Asad Faruqi with his Emmy | Flavia De Souza
Asad Faruqi with his Emmy | Flavia De Souza

Asad Faruqi has just won his first Emmy. When I spoke to him the following day, it seemed like the ‘win’ hadn’t quite sunk in. The 33-year-old cinematographer and filmmaker moved to New York around three years ago after working for almost a decade in documentary films in Pakistan. Since his move he’s been busy travelling the United States and the world working on one film to another.

I stalked him on social media before this interview and found photos of him standing next to talk show host Trevor Noah, actor Robert de Niro and several other celebrities in North America, his new home base. And while he was willing to give an interview, his schedule was full for the next several weeks. But, as luck would have it, he fell sick and so was forced to take some time off.

“I had no idea the film was even submitted for consideration,” he says over the phone from his home in Brooklyn. In our conversation he comes across as incredibly grounded, refreshingly honest and at times, vulnerable. “I made Armed With Faith when Syria was at war, there was the conflict in Yemen… nobody was interested in the Taliban because this was so old. And it had been done to death. And [World Channel documentary showcase] Doc World, where it played, they’ve never won an Emmy before. This is their first win.”

Filmed over roughly a span of three years, Armed with Faith (AWF) follows Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s lone Bomb Disposal Unit, documenting the personal risks they take every time they step out into the field. We get an insight into the impact their work has had on their personal lives, the bonds they have with their brothers-in-arms and what drives them.

Pakistani filmmaker Asad Faruqi recently won an Emmy award for his documentary film on the bomb disposal squad of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Why had most people never heard of him before? And what pushes him to take on difficult subjects?

The photography/cinematography is stunning. It seems like every frame has been meticulously composed making this conflict film a uniquely visual delight.

“Since I was a kid I was always interested in understanding conflict and war,” Asad explains. “And human beings basically. Pretty early on, I got an opportunity to work with Sharmeen [Obaid-Chinoy] who had already worked in conflict as a reporter — that’s what Children of the Taliban (2009) was essentially — understanding the conflict in our country.”

Children of the Taliban (directed by Dan Edge, reported/presented by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy) followed two teenage boys who were living in Kachegori refugee camp in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. Although both of them were friends, one of them wanted to join the army and the other, the Taliban.

Back then, Asad was a 21-year-old lensman hungry for an opportunity. He met Sharmeen a few months before filming began. “I had already done stuff that she didn’t know about, but as a photojournalist in Karachi,” he said. “I knew what I was talking about. So, when she needed something and I got it done, she was like, ‘Okay, this kid looks useful.’ That’s where our relationship started. I was an Associate Producer on that one and then, I was on B-camera.”

There were some areas where the director/cinematographer, Dan, couldn’t go, such as the parts that needed to be filmed in Swat or other parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. “So, he and Sharmeen trusted me and gave me the camera,” he relates. “Whatever I shot ended up in the film — all of it.” One can sense the pride in his voice.

He’s worked with Sharmeen on pretty much almost all of the films she’s made since then. “Because we have the same sensibility,” says Asad. “The things she wanted to do and what I wanted to do. We met at the right place, right time. Which is great.”

He worked on titles such as Song of Lahore where they followed the Sachal Jazz Ensemble, Transgenders: Pakistan’s Open Secret and also on the Oscar-winning films, Saving Face (2012) and A Girl in the River (2015). While the entire country saw Sharmeen, who directed and produced these films, on stage accepting the awards, her photos on the red carpet show a beaming Asad, sporting a bowtie, standing next to her.

So, why haven’t we heard of him, at least outside of documentary filmmaking circles, before? “He comes from the Rohail Hyatt school,” said a publicist familiar with his work. “In that he doesn’t like giving interviews or doing any publicity.”

Going through Asad’s IMDB profile online, I realise that I’ve seen a lot of the films he’s worked in, but had no idea he was a part of them. “That’s the beauty of being a cinematographer,” he says with a slight chuckle, “You’re always seeing it through my point of view.” And yet we don’t notice he’s there.

“Saving Face was one of the hardest films that I’ve shot,” he says. “We were trying to make sure we don’t show their [acid attack victim’s] burnt side. Trying to be as respectful as possible. But you’re always looking at it [the burns], right?”

But documenting conflict and human rights violations doesn’t come easy — it takes a toll on your mental health, which, as the years progress, add up. “This work comes with emotional trauma, obviously,” says Asad. “It’s not just the visuals. There are also the sounds — they stay with you. [But] we do this work because someone has to do it, it’s important.”

Has he seen a therapist? “Yes,” he says. “And there’s nothing wrong with that. I think it’s extremely important and not just for journalists, but everyone should go to one. Not just for PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] but all kinds of mental illnesses and things that we don’t even know about.

“It’s not just this film, but every film that I’ve done, has affected me. They’ve changed me, as a person. At first, I didn’t realise how much they had affected me.”

His directorial debut, his labour of love, the film he put his heart and soul into, AWF, for which he just won an Emmy, is exactly the kind of film someone already struggling with PTSD should not do, but the topic resonated too deeply with him for him to let go.

“I wanted to be a war photographer,” he says, later listing War Photographer which features the works of celebrated conflict photojournalist James Natchwey, as his top documentary film. “So, I thought the first film I should make should make should be about conflict in Pakistan. The Peshawar school attack hadn’t happened but there were still reports about bombs happening. I was looking into going into Iraq and making a film there. Then I came across that news article about Hukum Khan who had just died.”

Hukum Khan was a veteran of the Bomb Disposal Unit (BDU) who died defusing a bomb near the border of the Khyber Agency in 2012. The bomb was allegedly set to target him.

One of the character’s in AWF, Tiger, reminds me of Hukum Khan. He fearlessly goes about his job even after paying a heavy price for his bravery. Asad spent three years following Tiger and another member of the BDU in the film, Abdur Rahim.

Top & above: stills from Armed With Faith
Top & above: stills from Armed With Faith

Considering that the film was shot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where Pashto is the primary language, was language ever a problem for him? “No,” says Asad, “They spoke in Urdu as well. Languages for me are just one way of understanding people. For me, as a filmmaker, it’s more in silence that I observe. That’s how I treat my camera.

“Now I shoot all over the world, in a variety of different languages and it’s the same story. At the end of the day, it’s those universal human emotions that I’m looking for. It’s people telling me stories. They use actions as much as they use words.

“Something I hate doing is talking to people.” He chuckles. “I’m just being honest! I like to shut up and shoot.”

Filming AWF was unlike any other production he’d worked on. “This was definitely one of the loneliest films I’ve shot,” he confesses. “During the filming I was alone — it was just me and the characters in the field. I was the director, producer and the cameraperson all at once.”

Was that not overwhelming for him? “It was,” he admits. “I don’t like doing that. It was too much work. But it was too risky of a project to risk other peoples’ lives for. The scariest part was while we were driving to whatever location, because there would always be booby traps. Obviously, they don’t wear any protection so I didn’t either.”

The result is that you get this incredibly intimate footage, filmed as if you are next to the squad as it goes about defusing bombs. And each time a bomb explodes — the screen goes dark — further adding to the tension.

He took great personal risks while filming but editing is where the next conflict would be for Asad. “My co-director Geeta [Gandbhir] and my editor Flavia De Souza, they’re super experienced editors. But a lot of the time I was like, ‘I [almost] died filming this and you’re cutting it out?!’ But it made sense to,” he laughs.

AWF is slated to run on Al Jazeera, followed by PBS and then, hopefully, will end up on an online streaming platform.

Asad’s already donning the director’s hat for another project. “It’s a story about a couple that met online — a Pakistani boy and a Czech girl,” he says. “They got married and haven’t been able to live together because the Czech authorities keep rejecting the boy’s visa saying that it’s a marriage of convenience. It’s basically looking at relationships in the digital age. And how arbitrary man-made laws restrict people from being together.”

So, is he done with conflict? “No, this is a different kind of conflict,” he says. “There’s always conflict.”

That moment he won the Emmy

“I have never won an award in my life,” says Asad about his initial reaction to finding out his film was nominated. “I know my luck and we were up against Netflix, [series like] Independent Lens and POV. They have stronger lobbies and are stronger companies. World Channel [where his film was aired] has never won an award. I knew this. Everybody knew this.”

In fact, he was so convinced that he wasn’t going to win the award that he only started writing his speech during the event. He was still working on it when they announced his nomination.

“Walking up on stage, I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “Actually, I still can’t believe it. I can’t watch myself [giving that speech]. I can’t watch myself at all.”

“The thing is,” he explains. “I didn’t get into this to win awards. The work I’m doing is more important. [But] for my family it’s a big deal, especially my sister. My mom is happy. My dad is not in the world, but he’d be surprised, ‘Yeh mera nalaiq beta jeet gaya? [My incompetent son won?]’,” he laughs.

Where’s the Emmy? “It’s in a box,” he responds, nonchalantly. You haven’t taken it out? “I did,” he says. “And then I put it back in again. Where do I keep it?”

Published in Dawn, ICON, October 6th, 2019