Aleem Bukhari, the 22-year filmmaker and digital artist who clinched the Best Direction and Best Screenplay at the FiLUMS International Film Festival, says he is surprised that his horror short film Sapola has been a festival favourite.

The film, which was also the runner-up for Best Short Film, is a horror-mystery about honour killing. Bukhari says he believed there was a limited audience for the film and he least expected the film to win awards for its unconventionality.

“When I made the film, I knew it wasn’t for [a mainstream] audience, but that festival [curators and audiences] would understand it. When I got the awards, I was surprised. A horror short-film getting two awards at a Pakistani film festival is unexpected because such niche genres typically don’t win awards. In the past, classic horror films haven’t gotten awards but only critical acclaim. However, now things are changing. My film had elements that viewers need to connect with to understand it,” he shared.

Director Aleem Bukhari with Sapola's lead actor
Director Aleem Bukhari with Sapola's lead actor

FiLUMS isn’t the only film festival where Sapola has been recognised. It has won Best Short-Film at the June 2018 edition of International Monthly Film Festival, and, this year, was officially selected for screening at Cindependent Film Festival in the US. He was also nominated for Best Short-Film at 12th Cinalfama Lisbon International Film Awards in Portugal, official selection at Kerry Film Festival in Ireland, Eyecatcher Film Festival in the US and Karachi’s Purple Lions Film Festival.

The Hyderabad-based filmmaker says he always knew he wanted to make a horror-mystery film. He has been inspired by Japanese horror films, especially ones that were about social alienation. “While I knew the genre I wanted to deal with, I also knew I had to say something and not just whip up a ghost story. I’m from Sindh and karo kari is prevalent there, but I didn’t want to exploit it. I wanted a traditional way of story-telling showing how the perpetrator has done something wrong and how he faces the consequences in a supernatural way, how he faces his fear. It was aimed at bringing out the mindset of that person. I wanted it to be raw and scary, very metaphoric yet supernatural,” Bukhari explained the objective behind making the film.

When he was done editing the film in June, he initially sent it to the international film festivals after which someone suggested he submit it to FiLUMS.

“This was also the first film festival I attended personally. Surprisingly, there were people from other universities and cities who came up to me and told me they had come to see my film, as they knew of my work through social media. It was a great experience because so far I had only got praise for my films online since I never submitted them anywhere. And also because I have always created unconventional art, whether it is short films, paintings or illustrations. So, getting awards for an unconventional film made me think people may have started understanding art and it is the right moment for films in Pakistan.”

The self-taught filmmaker and artist is inspired by a host of foreign filmmakers, from Paul Thomas Anderson, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Na Hong Jin and David Lynch to Andrei Tarkovsky, Anurag Kashyap, Park Chan Wook, Sion Sono, Nicolas Winding Refn, Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Andrzej Zulawski.

Bukhari went through a rollercoaster of an academic life that included him being forced into O- and A-levels, dropping out of school and college for not liking business studies, getting into an art school in Lahore to prove himself and to get people off his back but dropping out of there also in a couple of weeks and going back to his hometown of Hyderabad. All of this happened only for Bukhari to return to Lahore to pursue his true calling, which was filmmaking, and to prove to himself and everyone around him that he could learn the art himself. “I learnt through watching films for as long as I can remember, and then, of course, the internet.”

This was because he was always interested in art -- sketching and painting being his passions at an early age. In 2014, he learnt digital illustration for creating art as an escape from life and all the frustrations it had brought with it. That’s when some good things started happening for Bukhari, finally. His illustrations were featured in Pakistan’s first digital art book in 2014. Later, he also indulged in some photography with a camera his brother had bought to pursue his own passion.

"Getting awards for an unconventional film made me think people have started understanding art and it is the right moment for films in Pakistan." — Aleem Bukhari, Best Director winner at FiLUMS 2018

“I made weird music videos at home, then got into skateboarding with a friend and made a documentary on it, called Lords of Nowhere. This was followed by a few other documentaries, but for my own viewing, practicing and learning; I was enjoying the whole process. In 2017, I made a 15-minute fiction short-film on child sexual abuse, Below the Sun, but just for myself and uploaded it on the internet because I was clueless about what to do with it. I just wanted to create something out of frustration that nobody was doing this. I received a lot of praise online after which I even got paid work for directing a couple of music videos, commissioned work and other stuff.”

By now, Bukhari had realised he wanted to make more short films. So, he disappeared from social media for months during which he wrote Sapola, which was completed in June. During the process, he had also figured out the right way to go about films, getting them exposure, and a more practical and professional approach to the business. The rest, as they say, is history.

“Now, I want to make a few short films before eventually making a feature film. I’m working on my next, which is going to be a sci-fi human drama, but without robots and gadgets. I want to send it to bigger festivals and even approach distributors for it, and even reach platforms like Netflix,” explained the young filmmaker about his future plans.