“World over, the documentary film scene is radical. Documentary is supposed to be a radical medium. In even the most conservative societies, documentary filmmakers are radical people.”
So said 28-year-old documentary filmmaker Ammar Aziz, who won Pakistan its third FIPRESCI Prize for his debut feature-length documentary, A Walnut Tree in late May. The International Federation of Film Critics, or FIPRESCI, is an international consortium of national film critics and journalists promoting film culture. The organisation hands out this prestigious prize during film festivals worldwide.
Aziz, a self-confessed Marxist, was awarded the prize after the film’s show at the Documentartist, 9th Istanbul Documentary Days in the beautiful Turkish city last week, and joins a prestigious list of filmmaking legends such as Satyajit Ray, Jean-Luc Godard, Terrence Malick and Michael Moore to name a few who have received the same honour since its inception in the 1940s. The young filmmaker is only the third Pakistani to be receiving this award, with Jamil Dehalvi and Mehreen Jabbar being the previous recipients.
“I’m thrilled to be acknowledged by the International Federation of Film Critics. Sometimes when you get such overwhelming appreciation early in your career, it’s challenging to keep moving with the same pace,” the National College of Arts graduate told Images.
"I hope this prestigious award will inspire the younger generation of Pakistani filmmakers to undo the NGO-isation of documentary filmmaking and see it as a serious art form."
A Walnut Tree sheds light on the plight of internally displaced persons living in the Jalozai camp through the protagonist, Baba, an over 60-year-old former teacher and poet who yearns to go back to his village in Tirah valley, and one day just disappears.
According to the filmmaker, Baba’s story symbolises the collective pain of that land really well. “It gives a familiar face to the Pashtun people, who are seen as the ‘others’, dangerous, native, brown, terrorists. This man was a poet, grandfather, former teacher. The film also helped break stereotypes,” Aziz said.
The documentary, deriving its name from the walnut tree that Baba’s father had planted that he believes is still there waiting for them, captures the longing of such people uprooted from their houses by the Pakistan army’s war against the Taliban and who have no idea if and when they’ll ever be able to return to their roots.
“Initially, I just wanted to go and see the life of victims of the war on terror, how they struggle to survive in a society like this. Once there at the Jalozai camp, I felt I wanted to explore the idea of displacement, homelessness. It was personal for me as I had heard stories of Partition and the violence from my grandparents. I saw people suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, psychological problems and it was not just food, clean drinking water they were craving for. It was more of a sense of security that they wanted. Baba, the protagonist, who wanted to go home to Tirah valley, reminded me of my grandparents,” Aziz explained how he came up with the idea in 2013 and how it took him almost three years to complete.
A prestigious past
FIPRESCI is not the only award Aziz’s film has won. A Walnut Tree had its world premiere at the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam, considered the world’s largest documentary film festival, in November last year. The same month it was screened at Film Southasia – a festival of South Asia documentaries -- in Kathmandu, Nepal where it won its first best film award, the Ram Bahadur Trophy.
It was then selected for North America’s largest documentary film festival, Hot Docs, in Canada. The documentary also won the best film award at Moscow International Documentary Film Festival in May this year, called the Grand Prix Award.
In addition to all these honours, A Walnut Tree also received a special jury mention from an Italian festival, and this year saw a spree of screenings as the official selection at One World in Czech Republic, Human Rights and Arts Festival in Australia, FilmAmed Diyarbakir, Turkish Kurdistan and Bengluru International Film Festival in India, while after over 10 screenings worldwide, Aziz plans to take his project to a lot more countries.
Of screenings and censor woes
About showing the very pertinent documentary here in Pakistan, he said he would love to do so, but not for a handful of people, or friends.
“Some NGOs, individuals have asked me for smaller screenings, but I want to take the film to the masses, especially in major cities such as Peshawar and Quetta etc. but I don’t see that happening in the near future; maybe but later this year."
"My biggest concern is I would have to send the film to the censor board and there I’m sure some things will be chopped out. The censor issue is very problematic for me,” Aziz signs off pessimistically."
All photographs courtesy Ammar Aziz