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These Pakistani filmmakers in the US are telling the world compelling stories

Documentary filmmaker Mohammed Naqvi and cinematographer Nausheen Dadabhoy have created ripples around the globe.
Updated May 05, 2017 11:14am

Getting noticed in New York and Los Angeles — easily two of the world’s biggest film centres — is no easy task. It is thus all the more impressive that Mohammed Naqvi, a NY-based documentary filmmaker, and Nausheen Dadabhoy, a LA-based cinematographer, have managed not only to make it but have soared.

Most recently, Dadabhoy made headlines when La femme et le TGV (The Railroad Lady), a short film she shot, was nominated for an Oscar. Naqvi too has something to celebrate: his documentary Among The Believers, which was banned in Pakistan in 2016, became available on Netflix early last month.

Making of the filmmaker

Camera: Hussain Afzal; Edit: Kamran Nafees

Montreal-born Naqvi moved to Pakistan at the age of three. He grew up between Karachi and New York but always considered the former his “home base”. After finishing college, he finally moved to New York in 2001. This was in August, a month before the 9/11 attacks shook the United States and, indeed, the world.

“At that time there was so much hatred being directed back home; Americans had suffered a huge tragedy and there was a reactive tone to it,” Naqvi remembers. “The stories that they were trying to cover from Afghanistan, Pakistan or the [larger] Muslim world were very surface level and inaccurate in some cases.”

Feeling the need for more nuanced narratives, Naqvi decided to pursue documentary filmmaking. “I knew I wanted to go into storytelling and filmmaking from a very young age. The kinds of films that I was going to make, I wasn’t sure yet. It was almost like a natural progression that I would go into making these kinds of films.”

After finishing college, he finally moved to New York in 2001. This was in August, a month before the 9/11 attacks shook the United States and, indeed, the world.

Dadabhoy too knew that she wants to be a filmmaker pretty early on. When she was 16 years old she watched Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, and was convinced she wants to make films. “It was really influential on me… the visual style was something that I had never experienced before,” she says.

“Growing up we were only allowed to watch Indian movies at home. We did watch some American films, but they were all PG or G rated films, stuff like Home Alone that was very ‘clean’. So Amitabh Bachchan is a huge memory of mine from watching movies growing up,” she adds.

After studying filmmaking at undergrad, Dadabhoy set out to make The Ground Beneath Their Feet, a documentary which told the story of two women who were paralysed when an earthquake hit North Pakistan.

Looking back at the project Dadabhoy calls it “naïve”. “I was like, ‘Oh I know how to make movies because I went to film school,’ and I went to a disaster zone.”

“I didn’t realise that I was going to spend nine years working on this film,” she shares.

Nausheen Dadabhoy on the sets of 'La femme et le TGV'. — Publicity still
Nausheen Dadabhoy on the sets of 'La femme et le TGV'. — Publicity still

Women in film

There is another commonality between Naqvi and Dadabhoy as filmmakers: both have worked extensively on projects with female protagonists.

Dadabhoy explains this. “Most of my work I get because I am either a woman or a person of colour or a Muslim… Especially with documentaries I am brought in to sometimes make the subjects feel at ease,” she adds, “because [I] look like them or speak [their] language or there’s something familiar.”

“With fiction, I often get projects that have female protagonists because producers and directors feel that sometimes you can have more of an understanding of that character than a male cinematographer,” she says.

This comes through when Dadabhoy interacts with our cameraperson as he sets up for this interview. “You never shoot women from that angle,” she advises with a smile.

Dadabhoy does feel women filmmakers, especially ones who are persons of colour, are sometimes pigeonholed. “I don’t think that I couldn’t make a film that’s about a male protagonist or about somebody [who's] not a person of colour. Men are always allowed to enter spaces that aren’t necessarily theirs, but women and people of colour don’t have the same privileges,” she says.

Camera: Hussain Afzal; Edit: Kamran Nafees

"Men are always allowed to enter spaces that aren’t necessarily theirs, but women and people of colour don’t have the same privileges."

Naqvi on the other hand says the reason he has chosen subjects who are women is simple: “In Pakistan we have some remarkable people and I don’t think it’s a surprise that a lot of those people are women.”

He still remembers the initial days of filming Shame, his documentary that tells the story of Mukhtaran Mai. “One of the first stories that [most filmmakers] embark on is the hero’s narrative. For me Mukhataran Mai was a hero and I wanted to celebrate that.”

“When I started filming in Meerwala, which is her village in Southern Punjab, there was no electricity, there were no roads — there was nothing there. And this woman singlehandedly transformed that town,” he says. When the filmmaker started shooting the documentary the villagers “despised her,” but towards the end of his five-year-long shooting spell, “they all saw her as a beacon of light”.

“So you can see the power that this woman had,” he says. “Very simple story: one person can make a difference.”

Courtesy Mohammed Naqvi
Courtesy Mohammed Naqvi

And the award goes to…

Films too can make a difference and leave a lasting impact on the viewer. Many critics and juries around the world have found Naqvi and Dadabhoy’s work to have such an effect.

Dadabhoy has worked on multiple critically acclaimed films, the latest being a Swiss French-language short La femme et le TGV which was nominated at the Academy Awards for Best Live Action Short Film.

“When you go into making a film you never think about where it’s going to go. Of course, you want to make a good movie but you don’t think, ‘Oh, we’re going to win an Oscar nomination for this’. So it was definitely a surprise for us,” the cinematographer says.

"[An Oscar nomination] is something that every filmmaker probably dreams about; I had also dreamt about it."

“Every step of the way we were pinching ourselves. It was something that every filmmaker probably dreams about; I had also dreamt about it,” she says.

Naqvi’s projects have similarly received praise and acclaim around the world. Shame won multiple awards, including a Special Emmy. Among The Believers, his most controversial film, has won “30 or so” awards. As per the filmmaker, the documentary has been screened in over 50 countries around the world.

Pakistan is not one of these countries. (Sparing private invite-only screenings).

Cut to: Pakistan

Among The Believers circles around Maulana Abdul Aziz, who was the main khateeb of Lal Masjid. The first time Naqvi met Aziz he was a little scared, “because [Aziz] comes with notoriety”.

Naqvi, his co-director Hemal Trivedi and Jonathan Goodman Levitt, the film’s producer and writer, went to a house Aziz was renting in Islamabad back in 2010. “We get there, dua mang ke ke, ‘Allah khair’ [after praying that Allah keeps us safe].”

After being thoroughly searched, the crew is allowed to meet with Aziz. “And it’s only him sitting alone in the… living room area with the most kindest, sweetest expression inviting us to come forward and talk. And I almost felt like it was… a dramatic set up. I was like, ‘Wow! Baray theatrics bhi involved hain; chalo theek hai.’ [Wow! A lot of theatrics are also involved; fine].”

Naqvi and his crew spent six years on the film, with the behind the scenes stories being as intriguing as the ones on screen. After all that, last year a federal ban was placed on the film’s screening in Pakistan, for ‘projecting a negative image of Pakistan in the context of the ongoing fight against extremism.’

“It’s very discouraging because I think hardly any of my films have been able to show in Pakistan,” the filmmaker says.

Naqvi continues to try and fight the ban. Various organisations and groups, including The International Documentary Association [IDA], have opposed the ban. In a May 2016 open letter to Pakistan’s Central Board of Film Censors Simon Kilmurry, IDA’s executive director wrote, “The IDA believes that documentary filmmakers have the right to hold the governments in their countries accountable; it is through this kind of free expression that we strengthen our democracies.”

Like Naqvi, Dadabhoy has seen her share of problems when working in Pakistan. She worked here for five years and ​shot three feature films, including Iram Parveen Bilal's Josh, ​multiple commercials and ​a ​TV serial. When asked about her experience, she is skeptical at first: “Do you want me to be honest about this because I’ve had a lot of people censor my interviews?”

In Dadabhoy’s experience it is challenging being a woman with an all male crew in Pakistan. “But the crew was still the easiest to get on board; once they understand that you know the technical things they are very supportive,” she says. The management was a different story.

“Production managers, producers and ADs (assistant directors) couldn’t deal with a woman in a position of authority,” Dadabhoy says, “I was told that it’s ‘aggravating’ for the man on the set to hear you speak. There was nothing that I could do in terms of showcasing my work or my skill to win them over — all they saw was my gender.”

Not only were the sets sexist, the cinematographer found “the social disparity that exists in Pakistan, the class system” to be present on them. “[These were] shoots where there was no food, or if there was food it was for the department heads and not for my crew,” she says.

When asked if these experiences have left her bitter enough to not work in Pakistan again she says, “I want to work on another film in Pakistan, I’m actually developing one with a friend of mine. But I think I would do it if I was involved in producing it and I could have some sort of control over what kind of people we’re working with and what kind of situation we’re working in.”

Naqvi too says that despite the ban on his documentary, he will continue to make films in Pakistan. “I always always return to Pakistan and a lot of my work comes from there. Because, you know, my formative years were spent there; I grew up there.” He adds that Pakistan is a very “hot topic” right now and “a lot of people want to make films there.”

It should be us telling these stories, the filmmaker stresses.

The need for diverse voices

Dadabhoy echoes this sentiment about representation. “[Muslim-Americans are] a community that definitely needs to be telling their own story and controlling that narrative, because everything else that’s coming out about us is very negative.”

She is currently working on a short documentary about the controversial Muslim travel ban in the US. “I’ve been following Muslim civil rights activists in the US and we’re going to continue following them through the first year of the Trump administration and work on a feature film about them,” she says.

“More so than the news, film is actually what educates people. That’s where they draw their opinions and what they know about different countries. [Cinema] might even create empathy; and if you’ve done that, then you’ve done your job as a filmmaker,” Naqvi concludes.