A film featuring a Pakistani-American cinematographer, Nausheen Dadabhoy, has been nominated for an Academy Award in the Live Action Short Film category.
The film, La femme et le TGV, has been directed by Timo von Guten and produced by Giacun Caduff. It is a touching story involving a lonely woman and an inter-city high-speed train driver. The film was inspired by true events. Actress Jane Birkin from the 1966 film Blow Up stars in the leading role.
According to the director’s statement, the film was inspired by a news article about two people in a distant relationship through letters — a woman on a balcony waving at a conductor in a passing high-speed train.
Talking to Dawn via email, Ms Dadabhoy said that it was the kind of project she needed to start loving filmmaking again, and to remember why she loved being part of a creative team.
Narrating how she got involved in the project, she said that she met the producer, Giacun Caduff, when they were undergraduate students at the California State University of Long Beach. “We shot each other’s thesis films and he realised that he wasn’t a cinematographer and I realised that I wasn’t a director,” she said.
“We made a great team and remained close friends. He went to the University of California, Los Angles, for grad school and I opted for the American Film Institute. When time came for him to direct his first feature in Switzerland, 20 Rules for Sylvie, he called me. Similarly when he decided to produce La femme et le TGV, he suggested me to Timo von Gunten, our director. I was lucky that Timo hired me and he and I had a very similar visual style for the film. I had seen many of Timo’s earlier short films and when I read the script I knew that it was a project I would love to be a part of,” she added.
Once they were shortlisted, Ms Dadabhoy said, the possibility of a nomination became a reality. “It still felt unreal when it actually happened. I was alone in my apartment in New York and burst into tears, which is uncharacteristic for me,” she said. “I was so overwhelmed and incredibly grateful that I went down in Sajda and thanked Allah. I tried calling Timo and Giacun but they were travelling in Germany and probably overwhelmed themselves,” she added.
Since she couldn’t call anyone at home in California as it was 5.30am for them, she ended up calling a friend in Karachi “because I knew he would be awake and I needed to share the news with someone,” the cinematographer said.
“There are good people working in Pakistan and I love filming in Pakistan, particularly in Karachi. It is a city that stresses me out but I still miss it and hopefully, slowly things will start to improve there.”
“Getting nominated for an Oscar is something that feels really far away, outside the realm of my reality, so the fact that I shot a film that is nominated still feels like it happened to someone else,” she said.
Talking about the film, Ms Dadabhoy said that she had been struggling leading up to the making of the film. “I had spent the last five years in Pakistan and it was a very hostile work environment. Most people could not accept that I could be a cinematographer because I’m a woman. The ‘chhotas’ were actually the most supportive,” she said.
The TGV team, Ms Dadabhoy said, was made up of a lot of women “so it was a complete reversal from what I had experienced in Pakistan”.
“We were also a small team. I only had a gaffer, a key grip and a best boy electric in the lighting and grip department, and only two assistants in the camera department. It was small, but Swiss, so that means efficiency. I had worked with many of them before on the film 20 Rules for Sylvie so it was great to be reunited with friends,” she said.
"I didn’t look at the other films that were shortlisted and I am staying away from looking at the other nominees. I don’t want to psych myself out,” the cinematographer said. “I am sure they are all equally amazing films. I know there will be pre-Oscar screenings, so I look forward to watching them on big screen,” she added.
“There are good people working in Pakistan and I love filming in Pakistan, particularly in Karachi. It is a city that stresses me out but I still miss it,” she said, adding that she looked forward to the opportunity to come back to Pakistan and work on a new project, “and hopefully, slowly things will start to improve there”.
Last year, Ms Dadabhoy’s first film — Ground Beneath Their Feet — was screened at The Second Floor. She told Dawn that when she heard about the earthquake in Kashmir in 2005, she bought a camera, packed her bags and ended up in the disaster zone. She was just 23 at the time.
Originally published in Dawn, February 1st, 2017