When I posted to Instagram that I would be traveling to New York City to write about the Pakistan Film Festival (PFF), I received a lot of DMs telling me that as a journalist I should be more concerned about our country’s pressing social needs than the export of cinema.
Films may not fix our problems. But they, like all art forms, matter because they hold a mirror up to us, because they show us what we have in common with one another, and because, most importantly, they urge us not to grow complacent.
Around the world, there are over a thousand film festivals each year. That is more than two film festivals daily and as many festivals as there are films released annually. Mahira Khan told me that despite being only halfway through 2018, she’d already done three festivals.
So what then is the point of a film festival even?
According to some of the folks I spoke to this past weekend at PFF, for the most part festivals are utterly worthless to the filmmakers and actors. Brand names like Sundance, Toronto, Berlin or Cannes have become healthy cash cows and celeb petting zoos. And more modest operations, such as PFF, are usually a a government’s humble attempt at exporting its “culture” or, as I would argue, a state-sponsored, self-indulgent exercise whereby festival organisers delude themselves into thinking they are doing something worthwhile.
This year’s PFF, which was hosted by the Permanent Mission of Pakistan to the United Nations, took place last weekend in the heart of New York City. It was a four-day affair (of which I attended two days).
The first day was not open to the public. From the sounds of it, it was mostly Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the UN, Dr Maleeha Lodhi and her team schmoozing with the just arrived, half-awake celebs (Mahira Khan, Amina Sheikh, Mehwish Hayat and Mikaal Zulfiqar to name a few) from Pakistan.
The weekend is when all the filmi action and non-stop celeb-spotting went down.
The first day kicked off with an intro to all the stars. It was followed by a screening of 7DMI, which not only failed to impress but also had a lot of the audience duck out off since Mahira Khan had already shown face at the start of the film.
The day ended with perhaps the festival’s biggest hit, Cake. But for the celebs being in the city that never sleeps means it was not the end of the night, which is mostly why the second day got off to a chaotic late start (the other reason being that the early Sunday morning crowd was just barely trickling in for the first screening of day two: the newly released Na Band Na Baraati).
With the exception of Na Band Na Baraati and La La Begun, I’d already seen the films that played at PFF. For that reason, it was particularly fun for me to get a chance at playing neutral observer and to chat with attendees before and after each screening.
As tends to be the case at all film festivals, some of the films were great, some completely failed to land while others were just straight up bad.
For me, the most disappointing crowd response was to Verna, which I personally thought was one of the stronger and more powerful films to come out of Pakistan this year.
Unfortunately, a combination of poor crowd reaction and a weak post-film Q&A made the whole experience fairly unmemorable. A lot of the audience - particularly the men - scoffed and laughed at all the wrong scenes, which didn’t sit right with me and a lot of the young female attendees. And the post-screening Q&A didn’t do the film justice. The crowd wasn’t given a chance to truly dissect and digest the heavy topics addressed in the film. Instead, Dr Lodhi had a fairly lacklustre, basic session with Mahira Khan which failed to bring out anything particularly novel and inspiring, which is a shame because Mahira, if probed properly, is an excellent public speaker.
Instead, the actress wound up repeating the same soundbites and anecdotes we’ve already heard from her past Verna-related interviews.
As expected, Punjab Nahi Jaungi and Cake were the weekend’s ultimate crowd-pleasers.
Equally expected was 7DMI’s failure to impress. La La Begum was a personal favorite (and bagged an award for Best Feature at the end of the weekend) as was the Zeb Bangesh concert that wrapped up the open-to-the-public part of PFF.
One of the more memorable moments of the festival was the talk by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. Interestingly, it was also the only time that the PFF audience was truly international - the house was packed with both desis and non-desis which was refreshing considering PFF, by its very nature and location was meant to be an international affair.
As so frequently happens when Sharmeen takes to the stage, things got extremely emotional and totally controversial.
After watching a clip of her soon-to-be-released documentary series on the lives shattered in the wake of the Pakistan-India Partition, much of the audience (including some of our celebs) sat in a teary-eyed silence.
But unfortunately, any high hopes I had for the Q&A dissipated as soon as the mic started being passed around the audience. Not only was the whole thing poorly moderated, the entirety of the Q&A consisted of angry uncles asking why Sharmeen refuses to portray the “prettier” side of Pakistan.
However, when Sharmeen turned to the audience to ask them which 'good' aspects of Pakistani society she should focus on, the responses were embarrassingly basic. One older man suggested she showcase Pakistan’s shaadi scene.
Another proposed she show Pakistan’s natural scenery. (Sharmeen recommended travel documentaries to him).
Were the whole thing not so frustrating, it would’ve been hilarious.
The third day, which I didn’t attend, was a run-of-the-mill, modest red carpet event hosted by the Mission at the UN headquarters. (This sounds a lot cooler than it really is since the UN headquarters in NYC frequently hosts parties that are actually open to the public).
From the looks of it, the whole shebang was less of an opportunity for PFF attendees to connect with the films and their favorite stars and more of a photo opp for the Mission who handed out tiny trophies and then continued to schmooze and take pictures with their celebrity pets behind the world’s most famous podium.
At its best, the second year of PFF was a solid bridge between the US-based Pakistani diaspora and Pakistan.
In fact, for some film goers a PFF screening was their first Pakistani movie. For others, connecting with the cinema from ‘back home’ was yet another way to try and throw support behind a country that is so frequently maligned and misrepresented in the West.
But mostly PFF was the exact sort of disorganized, self-indulgent brouhaha that unfortunately we can (and have come to) expect from our government.
I got to PFF expecting it to go the way these sort of things usually do: I’d be handed a press pass, be welcomed by organizers keen for good press and then I would spend the rest of the weekend chasing down high-on-themselves celebs.
Boy was I wrong.
There was no pass, no welcome and no program. In fact, we were not even offered a glass of water even though a server was going around taking orders from Dr Maleeha Lodhi, her team and the celebs.
And this is how the rest of the PFF would go: on the totem pole of importance, attendees and press would remain low priority, hovering on the sidelines as Dr Lodhi and her colleagues glued themselves to and schmoozed with the celebs.
Ironically, it was only because of the celebrities that I was able to get my job done this past weekend.
Despite PFF being extremely difficult to navigate (no screening started on time and the staff could easily be overheard openly bad-mouthing some of the screenings), all the celebs brought their A-game. And despite being jet lagged and mobbed many times by fans, each of the celebs in attendance went out of their way to give me access.
Despite just having been mobbed by aunties, uncles and kids alike, Mahira Khan took my hand, headed into a back alley and finished our interview there. A hungry and sleep-deprived Ayesha Omar held up her car to get our interview done. The always vivacious and gracious Frieha Altaf not only opened up her hotel room, suitcase and makeup kit to my cameras, she let us film our interview while she got ready in the bathroom with her daughter. Aamina Sheikh let me loiter on a hotel room bed and badger her with questions for nearly two hours as her team got her red carpet ready. Mehwish Hayat welcomed me to her room where she was spending time with her mom, brother and best friend. The girl didn’t even bat a perfectly mascara-ed eyelash as I ungracefully clambered barefoot all over her hotel room furniture trying to get a perfect shot of her favorite lipstick for our readers.
Despite being rushed by organizers, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy happily stepped outside the venue to speak to me minutes before she was due onstage. And Mikaal Zulfiqar, a notoriously shy and quiet interviewee, told me he’d enjoyed the initial group interview so much that would I be able to swing by his hotel room to finish our conversation on Monday morning? (Alas, I was leaving Sunday night).
Most of us expect celebs to require a measure of wooing in order to get our job done. But PFF has ruined my expectations for life. Turns out, our celebs are humble as pie. And, it’s actually our state-appointed politicians and diplomats - the so-called faces of our nation - who lack etiquette and demand an over-the-top amount of flattery, ego-stroking and praise.
PFF’s organizers would do well to remember that the world of movies and celebrities is not like their world of Islamabad or Washington DC where lobbyists and pollsters carry the day. At events like PFF, it’s the media, attendees and fans who carry the day.
If PFF wants to get to year 3 and to have big name stars continue to attend, they’ll have to majorly rework their strategy.
Because today’s audiences is nothing but fickle.
While both attendees and those following via social media enjoy the parade of beautiful people and their dutiful red-carpet poses, today’s audience demands a different kind of more intimate interaction with celebrities.
This is something our celebrities understand. And that’s why when it comes to interacting with both the audience and journalists, they happily step way out of their comfort zones. Because they know that’s what it takes and because they know just how fickle both their fans and their fame can be.
One of PFF’s goal was to bring Pakistan to the people outside of Pakistan. On this count, the organizers of PFF failed.
With the exception of Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s talk, attendance was spotty at best. Each screening was attended by a modest-sized crowd. Most attendees were there because either they were somehow connected to the Mission or had gotten an email from the Mission.
None were there on the strength of advertisement and marketing. Indeed, it seems that the festival had zero online presence. We received the hashtags for the event three days after the event had ended, and had someone from Frieha’s team not texted me on the first morning I probably wouldn’t have been able to find the venue.
Throughout the weekend the buzzwords “revival” and “renaissance” of Pakistani cinema were thrown around at least a hundred times.
I think this is out of touch with the reality of Pakistani cinema. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that our cinema is post-revival and mid-renaissance. Sure, the rest of the world may only be starting to catch up just now. But we Pakistanis have known for a long time now that our industry is doing some pretty dope things.
If anything, it remains our politicians who remain in need of revival and renaissance.