Catching Up With Afia Nathaniel, Director of Dukhtar

If you think it’s a challenge to get a film made as a woman in the United States...

Movies Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin

We think we’re so advanced here in the West. In fact, we tout equal rights and opportunity and none so much as in the arts. The following sentence—which could have easily come from the mouth of Lynn Shelton—reveals that we might just be on par with Pakistan (though we’re lucky enough, for now, not to have bombs going off during takes).

“Pakistani independent film is […] more about catering to a male fantasy with women wearing hardly any clothes and being an object more then a real actress,” says Afia Nathaniel, the Pakistani writer and director of Dukhtar, which premiered at Toronto International Film Festival Friday night.

Anyone see The Other Woman? (Terrible movie, but helps prove a point.) Well, even when a woman is “attacking” a male, it’s still while wearing close to no clothing and in full makeup and heels.

Like I said though, at least we’re not in a war.

“We shot in an area in the northern mountains, which is heavily disputed by both [India and Pakistan], and in mid-winter,” explains Nathaniel. “We picked the hardest combination of circumstances to shoot a film in an already challenging environment.”

The story follows Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) and her daughter Zainab (Saleha Aref), who is promised to a man three times her age in a neighboring village in order to quell a family feud. The two flee the life they know in order to prevent Zainab’s unfair fate.

“The seed for the film was inspired by a true story about a mother on the run with her two daughters from the tribal areas of Pakistan that I’d heard a few years ago,” Nathaniel says. “These images stuck in my mind—this mother and the child and the journey to the unknown.”

A thriller road trip fictional film is off the beaten path for the mostly theater and TV-populated entertainment venues of Pakistan. And unlike over the border in India, there is no thriving movie industry—neither mainstream nor independent.

“[Movies are usually] about a song and dance,” says Nathaniel. [I wanted to explore] an emotional depth that is normally missing in how female protagonists are crafted on screen for the purpose of entertainment. When you’re catering to male testosterone, there’s only so deep you can go.”

Just as the challenges of getting female-led films funded in the United States are daunting—(Hello?! Gamechanger Films! We need companies solely based on funding female-helmed pictures to get these movies made)—so they were for Nathaniel in Pakistan.

“The biggest problem I had at first was that no one wanted to fund a film with two women in the lead, and one a girl at that,” she recalls. “There’s not much of a precedence in our cinema for this kind of story and sensibility to be explored.”
The fact that Dukhtar was written and directed by a woman was just icing on the glass cake.

“People told me it would go nowhere,” she continues, “so I began to look for funding outside of Pakistan. Then the biggest stumbling block was the fact that it was going to shoot in Pakistan. That’s a risky deal in terms of a financial investment. Between the two worlds, I’d go from one pitching table to another, but we finally got lucky. Cinereach in New York gave us a seed grant, and National Geographic. Too. We also received the Hubert Bals Fund from Rotterdam Film Festival. It’s a lot of piecing together from nonprofits, especially for documentaries. Because our film has a social issue, in a way my funding approach was more like a documentary feature.”

It was a different beast, making this film in Pakistan, but the cast and crew’s safety was always tantamount for Nathaniel. She made sure that across the locations there were relationships they could fall back on in order to shoot safely. They were the first feature to ever enter most of these areas.

“There was one place that I cannot reveal the name of where we were given permission to shoot at,” Nathaniel says. “It’s a 14-hour drive 8,000 feet above sea level up a sheer rock face that drops off to nothing on one side. We drove up in the night, and men pulled up in a car to tell us that the maulvi [a local religious clergy] would not allow a film crew to come into their village, and that if we did enter, a Fatwa [a proclamation of law] would be issued against us.”

They took a budgetary and scheduling hit, but Nathaniel was not going to put her team in danger.

“There were so many variables in making this film. It was a challenge, and I wouldn’t have done it any other way.”