The stories we can tell best are about ourselves, says British-Pakistani filmmaker Seemab Gul

The stories we can tell best are about ourselves, says British-Pakistani filmmaker Seemab Gul

Her short film Mulaqaat had its world premiere at the prestigious Venice Film Festival earlier this month.
29 Sep, 2021

Seemab Gul, a British-Pakistani filmmaker is still processing the fact that her film Mulaqaat (English title: Sandstorm) had its world premiere at the prestigious Venice Film Festival earlier this month.

“It was just awe-inspiring,” the filmmaker says, recounting her experience at the festival. “I left film school about 10 years ago and it’s been a struggle,” she says. “My documentaries have been to some good festivals such as HotDocs, but Venice is literally one of the top three [film festivals in the world].”

Mulaqaat tells the story of Zara (Parizae Fatima), a schoolgirl in Karachi who shares a ‘sensual’ dance video with her virtual boyfriend, who then blackmails her. The themes the film touches upon, which are relevant in Pakistan and globally, clearly caught the attention of the audience at Venice. The screening had a ‘full house’ but, because of the pandemic and social distancing requirements, full capacity meant only half the seats could be occupied.

Things at the Venice Film Festival were a little different this year. All bookings had to be made in advance, there were many ‘test tents’ where people could get tested, and lots of temperature checks. But none of it could take away from the glee Gul felt at being back at the movies. Like many around the world, she hadn’t been inside a cinema in a while.

“It was such a pleasure watching [the film] on a huge screen with peers and cinema lovers,” she says with a smile that she can barely contain. “That was a total treat.”

Work on Mulaqaat began a couple of years ago at another film festival. This was at the Locarno Film Festival, where Gul met Abid Merchant and pitched him the idea. Merchant — who is also the producer behind Iram Parveen Bilal’s Wakhri, which was selected for Open Doors at Locarno (2018) and Cannes L’Atelier (2019) — seemed interested in Gul’s film.

“Long story short, it took me about a year to write it and then he agreed to fund it after he read the script,” Gul says. “But then the Covid pandemic started...”

Filming an international production during a pandemic

“It was daunting, it was challenging,” Gul says of shooting her film during the pandemic. After assessing the Covid-19 situation in Pakistan for a bit, in September 2020, the team decided to “take the plunge.”

Gul shot the film in five days during the winters. “I was aware that I didn’t want to bring too much crew to Pakistan,” she tells Icon. “There’s a lot of amazing talent, a lot of gifted people and a lot of creativity in Pakistan, so I wanted to tap into that.”

The only foreign person who came to Pakistan was the cinematographer, Alberto Balazs. There was a lot of anxiety around Balazs’ visa too, Gul shares. His visa arrived just in time, a day before the flight.

All the other crew, cast and extras were from Karachi.

Before filming began, Gul spent three weeks training the actors in the style that she works in. “I like to work with non-actors — my films are inspired by Iranian cinema,” she says. “So I did an alternative outreach at schools and colleges. And, of course, I was open to having professional actors audition too.”

Some of the actors who eventually ended up on the cast had prior TV acting experience. “I have a lot of respect for Pakistani TV dramas, I think they’re amazing and really inspiring,” Gul says. “But I wanted a different acting style. I wanted documentary-style naturalism, in a really minimal way,” she adds.

So she had her cast watch Irani films, including classics such as Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up and Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence. While the cast initially found the films “a bit boring,” they eventually understood what the director was trying to communicate. “I grew with them and they grew with me,” she says.

Unrepresented voices

Gul, who has spent part of her childhood in Karachi and Islamabad before moving to the UK in her late teens, says she is “very aware of what it [is like] for young girls to grow up,” while feeling the need to experiment and wanting to meet people.

Of course, Gul grew up at a time without the kind of pressure social media and the internet can put on teenagers today. So she researched and found just how widespread the problems of harassment, abuse and blackmail are online. “I think women in the Muslim world have even more at stake when it comes to losing their reputation or honour, so I wanted to explore that,” she says.

While attending London Film School, Gul would watch classic films but they were always made from “a particular perspective.” Today, she hopes to counter that with her filmmaking. “The stories we can tell best are about ourselves, and our own lives and the experiences of people around us,” she says.

Naturally, Gul also wants to bring these stories back home. “It is really important for me to show [the film] to Pakistani audiences,” she says. She says that while it is “much too early” to discuss a Pakistani premiere, she hopes that it will be within the next six months.

The filmmaker is also considering taking an “alternative outreach” model in a year’s time, by screening the film at Pakistani schools and colleges, in the hopes of sparking a dialogue. “That’s where it could have a purpose beyond entertainment,” she says.

For now, Mulaqaat will continue doing festival rounds for the next year at least. Next up is its Swedish premiere at the Uppsala International Short Film Festival.

Originally published in Dawn, ICON, September 26th, 2021


1000 Characters
Dr. Salaria, Aamir Ahmad Sep 29, 2021 11:38am
She is 100 percent right.
Toni Sep 29, 2021 12:14pm
Well done, best wishes.
Talha Sep 29, 2021 12:23pm
World wants to see stories from Af-Pak region, especially those where women everyday struggles are illustrated.
NYS Sep 29, 2021 01:03pm
Children Film Festival held in Pakistan annually as far concern the short films have no cinematic approach Iranian film "Children of heaven" worth watch
Zak Sep 29, 2021 01:17pm
Wish they would show something positive, fed up of negativity being chosen by foreign film festivals.
Hasan Malik Sep 29, 2021 02:18pm
Why all shorts movies from Iran and Pakistan for European film festivals have a similar form of agenda?. It is all about self pity and nothing else. Please select topics about arts, crafts and culture rather than attention seeking like that. Also in my view West has a agenda to give attention to peculiar topics from certain countries to reinforce their belief system about us.
Tenjee Sep 29, 2021 03:24pm
My fear is this could be another film that panders to western ideas of gender relations and politics, and will be lauded as a polemic of traditional societies. If you want recognition or fortune in the west one If the easiest ways is to do works that are subversive. I bet this film will not actually tackle why haya and ghayrat have such value, but will instead paint it as another "freedom" struggle.
Tenjee Sep 29, 2021 03:26pm
@Zak Exactly. But "they" only see negativity when looking at our culture traditions values religion. If this film had anything positive to say about those things it would not be so well received. They like Seeing things that confirm western preconceptions .
Black Fungus Sep 30, 2021 12:14am
It sounds like a film I would like to experience. The story, though set in Pakistan, is one that we can relate to all over the world.
Black Fungus Sep 30, 2021 12:18am
@Zak it’s about change and the tensions that arise as we struggle through life. There are many films made to satisfy the need for entertainment. With heroes to admire or comedians to make us laugh. Sometimes escapism of holly- bolly- or lollywood is not enuf.
Black Fungus Sep 30, 2021 12:19am
@Tenjee the story could have been set in the West.
Ali Mehdi Sep 30, 2021 06:22am
Apart from being negative these movies are so dull so very boring that you just don’t want to waste any time watching them. We want to see positive stuff. Success stories of accomplishments made by originate people like us.
Glen D'Abreo Oct 02, 2021 01:27am
@Ali Mehdi If life was just about success then it would be a breeze living. Actually it is not and film viewers want to control what films come out. The big lie that keeps feeding itself that anything negative is a big effort by the West to keep Pakistan down. That only films about negativity are celebrated in foreign festivals. This is so far away from the truth.
Glen D'Abreo Oct 02, 2021 01:30am
@Zak this narrative "Wish they would show something positive, fed up of negativity being chosen by foreign film festivals." is a contributing misinformation that is propagated by people who want to control films. All the positive stores are presented in nauseous way with rom-com, marriage stories and huge wedding celebrations. This is a safe subject and it helps to numb the movie going audience .
Glen D'Abreo Oct 02, 2021 01:32am
@Tenjee No matter what film you make these days every one is a critic? Pakistani school going students are face with the burdens of social media and it can help and hurt. It might be a film subject that is not of your liking but parents need some direction of the evil of unattended social media participation.