The desire to capture lived reality on film has animated the spirit of cinema since its earliest years. Although the term ‘documentary’ was not standard back then, recording actual occurrences was a common practice in the medium’s beginning, when non-fiction films outnumbered fictional narratives. But soon the scene changed and cinema came to be identified more with the fictional product. Broadcast television has since saved the non-fiction form by producing more and more documentaries and then taking them to ever-larger audiences through dedicated television channels.
In our country, the state-owned Pakistan Television (PTV) has upheld the mantle of documentary production since its inception in the mid-1960s. Now, Nazimuddin — a former director and producer of documentaries at PTV (1975-2003) — has gone a step ahead to compile his knowledge and experiences with Documentary: Tareekh-o-Irtiqa [Documentary: History and Evolution]. It is the first ever book written on the subject in Urdu and its scope and content suffice to serve both as an academic text for students of mass communications and filmmaking as well as a handbook for budding professionals in the field.
Nazimuddin fully qualifies to have undertaken this endeavour because of the numerous documentaries he has directed and produced, many of which have received awards and honours at national and international levels. The best of his work includes Nishan-i-Rah, a 10-part series on Pakistan’s national anthem, national flag, national language, national language and currency coins and notes; Thar: Land and People, which received a special prize from the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, Australia; Shoba-i-Ishtiharat Ka Safar, produced in line with PTV’s Silver Jubilee Celebrations; and Peoples and Dwellings in Japan.
The author, who resides in Canada these days and continues to work in television, notes in the preface that he wrote the book basically to document what he has learned about documentary filmmaking through study, research and, above all, his hands-on experience spanning almost five decades.
Perhaps the most authentic observation on Nazimuddin’s book comes from Dr Nisar Ahmed Zuberi, senior professor of Mass Communications at the University of Karachi, who writes in his comments included in the book: “With renewed regret at first about why our professional people do not write books on their respective fields, I was gladdened to see that Nazimuddin has fulfilled a great need by doing that. Otherwise, at Mass Communications departments in all our universities there’s everything to tell about the United Kingdom and the United States, but nothing about ourselves. Nazimuddin’s book on documentary, which is also defined as ‘creative use of actuality’, is an exceptional effort and the most important angle of looking at it is that owing to this book, we in Pakistan no longer remain poor in this field.”
A first-of-its-kind book in Urdu tracing the history and evolution of documentaries is particularly notable for its documentation of the genre in Pakistan
Nazimuddin takes a thematic approach to documentary, including chapters on the many myriad forms we watch today. Hence, it’s an essential introduction to the genre, its theory and changing practices. The book charts the evolution of the documentary from screen art to core television genre, its metamorphosis into many different types of factual television programmes and its current emergence in new forms. It analyses those pathways and the transformation of means of production through economic, technical and editorial changes. It also explains the process, skills and job specifications for everyone involved in the production of a documentary.
The book is divided into two parts. The first covers the world history of documentary and how the craft evolved globally with the passage of time. Nazimuddin said at the launching ceremony of the book that he wrote this part after extensive study and research at libraries in the Canadian cities of Toronto and Mississauga and online. The extent and value of his work is evident in these 10 chapters. Beginning with the definition of documentary, the chapters go on to cover in depth topics such as the historical journey of cinema, the birth of documentary, documentary in Russia, and the period following Robert Flaherty, an American filmmaker who directed and produced the first commercially successful feature-length documentary film, Nanook of the North.
Separate chapters describe the types of documentary, the upgrading and innovation in filmmaking equipment, and the advent of television and the modern era of documentary. In his chapter on modern times, he writes about the work of celebrated documentary filmmakers John Pilger and David Attenborough, and comments on international documentary television channels such as Nat Geo, Discovery and Animal Planet. At the end of the international section, the author makes it even more useful with lists of documentaries produced by Pilger and Attenborough, and films winning Academy and BAFTA awards for best documentaries over the years.
The second part of the book, comprising 14 chapters, is devoted to Pakistan and begins with Pakistani and Canadian media experts’ views and comments, which amply illustrate the value and importance of documentary as a genre of film for the benefit of students and budding professionals. For example, Ashraf Azeem, a former managing director of PTV and producer/director of several documentaries, says: “A documentary is an expression of one’s view of reality. This is similar to a painter’s brush or a photographer’s lens, the outcome is life projected in its infinite manifestations.”
Other chapters in this half of the book cover topics such as Pakistani cinema and Pakistan’s first-ever documentary, the directorate of films and publications, radio documentary, the advent of television in Pakistan, PTV centres and subsidiaries, PTV year after year, PTV divisions and documentaries, PTV’s silver jubilee, documentary case studies, interviews, film versus video, and private channels and documentaries. In fact, the second part fully takes in the history and evolution of documentary filmmaking in Pakistan from the initial days of cinema and PTV until the current era in which the likes of Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy have brought local works to the international Oscars.
The last chapter of the book is titled ‘Miscellaneous’, but contains topics of no less importance. For instance, it talks about the cause of decline of the PTV documentary and provides a comprehensive checklist for the production of a documentary. To complement the text, the author has done well to add a glossary of technical terms, lists of national and international sources and references, PTV’s international awards, and interviews conducted by him over the course of writing this book.
Being the first book of its kind in Urdu, especially in the academic context, Documentary: Tareekh-o-Irtiqa deserves a supportive view. However, the author will be well advised to update content on technology, feature documentaries, re-enactment in documentaries and fantasmatic subjects in future editions. The production values of the book are also satisfactory, barring typos that are anyway fewer than in most Urdu books these days.
The reviewer is a writer working as creative director at a local ad agency
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 19th, 2020