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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

An Interview With Feminist Pakistani Filmmaker Afia Nathaniel

Emily Mae Czachor |
October 17, 2015 | 12:43 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

(Geo Films)
(Geo Films)
Following its moving premiere at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival and its subsequent selection as Pakistan’s Official Entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category for the 87th Academy Awards, Afia Nathaniel’s independent Pakistani film “Dukhtar” is catapulting into Los Angeles theaters this weekend.

The expertly crafted film follows the gripping journey of a young mother, trapped in the acutely suffocating social and political climate of her Pakistani village, who kidnaps her 10-year-old daughter in an effort to save her from child marriage. Emotionally jarring, cinematically gorgeous and altogether inspiring, “Dukhtar” is a white-knuckle, heart-in-your-throat experience that leaves viewers with a powerful, lasting image of circumstances so painful its almost difficult to believe they’re rooted in fact. 

Neon Tommy spoke with Nathaniel -- a brilliant Columbia graduate and bold feminist filmmaker -- about the very real experiences that fueled the film’s creation as well as her compulsion to create a unique story like this one that so intimately portrays the plight of women outside any male entanglements. 

Neon Tommy: What inspired you to create this film? 

AN: Love. Nostalgia. And a story I once heard. 

I was studying Film Directing at Columbia University and we had a rewrite class. I had written this draft of a film of a mother on the run with her young daughter. I always knew this was going to be my first feature film. The actual mother’s story of courage really stayed with me and I wanted to explore this idea of a woman’s existence in a culture which doesn’t really allow her the freedom to exist by herself. So what kind of a life would she have with her daughter while being hunted down by her family. What kind of a journey would it be? Would she find hope? Love? And I found myself missing Pakistan and home so this story became a way to connect with home. And so the film navigates the territories of a thriller, a road trip and a love story and becomes its own thing. It interested me to play within the genres.

NT: The story reflects very real circumstances in Pakistan and grapples with these very heavy issues of female bodily autonomy and child marriage -- how did you research for the film? Did you speak to women who have personally experienced similar circumstances? If so, what was that like?

AN: Since the film is initially inspired by a woman from the tribal areas of Pakistan, I always wanted that background to be there as part of her story. The practice of settling feuds with marriages is common in parts of this region so young girls are brought into this equation automatically.  

I researched quite a bit. And I went to a few places with concentration of Pakhtun families and spoke with them about various things including child marriage. Many of the women had no idea at what age they had been married. Most of the women had no national ID cards because they were never registered at birth. They remembered hitting puberty and that jumpstarting their marriage proposals. However, this is not common in most parts of Pakistan. There are pockets of the country where there is a higher concentration of child marriage. 

I noticed that some of the girls went to school even in traditional families while the mothers stayed within the four walls of the house. So when their children came home, the women wanted to learn from their children what they had learnt in school. The women also watched a lot of TV and learnt to speak Urdu – a different language and commonly spoken all around Pakistan. There was a great curiosity in these women to know more about the world outside. And they spoke Urdu with such great fluency that I was shocked. So I decided to make this part of my heroine’s character. She would learn stuff from her daughter after school and from watching TV dramas she could speak Urdu. I also gave her a half Punjabi background. So even if she is from the Pakhtun background, she can still easily speak Urdu and navigate her way in the world which would turn upside down. 

NT: We don't see enough feature films that center on the female experience outside of relationships to men/relationships between women. Does that motivate you, as a filmmaker, to create these kinds of films? Why do you think it's important to showcase these stories?

AN: It’s funny you say this. I was at this speaking engagement for a large women’s group and we started talking about the Bechdel test. I asked them to think about a Hollywood film, in fact, any film that they had seen in the past few months and recall only one scene in a film with two women who speak about something other than a man and that the women should have names in the film and not be anonymous type. They thought about it for some time and we all looked at one another in stunned silence as the realization came that no one in the room could recall such any such depiction for films they had seen in 2015! That right there gives you a sense of the problem in the film industry at large. The gaze is intensely male.

So when I write films and my protagonists are female, I have no problem fighting for them to exist because I believe in them. That’s the bottom line. I also believe that the industry can learn to believe in them once they exist. This is why when you have female writer-directors at the helm of feature film chances are that there will be complex female roles in front of the camera too.  

NT: The acting in the film is so raw. What was it like working with the cast? Did you become close with them? 

AN: I was really fortunate to find such a great cast. The girl playing Zainab was a great find. I had spent three months auditioning and searching for the right girl but when Saleha walked into the room, there was something very special about her. I had already cast my lead actress, Samiya Mumtaz who is a fantastic theater actress. I did some improv scenes with Saleha and Samiya and their chemistry was so palpable that it was an easy decision. 

The truck driver, Mohib Mirza, is from TV and he was looking to do something different. And when I saw his audition, there was something vulnerable in him that I found very interesting. The actor who plays the role of the father, Asif Khan, is a very seasoned and much loved Pakhtun actor. This was his first time doing a feature film in Urdu and he brought his experience onboard. He shared his experiences about sitting in tribal meetings where matters of life and death are decided so when the time came to play the pivotal scene in which he makes a deal to marry his young daughter, he brought a great complexity in the acting because you can see on the screen that he has no choice but to settle the deal.

I like to give my actors the freedom to come into themselves. Because we were going to be on the road for two months and travelling like a huge family, there was a great chemistry onset amongst actors and crew. I loved watching how Saleha (who was missing her mom) and Samiya (who was missing her daughter) adopt one another off camera and became like a real mother-daughter pair. There were quite a few non-actors in the film especially at the end of the film when you see the huge festival. We had to bus in almost 300 extras for that all night shoot and had only eight hours with them! When you’re working with actors and non-actors together in one scene it is very important to balance their energies and try to coax the nervousness out of the non-actors. So yes, it’s a close relationship you build but it differs from actor to actor and what I really want from them.

NT: What do you hope audiences take away from the film?

AN: Hope. 

"Dukhtar" premieres Oct. 16 at the LA Music Hall.

Reach Staff Reporter Emily Mae Czachor here.



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