Computer-scientist-turned-filmmaker, Afia Nathaniel is the founder of Zambeel Films, an independent production company in Pakistan. Prior to filmmaking, she worked for the Power to Change Fund, and spoke internationally on the issue of violence against women and the role of artists as agents of change. She graduated from Columbia University’s Film Directing program, and currently teaches Screenwriting at Columbia University and NYUʼs Tisch School of the Art. She is a 2010 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow and was recently honoured with the Adrienne Shelly award for directors.
She directed the short films “Nadah”, the story of a young girl who wants to play cricket in a conservative part of Lahore, “Toba Tek Singh”, adapted from one of the much loved short stories of Saadat Hasan Manto, and “Long After”. She is the writer, director and producer of Dukhtar, her first feature. It was Pakistan’s official entry for the Best Foreign Feature at the 2015 Academy Awards, and won the Audience Award at Creteil, Best World Feature at Sonoma, and two top awards at the South Asian International Film Festival.
For two months I was in limbo while shooting [in a remote area of Pakistan], it was a tough time because I couldn’t talk to my own daughter, who was in India with my mother-in-law. I was the only female member of the crew and I couldn’t really speak to anybody about how I felt.
Congratulations on your first feature, DUKHTAR. Can you tell us how you combine filmmaking and parenting?
I have an eight year old daughter. There’s a question of which child needs more attention and love: your live child or your film, but you’ve got to be fair to your real kid. So starting my own production company was partially about combining filmmaking with parenting. I wanted to decide what the fate of my life’s work would be. For my company Zambeel Films, the focus is to be able to take local stories and make them available for a global audiences – but at the same time, I want to be free to work on any story that takes me to any part of the world.
I’m a very reluctant producer. I’m a writer-director, but I became a producer of necessity for my own film. No-one knew how to produce a feature film in and about Pakistan, but for a global audience. I’ve embraced that with great passion and courage, and my strength speaks to being able to work on films that have an epic quality to them – possibly because I had a great crew to rely on, including my producing partner Khalid Ali of Crew Films, an experienced line producer. Our partnership really worked well, and became the corner stone on which we can produce other films.
Did you bring your daughter on set?
HELL NO! At first I thought I would, when she was younger and dependent on me. But when production actually happened, she was older and in school, and it wasn’t fair to take her away. Also I was travelling to a remote part of Pakistan that is historically disputed between India and Pakistan, and there’s an army presence all around in these areas. My husband is Indian, and my daughter is an American citizen, so it would have been a huge nightmare for the crew. We had to take that out of the equation and go as a local production where there was no foreigner on board.
It was hard to be away from home and from my baby for so long. We couldn’t communicate by cellphone even, because there was no signal, and there was no real internet access. For two months I was in limbo while shooting, it was a tough time because I couldn’t talk to my own daughter, who was in India with my mother-in-law. I was the only female member of the crew and I couldn’t really speak to anybody about how I felt. And then when you’ve done your crazy thing, you need time for reflection and settling back – that’s not really talked about, either. You come back home and have to adjust to your life and make it real for your family again, and that’s an emotional and physical investment, while you’re still finishing your film.
What I really need to mention is that such work can only take place if your spouse is 100% behind it. Even though my husband wasn’t involved in making the film, he gave his everything to make sure I could do what I had to go and do, and I’m really filled with gratitude that he did that. It’s very rare and it’s a blessing.
Life can’t be on hold too. It’s your most fertile period, creatively and biologically, and you have to find the right balance… When I’m not earning as a filmmaker, I need to find a way to pay for childcare.
Do you think that gender makes a difference, or is it the same for all parent-filmmakers?
I think that what’s crucial and time-consuming for first-time female filmmakers is that you’re fighting to first find your place in the industry, to claim it and then hold onto it, but that fight takes so long, longer than you signed up for. It took me ten years to make that film, and that shouldn’t happen. But I’m a brown female filmmaker, from a country whose films no-one cares about. ‘What if it had a Bollywood actress, or a male lead?’ People would suggest that in pitch meetings: I’d have had the money in an instant, but it would have changed the aesthetic. You have to work hard to hold onto your authenticity and integrity in a market that doesn’t value them.
Then life can’t be on hold too. It’s your most fertile period, creatively and biologically, and you have to find the right balance. And as creative entrepreneurs, we don’t necessarily work where our families are; I’m a Pakistani woman working in the US – we have to find a way to make it work. When I’m not earning as a filmmaker, I need to find a way to pay for childcare. We need to find a way to budget for childcare, even if it’s a modest budget, it’s a necessary line item.
And not just for production, for post-production too, that’s crucial – grants aiming to support female filmmakers have to have that flexibility built in. I would hope such grants would increasingly factor childcare, for female filmmakers, but also in grants for male filmmakers who are primary care-givers. It’s time to have that.
Your film DUKHTAR is a mother-daughter story, with an incredible central performance from young teenager Saleha Aref. How did you find her and work with her, especially with some emotionally and physically high-risk scenes?
This was the first feature film she’s worked on. I had to do almost no work with her to prep her, she has this natural energy and presence. When I was auditioning it was really tough to find a child in that age bracket who had not yet lost their innocence, but at the same time had a self-awareness. It’s that pre-pubescent tipping point, that time when awareness becomes part of your aura as a girl. In Pakistan, we don’t have talent or casting agencies that specifically cater to feature films, they serve a thriving commercial advertising industry. The girls who were coming to me were primed to be a certain way as soon as the camera was on them. It took away their innocence, it took away their instincts. Also, I realised that it was a matter of casting the entire family; we needed to look at it differently, not just plucking a child out of her family and placing her on set.
My DP [Armughan Hassan] said ‘Why don’t you call this girl? She’s great. She worked on the Pakistani adaptation of Sesame Street.’ It was important for me to meet the parents before I met the child – it was important they understood the scope of the film. There was no hiding: it was a difficult film and a difficult role. And her parents were supportive. Her father is a photographer and had biked in the mountains where we were going to shoot; he knew the places well and understood how difficult it would be for filming. I said that one parent would have to be with us, that I wouldn’t take her alone to these places, and he agreed.
And then the moment Saleha walked in to the audition, there was something special. We’d found her, and from there on it fell into place. I had her coached by a Pashtun speaker who could give her insight into the language and the family and place of the story. She’s like a sponge: she soaks things up and surprises you when you call action. For us, it was a matter of being ready to catch it, because she gave everything in the first take, there wasn’t going to be a second or third take. There’s one scene in the truck where they’re being chased, and the driver is reluctant to take them further: it’s a pivotal scene – I’m not going to give anything away by saying what she does! – and her performance in it blew me away. When I said cut, we were all crying.
I was a mom on the set – even to my male crew! That’s how I feel: they’re my boys, even though I’m younger than them. I don’t see myself as a director in terms of my career. That’s not my job, I’m a nurturer.
What was it like being on set: did she become like a daughter to you?
Samiya Mumtaz (who plays the protagonist, Allah Rakhi) and Saleha were the only two women on the set apart from me; it was very important to have their chemistry evolve off-screen so they could play mother and daughter on screen. Samiya has a daughter Saleha’s age, and Saleha was missing her mom because her dad was with her, so they really bonded. The lens captured that. It was an organic practice that unfolded.
But yes, I was a mom on the set – even to my male crew! That’s how I feel: they’re my boys, even though I’m younger than them. I don’t see myself as a director in terms of my career. That’s not my job, I’m a nurturer. It was really important that the team gelled well – I don’t see a difference between my directing and producing hats, which can be bad sometimes, but it worked out well for the team dynamics.
I have a crew that I’ve always worked with, and they were the core crew. It was very interesting to hear from my boys about working with male directors who are antagonistic and create an atmosphere filled with fear, it’s more like a dictatorship. They tell you what to do, and if you don’t, there’s a stream of curse words that follow. For me, it’s trying to understand strengths and weaknesses, and tapping that; if there’s something that needs to be addressed, I speak to them about it. There is something to be said about different leadership styles, but the goal is the same for all of us: we get the job done, on time and on budget.
What are you working on now?
I’m trying to find time to work on my next screenplay, which is a crazy mind-bending science fiction/fantasy, it’s not a regular genre film but a wild mash-up. When you go round pitching a fantasy sci-fi film that has a female protagonist, which should be a no-brainer right now, it’s like ‘Woah, that’s a feminist film!’ And I’m like, ‘It’s about the other 50%! How is it a feminist film just because it has a female protagonist?’ It’s not necessarily about feminism, it just has a female protagonist. Because the minute you say feminism, men feel, ‘It’s not for us.’ There is a male gaze in the industry, it’s so intensely testosterone, that when the oestrogen comes in, it’s a shock. And it shouldn’t be, it’s just 50/50. There are a lot of glass ceilings that need to be broken in the genre itself.
When you… share the film for the first time with an audience, it’s such an amazing thing, it’s like your baby that has just stood up from crawling and walked on its legs, and now it’s going to grow up and live its own life.
How was your journey with exhibiting DUKHTAR? Were festivals family-friendly
Most of them are pretty open to the idea of filmmakers with a family, and they go to great lengths to facilitate that, especially festivals in smaller towns. From Toronto [where the film premiered] up until now, we’ve been very welcomed – and sometimes I’ve taken my daughter along, to Toronto, to Palm Springs, to MOOOV, a Flemish film festival in Belgium. It’s a touring festival, so you’re film gets a ‘wider’ release in some ways, and you get to see the love of cinema in smaller places, where there’s a loyal audience coming to the one cultural centre that’s a hub. It’s more intimate, too: your daughter’s standing there, and the audience is right there celebrating her birthday with you. It’s very precious for us, because festivals are the bridge between filmmakers and audiences, and it’s even more special when you have your family with you because they’ve been on the filmmaking journey with you.
At the premiere at Toronto, I had my daughter on one side and my mom on the other, and when the end credits rolled, I was holding both their hands. It was the first time my mom had seen it, and that it was dedicated to her: it was so special. When you feel the darkness coming down in the theatre, and you share the film for the first time with an audience, it’s such an amazing thing, it’s like your baby that has just stood up from crawling and walked on its legs, and now it’s going to grow up and live its own life.
DUKHTAR is available in the UK via ourscreen.com, a crowdsourcing initiative that allows you to organise your own screening.