Money for nothing?
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s Oscar has done a lot of things. While drawing attention to one of the many social ills facing the country, it has also suddenly brought a great deal of attention to the genre of documentary film, especially in Pakistan.
Sharmeen’s canvas is broad; she has the right background and works on an international scale. It was her hardwork and professionalism that earned her the Oscar. But Sharmeen has a downside too. The jubilation on her success notwithstanding, not many people in Pakistan are familiar with her work. No it’s not there on Youtube. Conversely, the Iranian people had all seen and enjoyed A Separation.
So, is the difference essentially between two genres — feature and documentary film — and is documentary a rejected medium everywhere? Or, is there more to it than this?
Our case is strange in more than one ways. Somehow, we know about more documentary film-makers than about their films. These brilliant film-makers have been making brilliant films, they have been getting funds, they have even won awards in festivals but one area where they have lagged behind is getting an audience for these films. This is the crucial link in the chain — the audience.
Cinemas, we are told, are not the conventional medium to show documentary films (even though Moore proved that rule wrong). So that leaves us with television — both the state television and the privately-owned channels. None of the two seems interested in showing documentaries; political talk shows, drama, anything that brings them money.
Crucially, in the case of documentaries, the space must come first and the creative films will follow. The desire is there among the audience but there is no channel ready to fulfill it. The state’s role has been consistent — as indifferent to documentary film as it has been to culture in general.
Perhaps this is an opportune time for the state to take the initiative. Do whatever it can to create space for the talented bunch of documentary film-makers in our midst and to satiate the desire of common people for such films.
Eye Bee Productions’ Imran Babur is a bit of an oddity. Having spent a good number of years in the business of ad filmmaking and music videos, this Communication Design graduate, with a certificate from Television Training Centre, Berlin, switched over to documentaries at a stage when most of his contemporaries’ natural course would be cinema. This was in early 2000. Over a decade later, Imran is feted as the first documentary filmmaker to shoot in the unapproachable Broghil Valley in the then NWFP, besides directing Essential Raag, a valentine to eastern classical music, and co-directing an American independent production, titled Without Shepherds. He has also famously mentored students at the Film & TV department of NCA, Lahore.
As much as his students admire his work, not all of them share Imran’s “passion for the documentation of culture, heritage, people and arts” (his own words). For instance, Salman Sirhindi, a recent Film graduate, took up corporate documentary projects “in order to make a quick buck” before moving on to assist renowned TV drama producer Babar Javaid and, now, Dastaan-famed Haissam Hussain on the mega serial Durr e Shahwar, currently on air on Hum TV. His theory is simple: “Documentaries are not entertaining.” And, this sums up precisely how ‘documentary’ as a form of non-fiction film is popularly looked at, albeit too narrowly.
Serious and dedicated documentary filmmakers like Imran Babur and, from the previous lot, Shireen Pasha, Maheen Zia and Tahmina Ahmed are rare to come by, even in these times of YouTube and other social media offering easy access to a variety of audiences, international festivals accepting shorts made with a mere mobile camera, and a slew of news television shows that welcome any unique footage in the name of citizen journalism. Budget concerns are also becoming fewer.
Yet, documentary filmmaking is largely seen as an ‘intermediate’ exercise, leading eventually to the big screen.
According to Farjad Nabi, the award-winning documentary filmmaker of No One Believes the Professor and Nusrat Has Left the Building…But When?, the situation is not peculiar to Pakistan only. “Documentaries, the world over, do not enjoy their ‘due’ status, so to say. Until recently, they were always dependent on public funding or TV broadcasters like BBC and Doordarshan. In India, you have PSBT [Public Service Broadcasting Trust] etc. But today, individuals such as Michael Moore have come forward and produced and exhibited their documentaries in cinemas also.”
Farjad also rejects the notion that documentaries have a limited or no audience. “Even in Pakistan, a lot of people like to watch them. We’ve dubbed versions of foreign language documentaries and they are quite enjoyed.”
Interestingly, Farjad has moved on to his first feature film which is scripted and directed by him and stars Bollywood stalwart Naseeruddin Shah.
“Documentaries have little commercial appeal, we were told at the film institute,” Haissam insists. A double Masters — in Film Production from West Herth (2002) and TV Production from Middlesex (2005) — Haissam reveals that ‘documentary’ was part of the curriculum in both his degree programmes but none of his classmates were interested. “One of them, a girl from Japan, wanted to get into animation, while another was an avowed sound engineer.” For his part, Haissam has always wanted to get into motion pictures, but lack of resources and funds have held him back. TV drama affords him some consummation of this desire.
Nida Aslam, a B.S. in Media Sciences from SZABIST (Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology), Karachi, relocated to Lahore for a few days in order to be a part of the production team of Shoaib Mansoor’s Bol, in early 2010. A film enthusiast, she made documentaries for UNDP on gender promotion during her 4-year degree programme, but her heart was always into the big screen. She even relates documentary to cinema: “It documents reality, so in a way it goes back to a beautiful movement in film history called cinema verite.”
There are makers like Samar Minallah who place the ‘message’ and ‘content’ of a documentary above technique and aesthetics. Based in Sirikot, Hazara, Samar gives the example of her 2004 documentary in Pashto, titled Dar Padar, which focused on the collateral damage in Peshawar hospitals following a deadly bomb attack in the city. “It was a 45-minute documentary, entirely shot and edited by me. I even produced it myself because I knew nobody would give me funds for such a project. But I knew the common people’s emotions and experiences could not not have an impact. …Today, Sharmeen [Obaid-Chinoy]’s Oscar win has inspired budding filmmakers. So the incentives in this field are self-evident.”
Quite like Sharmeen, Samar also began her career as a journalist, contributing research-based articles on the issues of Pakhtun women. At Cambridge, she studied Anthropology & Development in addition to Ethnographic Filmmaking. The latter, she says, was an obvious choice since it pertained to “culturally sensitive and relevant filmmaking. I saw documentary as a tool for social change. In Pakistan, this aspect is not given its due importance: either you make documentaries for your donor agencies or for international audiences, so you end up making a product that suits their tastes. But when you mean to show it, for instance, in a hujra in Mardan, you will not compromise.”
For Samar, it is equally important to “reach out to as many people as possible”. She screened her first project, a Pashto-language documentary for Aurat Foundation Peshawar, titled Swara — Da Zhwand Mairman, which focused on the evil tradition of giving away girls as compensation to end disputes, to parliamentarians as well as people in the police academy, before filing a Public Interest Litigation in the first ever Supreme Court Case highlighting the issue. Eventually, a law was passed against ‘Swara’.
Winner of the prestigious Roberto Rossellini Award (2009) at Maori Film Festival, Italy and Perdita Huston Human Rights Activist Award (’07), among other national and international honours, Samar’s current preoccupation is a documentary on Forced Marriages among the Pakistani Diaspora communities in Punjab.
These are interesting times for new documentary filmmakers in Pakistan who are breathing a post-Oscar air of gaiety. Besides, it’s an age of the new social media and a sophisticated digital technology that have reduced the budget worries and also increased chances of greater visibility and, if you are creative enough and, perhaps also, lucky, the world’s top honours.
As Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy stepped up to the dais at the 2012 Academy Awards, the sentient portion of the country’s population celebrated in thrill and joy. A few days prior to the event, the majority of them hadn’t much of a clue to the actual film nominated for the Oscar’s category of Best Documentary (Short). Such is the relatively lack of fascination which documentaries are able to garner in the country. Appreciatively, as Sharmeen accepted the award and gave a heartfelt speech, a myriad local film directors and the film community in general began to shift their eyes to this passively forgotten genre of filmmaking, perhaps the most influential of them all. How far this fascination goes, however, has a lot to do with the financial aspect of it.
In an industry where film has been circumscribed due to technical and technological shortcomings, new directors have undertaken documentary as a vehicle of preliminary recognition. With dozens of new institutes teaching film and mass communication, the influx of new talent every year with no significant increase in willing financers and producers has meant the industry constantly fails to achieve its potential.
Documentary film in Pakistan has survived on two financial platforms: corporate and self-budgeted. Corporate documentaries are made solely from the business viewpoint of the firm and, for an audience pre-selected by the client.
Despite very little artistic envelopment, this form of documentary filmmaking attracts young aspirants due to the hefty price tags offered by thick-skinned multinationals and corporations. “Some of the budget almost rivals that of the local motion pictures being made in the industry,” says Swaleh Qayum, a young corporate-documentary filmmaker himself. “An amount such as 1-2 millions is a very meagre amount for such firms, whereas the cost of production is minor in comparison.”
Shoestring budget documentaries are primarily the endeavour of students of multimedia, film and art as well as self professed film fanatics hoping to have a quick launch in the industry. Devoted documentary makers out of the corporate circle are rare, thanks to the unavailability of funds. Their topics usually range in the tried, tested and eventually burnt-out: Sufism, poverty and social evils. Their motivation for making the film is the lure of the film festivals abroad.
Additionally, most of these films tend to lack production value, the required hours of research and suffer from other technical shortfalls. “In the end, these documentary films are not much more than slightly lengthier news packages you see everyday on television networks,” says Moazzam Islam, a director of photography for most documentaries for leading corporations.
One misconception seems to be that documentaries ought to be based around tear-jerking social issues. This is a trade-off from the 1980s and the 90s when travelogues on the state-owned PTV were a source of information. Crime-based reenactment documentaries, bios on the lives of the legends and avant-garde themes are a rarity these days (talking specifically about Pakistan). “Things are pretty run-of-the-mill,” adds Moazzam. “It’s all about projecting our [negative] image abroad.”
The source of funds for most young documentary makers is usually NGOs and the public sector. As documentaries never make it to the silver screen and there is virtually no revenue from the sales of DVDs, the filmmakers are forced to sell their product to local TV channels at sub-par prices to be shown at timeslots otherwise called ‘fillers’. The other option, used more often, is to send the films abroad to any X, Y, Z film festival for some accolades.
Documentary filmmaking in Pakistan has a long way to go until it can complete its social and financial obligations. The need for proper media outlets to sell and market such products means diversifying manifold in order for investors and producers to open the hatch to their bank accounts — and take the industry one step forward.
The News on Sunday: Is there a potential for documentary filmmaking in Pakistan? Does it get the kind of attention it deserves?
Shireen Pasha: I believe so. Pakistan really is a paradise for documentary filmmakers. It offers so many challenging topics, people, places, changing behaviours and role models that we need to look at.
The more important aspect, though, is that the information levels that we need to extend to people presently can only be addressed through documentaries — which is a direct way of looking at issues. Through these, a filmmaker can actually involve the viewers in making opinions.
This approach of filmmaking is really about going into the depth of an issue and then allowing the viewers to relate with it. So, there is a great role that documentaries play in building awareness and motivation.
TNS: What do our documentaries set out to achieve? What motivates a docu-filmmaker to take up the project – the big idea or just availing an opportunity?
SP: In Pakistan, we have two kinds of documentaries: those closer to investigative reporting on social issues that are more journalistic; and the other kind that is largely based on real human stories, on the lives of women or farmers, and explores the topic beyond its news value. Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s work falls in this category. Her entire body of work is focused on strong social issues and on marginalised people. She works in conflict areas, like the film she made on Afghan women.
In Pakistan, somehow we have more inclination towards investigative reporting than human stories because documentaries are taken to be reports accompanied with heavy commentary and music loops.
TNS: Documentaries seem to have disappeared from our TV. How can a certain amount of time slot be ensured for these on TV?
SP: PTV must take on the role of a leader both in producing and screening documentaries. It is the people-funded channel and, therefore, it is the people’s right to get proper information at the right time, so they can form their own opinions.
Sadly, PTV has not understood its role of being a state television. It needs to ascertain that its primary function is not, at this moment, to compete with the privatised networks but to be a trendsetter in content and creativity. Also, unlike private TV channels, PTV can afford to reserve timeslots for investigative reports and human stories as it is not pressed to make profits from ads during primetime.
Some regulations can also be put in place. For instance, Pemra should grant licenses to only those networks that agree to reserve a certain proportion of screen time to documentaries made on important social issues. For news channels, for instance, the Authority can stress on investigative reporting, real stories on current issues; and for entertainment channels demand inspired docudramas based on human stories and the enter-educate concept on the social learning theory of behaviour change.
Presently, Pemra’s role seems to be merely that of policing and disseminating licenses. It should understand that regulatory bodies across the world do not just censor but register complaints and record ratings of programmes. So far, in Pakistan, the ratings exercise is primarily conducted to benefit the corporate sector for placing their ads where high profits are guaranteed. Pemra should take the lead here and start rating the popularity of programmes from all segments of viewers and regions.
TNS: A common problem discussed all over the world and, in Pakistan, too, is the production of documentary films. How can we overcome this hurdle?
SP: There are a number of solutions: either a film can be funded by a private investor or commissioned by state-run television. Private networks can be made to dedicate a fixed time to documentaries through Pemra.
I made a film on the life of a 95-year-old lady from Awadh, titled Memories of Hema, an international award winning film that made it to festivals. But festivals don’t commission films. We have to find ways to overcome this problem, especially when there is a desperate need to document people, to go out, explore places and report events.
TNS: Do documentaries sell in Pakistan? Do they have a market?
SP: It is a preconceived notion that documentaries don’t sell. They actually are in demand. There is a market for documentaries but nobody actually dares to venture or explore.
We either see films made by NGOs that focus on a particular function that the organisation is supposed to perform or reports run on state TV with some political agenda which makes the scope of documentaries marginally narrow. A true documentary will not be for any gains.
Nevertheless, NGO films do have an element of uniqueness. It is not that their work cannot be shared. For instance, I made a film on the 10 steps to make schools work in Balochistan. This was something I did for an NGO but it had the kind of information which should be shared with every Pakistani.
TNS: Do you feel there is an audience out there to receive this kind of information?
SP: When I go out in the field, people tell me they are tired of dramas, that they want to watch real-life stories. They are thirsty for knowledge — about themselves, where they stand in society… there is a big audience out there waiting for inspiring documentaries.
Perhaps, our misconception that audience for documentaries is limited can be attributed to our faulty ratings system which does not measure the popularity of a programme across the country but in fact assesses the market for a corporate product in Clifton or big cities.
We have to look for creative ways to popularise documentaries; for instance, find inspiring topics that can be picked up by sponsors.
But filmmaking costs money and, eventually, the film has to be seen. To ultimately reveal the truth creatively, while keeping the ethics of documentaries intact, is a big challenge.
TNS: Post-Oscar, is documentary the new, sought-after form of film in Pakistan?
SP: Since 2004, when the Film & TV department was set up at National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore, many major institutions have been set up to offer degrees in filmmaking. The number of student awards is rising and so is the frequency of student film festivals. One can expect in the future some well-trained filmmakers will be in the field with more critical levels of work.
With aspiring filmmakers coming out of professional institutions and now with Sharmeen awarded the Oscar in particular, I feel the elements are kind of gathering to ultimately revive/create a TV and film industry in Pakistan.
TNS: How can the government assist the filmmakers in making most of these times?
SP: This is a good time for the government to assess the situation and really work on a media policy to enable a vibrant TV industry. It must learn to market the product at home and abroad. It would need a more favourable policy decisions and regulations to bring up the quality of programming, producer confidence, and support the independent directors in the market, to get the diversified programming as a right of the viewers.
So far very few investors have actually put money in projects, mainly because our industry has not developed redressal mechanisms or devised methods to protect him. To have a conducive environment both the investor and the filmmaker must feel secure.
Setting up artists’ associations and relevant laws will definitely help to promote the standards.
It was in the December of 2006 when we, a group of four students at Kinnaird College, Lahore, started working on our docudrama, our final project in the Documentary Filmmaking course. Based on the story of a rape victim it documented the ills of the Hudood Ordinance and the discriminatory laws for rape and adultery. In the backdrop of the Women’s Protection Bill, passed by the National Assembly the same year, the documentary ends on a positive note — with the rape victim getting justice from the court.
As students the entire process of filmmaking — from choosing the subject to eventually being part of the pre-production through postproduction — was exceptional, to say the least.
However, there are students with interest in filmmaking who complain that there aren’t many training avenues available to them in the country. “I have always wanted to get into documentaries professionally. In college I took short courses but I wasn’t satisfied and, honestly, I didn’t know who to go to for guidance,” says 20-year-old, Karachi-based Hina Sohail.
Aijaz Khawar from Islamabad believes that not finding a proper institute is not the only issue, “I got admission in the best arts institution of the country, with documentary as a major, but was forced to leave because of our teacher who had no command on the subject and virtually no idea about the new methodologies applied for teaching documentary. I ended up making a documentary on poverty, plain and simple.”
When asked, Pakistan’s first Oscar winning documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy said, “I opened my production company in Karachi late last year because I wanted to bring quality programming to television screens across Pakistan and also to inculcate a work ethic of the international standard in the next generation of directors in Pakistan.”
Sharmeen recently taught a film class at SZABIST, Karachi, where she said she saw a lot of potential among the students. “It is a local school for higher studies. I was pleased to find good raw talent. The students had a keen sense of storytelling but they needed to be technically and visually trained.”
Sharmeen continues to mentor students she taught at the institute.
All the leading colleges and universities in Lahore and Karachi now offer documentary/filmmaking as a major subject. Individuals educated at these institutions make it to international festivals also. One such individual is Ammar Aziz, a young documentary filmmaker who graduated in Documentary from NCA and was recently selected at the Talent Campus of the Berlin International Film Festival 2012.
Discussing the concerns of the budding filmmakers Ammar says, “For me, documentary is a creative treatment of reality. I understand what it means to not get a qualified trainer. The entire process demands independent, free thinking. It becomes difficult if the trainers are not qualified because documentary is a sensitive medium. You need a certain level of intellectual input from you mentor because the nitty-gritty of the process is imperative.”
In 2009, the famous American distribution guru Peter Broderick wrote, “Micro-budget filmmakers need to think, instead, about micro audiences and… the Internet as a collection of audiences.” While he might be referring to all kinds of films, it seems especially true for documentary filmmakers today.
But what especially bugs young Pakistani documentary filmmakers is the question of audience. “It took me two years to research, fund and then shoot my documentary on a small Christian community near my house after the Gojra incident,” says Saqib Noorani, a recent graduate of NCA’s Film & TV department. “While it was much appreciated at college and even at an international film festival, television channels where I sent off my documentary have shown little interest.”
Nashmia Ijaz, a BNU student of TTF (Television, Theatre & Film), has decided to forgo her first love. “I always wanted to make documentaries, but after three years of studying and participating in student films and some professional projects, I have come to the conclusion that there isn’t really an audience for documentaries; it’s just better to make television plays.”
Most filmmakers are in many ways an idealistic bunch. They do embrace new advances, but cling to the old notions of success and get their hearts broken just as easily. Hypothetically, the success of a documentary should rest with its content, its quality and its point of view, but there are hundreds of documentaries made in Pakistan that simply never get anywhere, and the reason for that has much do with approaching an audience.
Ibrahim Aziz is an American Pakistani who runs a small producing company out of New York called B Films. Aziz and his two partners try to produce two or three documentaries a year and firmly believe in the motto that “success is finding the right audience.”
“Micro audiences can be of two types. One costs a lot of money and the other costs much less. Filmmakers who can dispense with the dreams of grandeur can often find success and profit in the right kid of micro-audience,” says Aziz.
The producers at B Films are not the only ones that are approaching business this way. The term ‘Top-down approach filmmaking’, an idea that has grown out of the discussions of many filmmakers, is now making the rounds and is especially resonant for documentaries. Documentary filmmakers start their work by choosing a subject. A case that for every subject there is an audience runs like this: At the top is a small group of the ‘madly interested’, somewhere in the middle is ‘rising interest’ and at the bottom lies the group of the ‘not directly interested’, which is much larger but harder to get to. A successful audience would be targeting the first two.
The ‘madly interested’ is a core group of people who live and breathe the filmmaker’s topic. While they are a small fraction of the total potential audience, they are the most likely to see or buy the filmmaker’s film, and begin the process of offsetting the filmmaker’s production costs. They’ll attend screenings, buy DVDs etc. These are the people who work in professions related to the topic, or whose hobby relates to the topic, or who make some identity out of what the topic offers.
The audience might be very narrow or extremely wide depending on subject matter. Either way, the insanely interested may know more about the topic than the filmmaker, and have read many books on the subject. So what does a successful documentary film provide for them? The filmmaker might not necessarily be breaking new grounds for them, but a film does something to tell this core group that what they do is worthy, and allows it to be shared with others.
The madly interested can potentially pay for the film. One reason is they’ll be the easiest audience to find. They often have clubs, Facebook groups, websites and blogs; social media can help you easily find this group and make them aware of your work.
This group is on the way to insane interest, but is less knowledgeable. They are still seeking out every shred and detail about their topic of interest and what your film offers may indeed be news to them.
‘Rising interest’ may be on the edges of full participation. A documentary on their topic of choice provides a level of ‘confirmation’. It helps lock them in. They see in the film what they cannot read in a book, magazine piece or web post: they see living people, who share their passion, talking about why they love the subject at hand. This audience member says, “That’s me.” It brings them, perhaps, to the next level.
Buy-in for this group is likely a larger audience, and this group is much larger than the madly interested. Interest in a given subject — whether it is an art form or environmental matter, whether it is troubling or celebratory — is a form of self-image-making.
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