanks to this invaluable tip which came out of the blue from a source who wishes to remain anonymous — a journey to Kabul for the search becomes imminent!

Details about some of the writer’s work are at www.javedjabbar.net

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