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.
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