Afia Nathaniel talks to Liz Shackleton about the challenges in funding and shooting a female-centric film in a remote corner of northern Pakistan.

Screening in Dubai’s Cinema of the World section, Afia Nathaniel’s debut feature, Dukhtar (Daughter), tells the story of a mother in northern Pakistan who goes on the run to protect her ten-year-old daughter from being married to a tribal elder.

Nathaniel, who started writing the script while studying at New York’s Columbia University, had to overcome cultural and logistical challenges to shoot the film in remote, mountainous areas of northern Pakistan during political unrest. The only woman on the crew, she was making the film in a region that has never seen a feature film shoot before.

Funding came from a wide range of sources, including Norway’s Sorfond, New York-based Cinereach, the UK’s WorldView New Genres Film Fund and Rotterdam’s Hubert Bals Fund. Nathaniel produced with Pakistan’s Muhammad Khalid Ali and co-producers Cordelia Stephens, Carsten Aanonsten, Shrihari Sathe, Noman Waheen and Thea Kerman.

After premiering at Toronto, Dukhtar screened at the London Film Festival and won best director and the audience award at the South Asian International Film Festival in New York. It was also selected as Pakistan’s submission to the foreign-language category of the Oscars.

Why did you decide to shoot in such as difficult place, rather than safer locations that could double as northern Pakistan?

The film is rooted in a specific visual landscape for the road trip, i.e. the mountains. And while doing the recce we had only two options: either to go to the tribal areas (which wasn’t really possible because of the war going on) or to the northern areas of Gilgit-Baltistan, which was stunning but isolated from the rest of the country. So the latter became the only option we had.

India was never a viable option simply because I wanted Pakistani and local talent, some of whom speak Pashto. I would have lost the authenticity of the story had I gone to India to make the film. And the budget would have at least tripled since we would have had to recreate the flavour of Pakistan.

I needed the late fall and winter look in the film so the conditions in any mountain area would have been difficult logistically speaking. For me the landscape is an integral part of the frames in Dukhtar. Both my producer Khalid and myself did not want to compromise on the look and feel of the film, so we braced ourselves for a very challenging shoot in the middle of desolate landscapes and minus 13 degrees Celsius.

What inspired you to write and direct this story?

I actually heard the story of a mother who runs away from her village in the tribal areas and she kidnaps her two daughters. Her actual story was very different from what is in the film, but the seed of the story was this woman’s incredible courage in the face of an impossible situation and that resonated with me deeply. I have been raised by my grandmothers in Lahore and grew up in a matriarchal family where most of the men (except my dad) died very young leaving the women to fend for the children.

I have seen the daily struggles and sacrifices women make in a patriarchal society, which doesn’t value them. The very absence of the male figure in a household makes you a vulnerable target in society or even in your own neighbourhood. A woman is not really allowed to exist by herself without a male figure.

So I wanted to tell a mother and daughter story where they are propelled into a life on the road and I wanted to explore this very real situation of how this mother tries to fend for herself and the child in a society, which will always doubt her motives and character.

At what stage did you start working with your producer, Muhammad Khalid Ali?

I have worked with Khalid’s crew for several years in Lahore on my short films and I have great trust in their work ethic. He has been on board the project for several years, but the year 2012 was pretty dramatic for us. It had been more than five years since the project had been in development and I took the rights back to my film, wanting to raise the money on my own, since no one really wanted to finance the portion of filming set in Pakistan.

That’s when Khalid said to me, “Pack your bags and come to Karachi and we’ll figure out how to make this film”. So literally, while I was about to board the plane, we got the ecstatic news that we had won a production grant from Sorfond, the newly created Norwegian grant.

I landed in Karachi with this good news and we got to work immediately with a comprehensive recce for several weeks. The rest of the money quickly fell in place and we went into shooting mode within a few months. It happened so fast after so many years that I think none of us really paused to think of anything else except making the film. It’s like the ninth month in your pregnancy when you are so ready to give birth that nothing else matters.

Did you find any private finance in addition to the grants? Did you find any money at all in Pakistan? 

We put together a loan with quite a bit of it coming from Pakistan. It was pockets of different financing sources and strategies which helped us piece the modest budget together.

What is the current state of Pakistan’s film industry? Is there any indie/arthouse scene in addition to the mainstream movies?

I think newer filmmakers, both mainstream and the independent arthouse filmmakers in Pakistan, stand at a very interesting crossroads where the opportunity to tell new kinds of stories is there. It’s a tougher scene for arthouse films because financing for our films is not as readily available as for the masala films with song-and-dance routines.

It’s also very difficult to tell stories that challenge the existing notions of male fantasy on-screen. For several years, I could not find financing in Pakistan for Dukhtar because the two main characters were female. And they weren’t taking their clothes off in the story. My film challenges the idea of the conventional male “hero” in our cinema. And so the battle is tougher for those kinds of films, but as you can see, not impossible.

Are Pakistani movies mostly made in Urdu or Pashto these days? And is there any market for them in India?

We have very localised regional cinema in various languages of which Pashto and Punjabi are the biggest. Two of our actors, Asif Khan (who plays the father of the child bride) and Ajab Gul are very well known Pashtun actors from the film industry. Asif has probably done at least 200 Pashto films in his career. Films are being made in Urdu and English in mainstream cinema, as well as arthouse films. Spoken Urdu has resonance with the northern Indian belt because it’s a Hindi-speaking belt. We have a definite market in India for our films.

What are the theatrical release plans for Dukhtar?

The film has already been released in Pakistan and it ran very successfully for four straight weeks. For a local arthouse film to survive against major releases from Bollywood, Hollywood and mainstream Pakistani cinema – it’s a real accomplishment. The success of the Pakistani release confirmed our belief that there are audiences for female-driven films with female protagonists and that we can do well in box office too.

Mara Pictures is going to release the film in the UK in April 2015. As we’re headed to Dubai, let’s see what happens there for the UAE market. Dukhtar’s tickets at Dubai got sold out very quickly. We’ve been playing to sold-out venues in almost every country we’ve been to, so it’s very satisfying to see the audience hunger for something different from a very different part of the world.