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SPOTLIGHT: A BRIDGE TOO FAR

A closer look at Pakistan's presence on the international film festival circuit
Updated Sep 29, 2019 03:10pm

The filmmakers behind the short film Darling — which recently won a prize at the Venice Film Festival — believe that there is a heightened interest in stories from Pakistan internationally. Yet most Pakistani productions rarely make it to the international festival circuit. Why?


Saim Sadiq did not think his short film Darling would get into the Venice Film Festival — considered one of the ‘big three’ festivals along with Cannes and Berlin. “You are wasting your money,” he told the film’s producer Mahak Jiwani when she was applying. As fate would have it, they got selected.

Cut to a week before the film’s screening: Saim did not know if he would be able to get into the Venice Film Festival, or rather into Italy at all. The young filmmaker’s visa had just been rejected and he was trying everything in his control to get another appointment with the Italian consulate in New York. Saim made it to the festival just in time and ended up being awarded the Orizzonti Award for Best Short Film.

Artwork: Maggie Briggs
Artwork: Maggie Briggs

The Columbia University film student jokes, “Getting there felt like a bigger achievement than getting selected for the festival. Nobody said it but I knew that I was having trouble getting a visa because I came from Pakistan,” he tells Icon.

Ironically, Saim believes the fact that he told a Pakistani story may have helped him get a competitive edge at Venice. “Our film is set in Pakistan and is based on a very particular subculture. It has a transgender person playing a transgender character — so there’s a lot of check, check, check, of what the world hasn’t seen and what they want to see, because everybody is trying to be so woke.”

The filmmakers behind Darling believe that there is a heightened interest in stories from Pakistan internationally. Other filmmakers seem to agree with this observation.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen relatively more Pakistani, and Pakistani-origin, filmmakers make their mark on the international film festival circuit. But it’s still only a trickle.

"Your film played at a festival and you got happy — then what? I’ve been sitting for the past five years and I’ve been stamped as someone who only makes festival films," says Jami.

Earlier this year, filmmaker Iram Parveen Bilal represented Pakistan at the Cannes Film Festival with her in-development feature film project Wakhri. She was the first Pakistani filmmaker to be selected for the L’Atelier — Cannes’ invite-only development programme where 15 projects from around the world are presented. Wakhri had also previously been a part of the Locarno Film Festival’s development programme.

Not all of Iram’s previous film projects have seen similar festival love. In 2013 when she made her debut feature film Josh, it got rejected at all the big festivals. But Iram has observed the festival circuit over the years and learnt the tricks of the trade. “Now I’m realising, when you get these grants and get into these labs, then there’s a much better chance of getting into festivals,” she says. “At a certain point, the merit of the film is irrelevant. It is all about the buzz and hoopla around it.”

Stamp of approval

Documentary filmmaker Anam Abbas agrees. She has seen first-hand how having the backing of a reputable festival can help a project. She pitched her feature documentary Showgirls of Pakistan, directed by Saad Khan, at Hot Docs — a documentary film festival in Canada. “Because we won the pitch, the festival is now more invested in our project being successful,” she says.

Ultimately, it all comes down to what Anam calls getting a ‘thappa’ [stamp of approval]. These thappas can help not only in the international festival spaces, but also at home in Pakistan.

“If you’re not in the mainstream circuit then you need some sort of legitimacy,” she says. “Sadly, that comes from abroad because we don’t really have any local festivals [that are] working to promote the filmmakers that they showcase.”

Producer Mahak Jiwani (second from left) and director Saim Sadiq with the crew of Darling | Photo courtesy Saim Sadiq
Producer Mahak Jiwani (second from left) and director Saim Sadiq with the crew of Darling | Photo courtesy Saim Sadiq

International festival success can also make for organic marketing for the film back in Pakistan. Filmmaker Jami, whose film Moor was showcased at the Busan International Film Festival, says that he has never released a film at a festival before releasing it in Pakistan. In contrast, he says that Sarmad Khoosat’s upcoming project Zindagi Tamasha will premiere at Busan before releasing in Pakistan. “If he collects all the reviews and headlines from there and then lands here, the film’s marketing will happen on its own,” he says.

But Jami warns that being stamped as a ‘festival-wala’ can also have drawbacks for feature filmmakers like himself. “Your film played at a festival and you got happy — then what? I’ve been sitting for the past five years and I’ve been stamped as someone who only makes festival films.”

“Pakistan had no presence in the international industry. India had a pavilion [at Cannes], Afghanistan had one, but there was no structure in Pakistan to support any of the filmmakers looking to go and learn about navigating the festival circuit,” says Darling producer Mahak.

Jami says that there is also a big ‘mafia’ of festivals. “It’s all about who you know and who knows you. The festival programmers probably don’t even watch the 5,000 films they receive.”

Iram also stresses that getting to know programmers and their tastes is very important. “You cannot blindly submit to a festival,” she says.

“It’s about trying to figure out where your film fits and then making a strategy based on that,” says Darling producer Mahak. “Some films you know are not going to get into the big festivals so you can be safe and not apply to them and only apply to the festivals you think are going to programme them.”

Iram Parveen Bilal (L) with other filmmakers at L’Atelier | Photo: Samina Seyed
Iram Parveen Bilal (L) with other filmmakers at L’Atelier | Photo: Samina Seyed

The festival pyramid

It is of course very difficult to get into, and make an impression at, bigger festivals. But if one makes a mark it can mean great things for early-career filmmakers, says Saim.

“When you get into a festival like Venice and you win something, then you are put on the map for a little amount of time, where you’re in the eyes of international production companies,” he says.

Saim shares that after his film’s recent success, people are reaching out to him, showing an interest in his work. It is a welcome change from being the one approaching others.

But not every film has the same fate, or quality.

Director Saad Khan and producer Anam Abbas | Photo courtesy Hot Docs
Director Saad Khan and producer Anam Abbas | Photo courtesy Hot Docs

Pakistan’s mainstream cinema is still finding its footing and the indie film scene is also still developing. The country does not produce many films to begin with. And the reality is that many of the ones that are produced simply do not have the technical merit or perhaps even the content to compete internationally — certainly not at big festivals.

You have to have a [dedicated] film school [in Pakistan],” says Sabiha. “It’s a craft, it’s a skill and it’s very precious. You can’t learn it out of nowhere. And you can’t hit and miss all the time either; you’d waste crores of rupees.”

“I think you need to be very aware and very honest with yourself about what you have as content,” says Anam. “Not every film is going to be at a big festival — and that’s fine.”

“We would apply to about five festivals every month and would possibly get into two of them,” says Mahak about a previous film of hers. If the big festivals do not work out, applying to tier B and tier C festivals is not a bad idea, the filmmakers say.

Another option that many Pakistani filmmakers explore is screening their films at South Asian and diaspora festivals. “South Asian festivals are smaller and they’re obviously not as prestigious as these big ones,” says Anam, “But they are very loyal to the filmmakers that they play. So, if they like your work, they’ll make sure they programme you every year and it’s a good place to show your films when you’re starting out.”

These festivals are also more receptive to more experimental South Asian content. Larger festivals may not provide filmmakers with similar freedom. “They want to hear your stories but they want to hear a very Eurocentric or a very Americanised version of it,” says Saim. In Iram’s experience, the mindset at many of the bigger film festivals is still very “colonial”.

A brand new world

A photo from the set of Showgirls of Pakistan | Photo: Vincenzo Floramo
A photo from the set of Showgirls of Pakistan | Photo: Vincenzo Floramo

Sabiha Sumar’s film Who Will Cast the First Stone won the Golden Gate Award at the San Francisco Film Festival back in 1988. Not many other Pakistani filmmakers — aside from Jamil Dehalvi who was based abroad at the time — were showing at international film festivals back then.

Sabiha believes that Pakistan is a late developer when it comes to understanding the importance of the big screen. Seeing changes in content consumption habits, however, she thinks the future is VOD (video-on-demand), streaming and television. Film festivals are losing their importance, she says, and the rules are changing.

When Iram went to Cannes, the Pakistani press kept asking her for red carpet photos. “You’re not allowed to take pictures on the red carpet unless your film is playing,” Iram told them. “L’oreal pays a lot of money so Deepika can go and do pictures for 45 minutes.”

“It’s not the world that we knew before, a world in which we made one-on-one contact, pitched our project to people and then they responded, and so on,” she says. “Here it is very much a ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ ‘we want it’ or ‘we don’t.’”

Sabiha predicts film festivals will become more and more about the marketplace. Of course, getting noticed in such a competitive environment will always be a challenge.

Ready to compete internationally

Mahak shares that when attending Cannes in 2017 she observed that, “Pakistan had no presence in the international industry. India had a pavilion, Afghanistan had one, but there was no structure in Pakistan to support any of the filmmakers looking to go and learn about navigating the festival circuit.”

It is no wonder then that back in Pakistan there is a lack of information and knowledge about these festivals. Some filmmakers exploit these gaps by claiming that their films are premiering at prestigious festivals, when they are featured nowhere on the official programme. “Everybody has their own hustles,” jokes Anam when asked about the practice.

The way these festivals are covered in the media is also a source of frustration for some filmmakers. When Iram went to Cannes, the Pakistani press kept asking her for red carpet photos. “You’re not allowed to take pictures on the red carpet unless your film is playing,” Iram told them. “L’oreal pays a lot of money so Deepika can go and do pictures for 45 minutes.”

“It was very disillusioning because all they wanted were pictures of me on a red carpet,” she says.

But perhaps the only aspects of a film festival the layperson is familiar with is the glamour and red-carpet shots. Even those with an interest in filmmaking may not be familiar with the mechanics of film festival marketplaces, mentorship programmes, grants, labs and networking opportunities.

“Access is so important,” Mahak says, “I don’t think I would’ve even thought about submitting to these festivals when I was in Pakistan.”

A photo from the set of Darling | Photo: Jodie
A photo from the set of Darling | Photo: Jodie

Mahak’s film school education at Columbia afforded her this access and equipped her with the skills to navigate these spaces — an option not available to those making films locally.

“You have to have a [dedicated] film school [in Pakistan],” says Sabiha. “It’s a craft, it’s a skill and it’s very precious. You can’t learn it out of nowhere. And you can’t hit and miss all the time either; you’d waste crores of rupees.”

In an effort to be part of the solution, Sabiha’s company Vidhi Films has set up screenwriting workshops in collaboration with Locarno Open Doors Film Festival. Both Saim and Sabiha are mentors in the programme.

Iram had previously set up Qalambaaz — Pakistan’s first professional development programme for screenwriting — which after running successfully with Pakistani screenwriters for five years, recently announced that it is expanding to Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

But these efforts alone cannot substitute for film schools and film festivals with labs, mentorship opportunities and grants.

In the absence of such institutions, filmmakers will have to continue looking outwards for support. Nonetheless, Jami manages to remain optimistic about the situation, “If countries like Vietnam and Chile can make toofan [amazing] films and come to festivals, so can we.”

If the success of young filmmakers like Saim is anything to go by, he might have a point.

Published in Dawn, ICON, September 29th, 2019