Anam Abbas

Anam Abbas grew up in Pakistan and studied Cinema at the University of Toronto and Documentary Production at Sheridan College in Canada. She is a documentary director, cinematographer and photographer and has worked in Canada and across Pakistan. She is deeply interested in creating platforms forwomen’s voices and exploring life at the peripheries inPakistan.Her short documentary “Lucky Irani Circus”about the children who work in Pakistan’s longestrunning circus group premiered at the Face Film Festival in Islamabad and screened at many film festivals in 2015.The short documentary “Reclaiming Pakistan”, on which Abbas was cinematographer also toured festivals across the USA and won the SIMA 2016 Jury Prize for “Impact” in the “Impact Video” category. Another short documentary, “The Streets Are Ours: Two Lives Cross in Karachi” won the Audience Choice Award for Best Documentary Short at the 2017 Nashville Film Festival. In 2014, Anam Abbas worked as production manager on a major action feature film in Pakistan titled “Revenge of the Worthless”. She is the producer and director of a feminist webseries based in Pakistan called “Ladies Only”. “Showgirls of Pakistan”, winner of the Corus-Hot Docs Best Canadian Pitch Award at the 2016 Hot Docs Forum and of the Chicago Media Project’s pitching event in November 2017, is scheduled to release in 2018 and will be her first feature documentary as producer and cinematographer.

Anam Abbas participated in Locarno Film Festival’s Open Doors Hub with a fiction feature project in August 2017 and was selected to participate in the 2018 Berlinale Talents.

Tara Karajica caught up with her at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival.

 

 

How and why did you get into filmmaking?

A.A.: I studied Cinema at University as I took an interest in the Arts, but this interest became a need to tell stories from Pakistan and of people like me.

You are interested in creating platforms for women’s voices and exploring life at the peripheries in Pakistan. Are you doing that? If so, how?

A.A.: My webseries Ladies Only tells stories about Urban Pakistani women and is produced by an almost all woman crew and cast. My documentary work has looked at the Pakistani circus, radical leftist activists, and Pakistani burlesque dancers.

In that sense, you are the producer and director of the feminist webseries Ladies Only. What can you tell us about that?

 A.A.:  Ladies Only is made possible by a bunch of us friends pitching in and being cast, crew, writers, designers and cheerleaders. I said I wanted to make a webseries, and they just said: “Alright dude!” and made all my dreams come true – risking family feuds and professional backlash for doing this, might I add!  Most of the episodes were zero budget, so this is a bunch of fabulous women coming together to have fun and kick butt. It really is a labor of love, and so freeing to make content with no sales pitch in mind!

I feel happy knowing that the series gets people excited because of the many little freedoms we exercise through it. I hope that the series can help push the lines a little further out.

In terms of style, I just focus on what I need to express reactively. The joy of a webseries is the complete freedom it gives you as a creator and I don’t mind obnoxiously taking full advantage of that freedom. Episode two was purely a need to respond to and pay tribute to the original song and music video by Lana Del Rey as a filmmaker and vocalist. Episode four was a memorial tribute to Qandeel Baloch whose death will never leave us, and a “Fuck you!” to the structures, powers and prophets that breed violent masculinities and cost women their lives and their humanity.

The characters in the first two episodes speak in English and I’m referencing Lana Del Rey, and in episode four, I was inspired by “witches” on Instagram coming together to cast a curse on the Stanford rapist when he pretty much got off scot-free and there was such a feeling of despair and rage – not necessarily relatable to everyone in Pakistan – but, I have received many messages from women in Pakistan and from diasporic Pakistanis who love and relate to the series. That assures me that there is an audience and I hope, as we move forward, I can release content that is relatable to women of a variety of experiences, just to be able to know they are not alone. Being a woman in a capitalist patriarchal world brings its own peculiar existential angst and self-reflection helps. Self-reflection and community are both tools to help make it through.

In the Berlinale Talents database you are quoted saying the following: To quote Mashrou Leila, representing stories from the margins while “treating oppression, not as a source of victimhood, but as the fertile ground from which resistance can be weaponized”. Can you elaborate on that?

A.A.: My work is informed by the knowledge that the truth that comes forward from traditionally oppressed voices is what will take Humanity forward.

Your work has received many accolades. How do you feel about them?

A.A.: I hope these allow my work to have a wider reach, and, of course, I also hope that they will enable me more access to the kind of work I want to do.

You were festival director twice. Can you talk about that? Many feel today that the festival director positions at some of the world’s leading film festivals – currently or soon to be vacant – should be occupied by women. Do you agree with that? What is your stance on that? Has the time finally come to see a woman at the head of, say, the Berlinale?

A.A.: Film festivals are few and far between in Pakistan. And, now, most recently, state operated festivals that are sprouting up censor most independent content and are just a vehicle of the status quo. The second festival of which I was director was cancelled two weeks before the opening because of a slate of bomb attacks across Pakistan. Public spaces, community, arts suffer the most from violence and fear mongering. In the context of Pakistan, we need uncensored spaces that will allow diverse, marginalized and politicized dissenting voices to speak and exchange ideas. Independent film festivals could be, in the right hands, a radical space.

Yes! How about an immigrant woman as head of Berlinale? Ideally, we see artistic spaces give room to diverse voices to curate culture – this is the current global discourse. It has been a long time coming for less powerful or less rich countries to be allowed to tell their own stories. So, why not take a step further and allow these people to be the gatekeepers of global culture as well? It’s time for a change in perspectives.

This is a bunch of fabulous women coming together to have fun and kick butt.

Among many other occupations, you are also the CEO of Other Memory Media and the owner of Zunn Productions. Can you talk about these hats you are also wearing?

A.A.: To make a living as a filmmaker in Pakistan, one has to wear many hats. I provide services as a producer, director and videographer, and have separate setups for my independent local and international work.

Indeed, you often work as the producer, director and cinematographer of your work. Can you talk about that?

A.A.: I work with small budgets, and often on projects that are difficult for many people to accept, or that require a leap outside comfort zones. For safety, and due to the very independent nature of the work, we have trained ourselves to work with very small crews, which means some juggling is required.

Projects like Ladies Only are also an opportunity for me to experiment with my craft and explore my voice. It is really exciting to me to be able to rely completely on myself to have an idea and see what its conclusion will become. It allows so much freedom to chuck all plans out the window when needed and let a film become whatever it really needs to be.

You are also one of the founding members and General Secretary of the Documentary Association of Pakistan. Are you mostly interested in the documentary form or other genres also interest you?

A.A.: I’m not choosing sides! Documentarians from Pakistan are much more advanced. The films coming out of here are doing well internationally and propose a more accessible medium to tell our stories, which urgently need to be told from our voices, especially after two decades of “the war of terror”. The Documentary Association of Pakistan is here to help this process along, develop more filmmakers locally, and find ways for docs to find indigenous as well as global audiences.

Independent Fiction in Pakistan, on the other hand, has a long way to go to develop. Most of this is due to the lack of resources and the way exhibitors and distributors work here in Pakistan, leaving no room for filmmakers to have a voice, or to make anything but the most obvious and repetitive commercial Cinema. This does inspire me to find ways for independent filmmakers who want to work differently to finance their films outside this system.

What is your opinion of the situation of women in today’s film industry? How is the situation in Pakistan?

A.A.: In Pakistan, the vanguards of Cinema have been women. When no one was making films anymore, it was women who took risks and made films and convinced cinemas to give them screens. Then, all the men who were busy making money doing commercials decided to join the game and placate their egos by making films too. Now, it’s a profitable business and they are churning out inane comedies or supra-nationalist action films and the radical art of those very pioneering women filmmakers is once again sidelined.

I think, globally, it’s important for women to have more power and a voice in the film industry, but it is essential to have women from diverse ethnic, linguistic, religious and, most importantly, economic backgrounds be given space.

What are you working on next?

A.A.: Showgirls of Pakistan is looking to complete its financing and hoping for a release early next year. I am also looking forward to more development with young directors and writers for some exciting micro-budget projects that include feature fiction and a mockumentary! I am also working on putting together the first ever EP of my Riot grrrl-inspired Pakistani girl band Garam Anday.

 

This interview was conducted at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival.

Tara Karajica

Tara Karajica is a Belgrade-based film critic and journalist. Her writings have appeared in "Indiewire," "Screen International," "Variety," "Little White Lies" and "Film New Europe," among many other media outlets, including the European Film Academy’s online magazine, "Close-up" and Eurimages. She is a member of the European Film Academy, the Online Film Critics Society and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists as well as the recipient of the 2014 Best Critic Award at the Altcine Action! Film Festival. In September 2016, she founded "Yellow Bread," a magazine dedicated entirely to short films, ranked among the 25 Top Short Film Blogs and Websites on the Planet in 2017. In February 2018, she launched "Fade to Her," a magazine about successful women working in Film and TV and in 2019, she was a member of the Jury of the European Shooting Stars (European Film Promotion). She is currently a programmer for live action shorts at PÖFF Shorts, Head of the Short Film Program and Live Action Shorts programmer at SEEFest and Narrative Features Programmer at the Durban International Film Festival. Tara is a regular at film festivals as a film critic, moderator and/or jury member.

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