In this exclusive interview for ADN, the Canadian/Pakistanese director and producer Mohammed Ali Naqvi speaks about his last and new documentaries. He also explains the difficulties and importance of doing docs in and about Pakistan.
. Could you introduce yourself ?
I was born in Montreal in 1979. After about four years my family moved back to Karachi, Pakistan. We spent the next several years of my childhood living between New York and Karachi, until we decided to settle down in Karachi in 1991. After completing my secondary education in Karachi, I went for my undergraduate degree to the University of Pennsylvania where I was a double major in Economics and Theatre Arts.
After college, I moved to New York in the summer of 2001 and formed an off-off Broadway theatre company by the name of B.L.A.H Productions. I worked with it full time either producing, directing, or acting in various plays from established American playwrights, or exploring new works.
Around the same time I also started pursuing film as a profession. I always was fascinated by the art-form of storytelling- stage or film or tv- were all just different mediums to explore within storytelling. Since then I have worked in a variety of genres and content: from feature fiction films, reality series, news, scripted comedy, feature length documentaries, and even web series.
. You have been actor, art director producer for MTV. How did you get involved and why are you so interested by documentary production ?
I always knew I wanted to work in film- in what capacity was something that I would ascertain for myself from trying out various roles. Aesthetically, the grit and rawness of documentaries appealed to me from an early age.
I remember spending much of my preteens and adolescence watching HBO’s non-fiction specials- being completely blown away by their specials or series. Sure there was the obvious “Real Sex”, “Taxicab Confessions”, or “Hookers and Johns” that would appeal to the voyeuristic sensibilities of any boy; but then I also saw amazing verite work – “Lock-Up: The Prisoner’s of Rikers Island” or “Hoop Dreams”. Non-fiction work of that time, demonstrated a human complexity not easily manufactured in scripted work. It offered a refreshing alternative to the black and white caricatures that mainstream tv or film offered.
. When and what was your first documentary as a director and / or producer ?
My first film was “Terror’s Children”, in 2003, for Discovery-Times Channel.
The film is a profile of Afghan refugee children growing up in Pakistan in the aftermath of war and the US Invasion of Afghanistan in 2001
It received several awards: “Overseas Press Club Award: The Carl Spielvogel Award” for best international reporting in any medium showing a concern for the human condition and “South Asian Journalist Award”.
I started to think about this film after moving to New York in the summer of 2001, a few months later 9/11 happened. Prior to this point, my Pakistani heritage, or being raised Muslim was inconsequential to me. I think like many bi-cultural people, I lived a fairly compartmentalized life, adapting to my environment as needed. 9/11 put a stop to all that and forced me to be fully present. 9/11 was a tragic event. People were angry understandably, and Americans to their credit, made attempts at that time to cool down enraged reactions towards Muslims (not always successfully). Despite this, it was the first time in my life I really felt demonized for being a Pakistani or Muslim.
“Terror’s Children”, my first film, was a chance to go back to my home country and really explore the ground realties of this ideological rift between the West and Muslim people from my region. It was chance for me to look at questions in my own life, which I had never really carefully examined.
. After this first doc, how many documentaries have you directed ? produced ?
“Shame” – 2007 (Showtime/ CBS Paramount)
The true story of international human rights icon Mukhtaran Mai, a Pakistani peasant who was gang-raped and publicly shamed in her village, but used her trauma to spark a legal revolution that exposed centuries of brutal tribal conflict and government mismanagement.
Awards: Television Academy Honor, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (Special Emmy Award) 2008, Development In Literacy Honoree 2007, 2009, San Diego International Film Festival, Best Documentary 2008, Invited Participant US-Islamic World Forum, Doha 2007, Full Frame Documentary Festival, Women In Leadership Award, Durban International Film Festival Amnesty International Award 2007, Winner at the Chicago Documentary Festival, Human Rights Award 2007, EBS Documentary Festival Korea, Special Jury Prize 2007, Selected participant of AFI Project 20:20 – Film fellowship program sponsored by the National Endowment of the Arts, Nation Endowment for The Humanities, The US State Department, and American Film Institute 2006, Pusan Film Festival, Pusan Promotional Plan Candidate 2005, Selected participant at the Berlinale Talent Project Market – Berlin International Film Festival 2004
. “Shabeena’s Quest” (2012) (Al-Jazeera World) (will be released later this year)
. “Two Children Of The Red Mosque” (currently in production)
For this new film, we already received many supports: Ford Foundation Grant Recipient, Tribeca All Access, Tribeca Film Festival – grant recipient, Tribeca-Gucci fund recipient, Independent Film Week, IFP Participant and Center of Asian American Media Grant Recepient
. “Pride” (currently in Production)
Hot Docs Forum Participant
. You start as a doc producer and then you produced and directed your second doc film. Do you consider yourself more as a director or a producer ? what do you prefer to do ?
My first documentary was an hour length tv special and was made for Discovery-Times, a joint venture channel at the time between Discovery and New York Times Television. Since this fell under the gambit of more news production, there was no ”Director” credit for the film. For all intents and purposes though- all creative and narrative construction decisions were shared by me and my partner in the film, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. (A fellow Pakistani and friend, who recently won an Oscar for “Saving Face”)
In today’s world of indie filmmaking- I think each member of your core team wears several hats. I prefer directing and consider myself more a director, but I end up fulfilling many different roles, from shooting, writing, editing, fund raising, promoting, and selling my films. I would love to sit on a director’s chair and wear an ascot and yell “Cut”- but that is just not a reality in today’s filmmaking world. Producing my own films as well as directing them is a necessity- at least at this point in my career.
. You were born in Canada, you speak urdu, hindi and little bit French, you live in NY and Karachi. Do you consider yourself as a doc maker without country or without border ?
I should hope so- at least it opens my options for approaching various film funds!!! At the risk of sounding idealistic, I at least aspire to be as you state, without country- without border. For me multiculturism is happenstance, purely by virtue of my upbringing. Having said that, I think by nature documentarians have an acute case of wanderlust and an anthropological curiosity.
. All your docs has been about Pakistan. Could you imagine to make a doc about another area of the world ? Do you have any idea ?
Everytime I finish a doc- I say, “This is the last time I make a doc in Pakistan- never again! The next one will be in Hawaii- or some other resort area and it will be about dolphins” I of course, eat my words a few months later, and find myself on top of some mountain in North Pakistan running after a terrorist. At the risk of sounding cliché, the stories I end up making pick me.
I have worked on projects outside of Pakistan, for example I produced “Big River” which was a Narrative Feature film in co-production with Office Kitano (Japanese Director Takeshi Kitano’s Production House)- but have not gotten the chance to work on feature doc projects not related to Pakistan. I have also developed reality shows and non-fiction series in the US that have nothing to do with Pakistan. I am very open to the idea of exploring different countries through a non-fiction lens, but I also know that I will keep also coming back to Pakistan- it is a country that disappoints me and inspires me all at once.
. During all your doc shooting, what has been your worst or toughest experience ? best souvenir ?
Worst Experience: I had been following gang rape survivor and human rights icon, Mukhtaran Mai for several years during the production of “Shame”. Since her own brutal attack, Mukhtaran had lead a countrywide crusade- empowering women who had been victims themselves to fight back. Four years after her attack and during the course of production, a 10 year old girl was raped in Mukhtaran’s own village. It was devastating. Mukhtaran of course, helped in convicting the girl’s attackers and supporting the girl and her family; but it was just so heartbreaking to see that after all her efforts, these atrocities could still take place.
Best Experience: On the same movie- “Shame”, which had a production period of four years: when I shot my last scene (which also turned out to the ending of the movie). When I first began shooting, Mukhtaran Mai’s village was a place from some other century- it had no electricity, no roads, and men and women lived separate lives; any intermingling between the genders could be met with severe punishment by the tribal council (Punishment that could include death or rape as retribution). Fast-forward four years, the village has three schools, a woman’s crisis center, a clinic all made by Muktharan Mai. But what truly left me in awe was that I attended a speech day Muktharan had organized for the students attending her schools. There in front of me were boys AND girls sitting together reciting poetry and applauding one another. This would have been impossible four years earlier and for her to have achieved this shift in her village’s mindset, is nothing short of remarkable. When people say that one person really can make a difference- it is TRUE, I have had the privilege to have seen in it with my own eyes.
. Your films have been selected by major doc festival all around the world but they have been mainly cofunded by US broadcasters. Is it more difficult to show your films and raise funding in Europe ? Did you managed to show your films in Asia outside Pakistan?
I have not actively pursued funding in Europe so maybe that is one reason I have not had any European co-producers (although this will hopefully change on my current projects). Outside of festivals, my films have been broadcast in Europe and have even been released theatrically. “Shame” was released theatrically in Germany by EYZ Media and the German Lotto Fund.
In Asia- EBS broadcast my film in Korea. YES Docu broadcast it in Israel. There were also several film festivals throughout Asia, Europe, South America, Africa, and Australia that have shown my work. “Terror’s Children”, since it was produced under the Discovery umbrella, had a large world-wide release as well. I think the world of documentary funding has changed in the last few years and broadcast commissioners are forced to take less risks in acquiring projects, especially foreign projects.
. You have already produced and you are currently preparing the production of several docs about Pakistan. How is the situation of documentary industry in your country ? in term of shooting condition, funding and broadcasting.
There are several documentarians from Pakistan with a prolific body of work. There is no feature documentary market in Pakistan unfortunately. Funding is non-existant so most of us have to look abroad to get sponsorships. I am continuously pleased by the level of talent that many local crew members demonstrate.
Many local filmmakers will agree though, and it is a shame- most of our work is rarely shown here. Outside of our local film festival, my work has never shown here except for a 20 min severely edited version of one of my films on tv. The topics I tend to explore with my work are not easily digestible by many local audiences. A rallying cry for many local audiences and media regulators here is – “Why are you washing our dirty laundry in public!”, “Why do you always have to show this side of Pakistan, why not make a film about our local fashions or beautiful mountains” and my favorite “You obviously work for the CIA”, or something equally ridiculous. It is this attitude and state of denial that is pervasive throughout Pakistan, and it inhibits a lot of quality work from ever being shown here. I personally feel that I have never shamed Pakistan- if anything I have celebrated its people and its resilience, which is truly astounding given the socio-political climate of Pakistan.
Having said that, some of my work’s biggest supporters and its inspiration are Pakistanis as well !
. One of your new project, “Two Children Of The Red Mosque”, has just received the support from Gucci tribeca Fund. What is the story ?
Amid suicide bombings and U.S. drone attacks in Northwestern Pakistan, twelve-year-olds Zarina and Talha are pursuing different dreams. After attending madrassahs of the Red Mosque – they make different choices that promise to define their adult lives. Zarina recently escaped the madrassah, and her struggle to attend secular school and avoid marriage stands opposed to Talha’s journey over the next two years. Their stories personalize the hard choices facing modern Pakistanis living in rural areas, where on going ideological battles between fundamentalist and moderate Muslims are shaping Pakistan’s future.
. You have 2 other doc projects, “Shabeena’s Quest” and “Pride”. What are their subjects ? Are you still looking for extra partners ?
. “Shabeena’s Quest” – Shabeena, a school principal in rural Pakistan, is on a mission to educate an entire generation of girls and boys in her village, despite the threat of Taliban attacks and dangerous misogynistic attitudes.
This is a documentary short- Essay Style piece, in HD. Al-Jazeera World is the commissioner. This is for the Al-Jazeera Witness slot. We are completing delivery this month. I am co-Directing this project with Hemal Tridevi.
. “PRIDE” is a fly-on-the-wall exploration of one of the world’s most polarizing leaders: Pervez Musharraf. A former dictator of Pakistan, Musharraf lives in self-exile in Dubai, longing to return to Pakistan, but haunted by his persona as a corrupt double dealer. Pride chronicles Musharraf’s attempt at returning to politics, as Pakistan destabilizes and begins transforming into a hard-line Islamic state.
Currently in production and I anticipate completing it by sometime next year. I am looking for co-producers and funders for this project.
. Do you have new documentary projects outside Pakistan ? about/in Asia? If so, in which country and what subject?
. In the last 2 years, have you seen any Asian documentaries that impressed you?
Well this one may be slightly older – but I was amazed by Burma VJ, stunning and beautiful film.
More info about Mohammed Ali Naqvi:
Interview by mail on 26 July 2012