Lights, camera, action! Did you imagine hearing that in a man's voice? I sure did and that is a problem. Behind almost every other film in Pakistan, there's usually a man in the director's chair calling the shots. Given that filmmaking is largely a male-dominated occupation — not unlike many other fields — it's imperative to recognise the female bosses out there breaking barriers and smashing stereotypes to own space in the film industry.
These women are launching amazing projects into the world courtesy their brilliant minds. In the spirit of amplifying the voices of some incredibly inspiring women, we've curated a list of Pakistani female filmmakers who are — for a lack of better phrasing — absolutely killing it.
Haya Fatima Iqbal, documentary filmmaker
Haya Fatima Iqbal is an Academy and two-time Emmy award winning documentary filmmaker. She is a co-founder of the Documentary Association of Pakistan and has covered a range of subjects through her documentary work ranging from gender, militancy, conflict, climate change, water scarcity and social justice. Her work has been featured on HBO Documentary, Redfish, BBC, Al Jazeera, Channel 4 UK, VICE, National Geographic Society, CNN and the Thomson Reuters Foundation among other media organisations.
Iqbal's work is all about building trust with collaborators and as a woman documentary filmmaker in Pakistan, she feels that people are willing to trust women more readily. "This trust has always helped me tell visual stories with greater nuance and I can't be thankful enough for it to people who I have filmed with over the years," she said.
Iqbal shed light on the other side of the coin as well, talking about issues that female filmmakers face in the male-dominated workplace. "On the flip side, I know that every shoot that I go to as a woman I have to work extra hard in many ways to be taken seriously, to ensure that I am heard by (often mostly male) crew members and collaborators alike, to ensure that I always take steps to keep myself and those associated with me safe, and to ensure that my absolutely crazy love for our work as documentary filmmakers is not seen just as a mere means to pass time," she said.
Her advice for female filmmakers is to push back and break barriers within the filmmaking community by experimenting with traditionally male-dominated sectors of film work such as cinematography, sound recording and engineering and editing.
Sabin Agha, investigative journalist turned documentary filmmaker
Sabin Agha is an investigative journalist turned documentary filmmaker who has produced several internationally acclaimed documentaries on political violence, crime, social and healthcare issues as well as gender and conflict issues. Some of her work includes Lawless Oceans for National Geographic, EVERY LAST CHILD for Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation/Image Nation and Liyari Kahani, a Pakistani documentary.
According to Agha, the idea of women in filmmaking is still somewhat alien globally and Pakistan is no exception to this. Family and society often expects women to juggle different roles in life — an expectation that becomes challenging since filmmaking requires full time presence in the field. The pressure of this expectation not only hampers the quality of work, it also discourages women to pursue their dreams.
When Agha embarked upon her filmmaking journey, one of the most challenging aspects was to find an established female crew and this remains a challenge. "Even though several universities now have functioning media studies departments with female students pursuing documentary filmmaking, we do not see girls practising their skills in the field."
On the flip side, Agha (like Iqbal) pointed out the advantage she has as a female filmmaker when it comes to accessing deeply conservative communities, presenting stories about trauma and bringing forth larger issues through the depiction of an individual's personal story. "[Being] a woman filmmaker enables me to connect and communicate with female protagonists effectively. My presence as a woman offers [a] safe space to female protagonists, which makes them appear more relaxed on camera despite an otherwise all-male crew," she said.
She spoke of how the "male-dominated macho hierarchy" in films often misses out on certain nuances while building narratives, things easily caught by the female perspective. For instance, sequences of women doing household chores are often not shown because they are considered banal and insignificant. Agha made an effort to unlearn this quickly, developing a more critical eye for gender politics. "I strive to focus more on female characters who are inspirational, headstrong and leaders in the films," she said. "As a woman filmmaker, I try to challenge this bias of the boundaries of femininity through nuanced storytelling."
She invites all aspiring women filmmakers to join her in breaking the cycle of bias within the industry. "Let’s support each other in the field of filmmaking by not only introducing more gender diversity but also by helping more women voice their inspirational stories. Let’s bring home some more Oscars together."
Tazeen Bari, documentary director, producer and cinematographer
Tazeen Bari is a documentary director, producer and cinematographer. Some of her notable work includes films Letters From Death Row, Vote For X and Qandeel — a documentary on social media star Qandeel Baloch released by The Guardian which won the Leslie J Sacks Grand Prize Award. She is also a co-founder of the Documentary Association of Pakistan and is currently working on her first fiction feature film.
Bari fell in love with documentary film when she realised the medium brought together her creative passions, her desire for exploration and her concerns as a human being, feminist and citizen of Pakistan. She made her first documentary in 2009 and has never looked back since.
"The stories we consume play a part in defining our understanding of the world and storytellers are not empty objective vessels but rather people who make choices about the way narratives unfold," she said. "There is something terribly wrong with an equation where stories about women are told predominantly by men instead of women themselves. This is our struggle, to not only tell our stories but to make sure there is equal representation of women in film crews and in executive decision-making positions."
Her advice for aspiring filmmakers is to "just go out and shoot". "Filmmaking is a craft learnt only through doing," she said. "Let your heart guide you, your curiosity push you forward and your imagination inspire you."
Hira Nabi, filmmaker and multimedia artist
Hira Nabi is a filmmaker and artist working with moving images and text. Through her work, she thinks through vulnerable ecologies, conditions of labor, memories and temporality. She was the 2020 Prince Claus Fund Next Generation laureate and a media arts award grantee from Edith-Russ-Hause in 2021. She attended Berlinale Talents in 2021 and her films have been shown at Sundance Film Festival, Copenhagen International Documentary Festival, DokuFest and AFI Docs.
Nabi has been creating "filmic experiments" since 2007 which is when she first started studying film at college. "At school there were still a lot of women and non-binary people in my classes but in the current Pakistani industry, it feels very sparse," she commented on the lack of female representation in filmmaking. "There may be female directors, producers and a few editors but there remain very few women in the cinematic or media infrastructure. There isn't an equitable gender balance when it comes to sound technicians. I don't know any female location sound recordists or working as gaffers — hardly any camera assistants, and just a handful of cinematographers."
Nabi explained that this meant female filmmakers are always working with men, many of whom are wary of taking direction from women, insisting upon following gendered hierarchies. She feels the status quo needs to be shaken up. "It feels quite necessary to have apprenticeships, workshops and grants made available to try to change this disparity," she said.
For the filmmaker, while the past cannot be changed, there is still hope for the future. "We can't change the history of public-facing cinema which has been dominated by men — passing over the work of pioneering, avante-garde female filmmakers whose practices have been lesser-known and more obscure, or perhaps surface decades later — but we can think about how to shift these imbalances, and strive for more inclusivity of all kinds in our current work and for the future."
Gulzar Nayani, documentary filmmaker and video producer
Gulzar Nayani is a Karachi-based documentary filmmaker and video producer currently associated with Soch Videos. Calling filmmaking her refuge, she said viewing the world through a camera lens has enabled her to make better sense out of it. "It liberates me from the reservations I had for self-expression and helps [me] connect better," she explained.
Nayani owes her growth as a filmmaker to her first independent project, No More Backseaters, screened at Capri Cinema under Goethe-Institut Pakistan’s Sunday Matinee Initiative. She says the project's screening was one of the happiest days of her life, a fruition of all the effort the filmmaker poured into No More Backseaters over two and a half years. Her work as a filmmaker finally began to make sense to her family at the time as well. "This project opened new doors for me — I was selected for Goethe's Film Talents II fellowship and the short documentary I made during this training, Azaadi, won at the Generation Equality Film Festival 2021. It was screened at the Generation Equality Forum [in] Paris organised by UN Women," she shared.
Nayani notes that there has been a profound increase in female representation in the field over the years. "Before, I felt the need to over-deliver to compensate for being a woman in a male-dominated field. This happened at conscious and subconscious level and I gave in," she recalled.
On the field, the filmmaker has been at the receiving end of mansplaining multiple times. "The most recent one happened around this Women’s Day," she said, sharing her latest experience. "I was offered unsolicited help by a stranger for setting up my tripod, who didn’t stop there and later condescendingly told me I was doing my job wrong. I responded by telling him to step aside and stop touching or moving my frame."
Nayani believes attitudes would change for the better if we "keep challenging the misogyny within and around ourselves". To the budding female filmmakers she said, "Don’t let others inflict their doubts upon you. Believe in your vision and tell the stories you want to tell."