Sunday 29 November 2020

Home - In Conversation - A Reality Stranger than Fiction: An Interview with Hamza Bangash


24Frames: Despite its long history in some countries, short film can still be considered a young medium that attempts to find its audience. In a Conversation with Hamza Bangash, a Canadian-Pakistani filmmaker whose work has been noted in the international sphere, including the recent participation of his film “1978” at Locarno Film Festival 2020, we discussed his views on filmmaking as an artist who can compare different atmospheres in the industry, as well as catching a glimpse of Pakistani cinema.



1. Can you tell us about yourself and your background in filmmaking?


I’m a Pakistani-Canadian director and screenwriter and in the last few years, I’ve managed to grow out of Pakistan and make films that play in the international circuit. My debut was my film Dia which was showcased at Locarno Open Doors 2018; that kind of introduced me to the international cinema community. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of Locarno Film Academy, Asian Film Academy, and I was also in Berlinale this year with my feature film in development. I came from theatre, and I have been directing and writing stage-plays since I was about seventeen, which is why it took me quite a bit of time to learn the language of cinema, which is very different than theatre. Most of my learning has come through film residencies and fellowships. I don’t have a traditional undergraduate or graduate degree in cinema or filmmaking, so a lot of my learning has been on the job. I say Dia was my first film, but it was the first film that had an international impact. I had been making short films with my theatre crew before that, to various degrees of success. I’d like to call them student films even though we were not students, but it was how we were learning to make movies. It was a big learning process. I had the ability to take part in quite a few fellowships and residencies as I mentioned, and that was how I learned the language of cinema, and cinematic story-telling and where that intersects with theatre and where it does not. 



2. What would you say mainly inspires you to come up with ideas and actually developing them into films? Where did the ideas for “1978″ and “Stray Dogs Come at Night” come from? 


I enjoy making films about the marginalized communities because I enjoy the intersection in characters who are dealing with a multiplicity of identities, and I think that comes from my own experience growing up Pakistani-Canadian and also a part of the minority group in Pakistan. So I have gotten to experience the burden but also the privilege of carrying a lot of identities, and I think it’s very interesting to explore that through cinema.


Moving back to Pakistan after my degree, I felt like there are a lot of people whose experiences were not being seen. So that was kind of the touching off point for my first short film –Dia– which is a very personal story and based on very personal experiences. It was such a joy to create that film, because with that film we did a fairly large screening in Pakistan, and the response we got was phenomenal. The film touches on themes of mental illness, and that’s not really something we’re comfortable talking about in South Asia, and it was interesting how after the screenings people would then want to share their own experiences.


With Stray Dogs, which is the film that followed Dia and is on the circuit right now, the story is that I live at the end of a street that you could say is the red-light district of my city right next to a posh area. So it’s this very interesting dichotomy. I was quite naïve thinking these young men and women were standing in the corner of my street late at night waiting for a car, but they were waiting for their livelihood. So that’s where the idea started and once I have the initial idea I like to do a lot of research because I recognize that my shared experience is only so much. I also did some documentary internships so I like to engage that approach and I think that true-life stories in Pakistan are much stranger than I could imagine. I like taking those real experiences and dramatizing them. I met with a lot of Maalishwalas who are known as male masseurs, followed them on their jobs and the NGOs they work with. So, by learning from them and their experiences, we could craft a film that not only spoke to their specific experiences but because many of their experiences are based on economic conditions, it suddenly had a wider pool to a lot of dissatisfied young people who feel like they have no options, and that’s how that film came about.


1978 was a unique experience because I first met with my producer and they wanted to make a feature film that spoke about how Pakistan changed from what it was to what it is now. I thought it is better to first do a small project and see how that relationship turns out because making a film is such a long journey. Even this short film took us two years to make. A feature film for me is a five to eight-year project. Talking to my producer, he had developed a story but I was more interested in the 70s Pakistan that I cannot believe existed. Once we made the decision to revisit that period, I started researching on the communities that were most affected by the change of culture, and that’s how we came to the Christian-Goan community. My producer, whom I’d worked with on all of my films before, is from that community so I already had an access point. That’s how we started working on something that turned out to be 1978.




3. What is of most importance to you while making a film? What are you aiming to communicate with your audience and through which channels?


Because I come from theatre, the story has always been the most important aspect of cinema for me. I’m now learning more about the roles of production design, music, lighting, and so forth and how these can help elevate the story, but I love stories; powerful stories that stay with you. I think stories help people communicate strongly and overcome prejudices and biases. That’s what I try to do with my cinema. The people in my films are people who are never considered to be heroes. What cinema does is that it takes the audience and puts them literally in the steps of the protagonist. So I’m trying to have those perspectives be shown. But I am lately really starting to enjoy style and form and how those can elevate stories. For my new short film, we’re doing a lot of playing with the form of storytelling; for example, we’re exclusively shooting with a Zoom lens because I think it will add an interesting language to the experience since the film is very visceral. The film is about an autistic teenager who has an episode in a public space, so I think the Zoom lens language could really add to that. So for me, it started off with the story, but now it’s going into the other wonderful facets of filmmaking.



4. Would you say you’ve reached a more or less clear style and language in cinema?


I hope not! I’m growing from project to project and my cinematic language recognizes changing. I like to experiment and if you see my films, they’re all quite different from each other. I read a quote somewhere that every person truly has one story and I think I’m starting to see that in my own themes, but with the visuals and the characters and the periods, there’s a great variety. Dia was a thriller drama, while Stray Dogs was more of a traditional arthouse drama. 1978 for me is my lightest film; it has elements of comedy and rebelliousness. When a Pakistani audience watches it, they actually find it very sad, because they realize this is what was lost, but when an international audience watches it, they enjoy those light elements because they are not emotionally invested in the history. 1978, while being a very stressful project, was the most fun I had while making a film because I had a character who would stand up against the whole world, unlike my other characters who tend to internalize or disengage from the world. So I think I’m growing as an artist and I think that’s one of the best parts because the people whom I’m inspired by are people like Stanley Kubrick and Alfonso Cuaron whose films are very diverse. Every time I’m making a film it’s an opportunity to explore a whole new world. 




5. We don’t hear much about the film industry in Pakistan, can you give us a picture of what the atmosphere is like? In what ways can you compare it to the Canadian system?


At one point when I was much younger, I used to compare it to the Canadian system but now I have a better idea of how rich the Canadian system is. Canada is a wonderful place to make movies because there’s a lot of state support. In Pakistan, it was only after working in the industry here that I started to realize where we stand in terms of cinema. We are probably amongst some of the most far behind industries globally. It’s like Pakistani cinema doesn’t travel. When I got to travel with my films lately, for example with Stray Dogs at Clermont, it was the first-ever Pakistani film there. This year we had the first Pakistani film in Venice. So a lot of the excitement of being in the cinema right now is that the themes that we’re doing, tends to be the first. But there is really little support for cinema, we don’t really have film schools and the way that we’re working now is figuring things out as we go along. Many people who are now contributing are those who studied cinema abroad and then came back. There are some film departments popping up but the training is not too great. We don’t really have an appreciation for cinema here and part of it comes from the fact that cinema is considered Haram (proscribed by Islamic law) and not encouraged in Islam, so it’s like if we support cinema, we’re supporting an art form that goes against religion. We have a thriving television industry which mainly consists of soap operas and daytime soaps, so they are not very strong technically speaking and story-wise. It’s a journey, but it’s exciting to be a part of something new, and in the last two or three years we’ve seen a lot of really exciting developments. Another factor is that Pakistan is quite a big country so filmmaking is not so much centralized to one city. It often feels like even though this wonderful movement is happening, we’re all working independently. In my own four years of working in the industry, I’ve seen a huge change just in the audience’s taste. I also started to reach out to other directors in Pakistan, whose films are playing in the circuits, and I know that we are all on the verge of making our features; so what that means is that in the next few years there’s going to be a very interesting cinema coming out of Pakistan from young filmmakers.



6. What are the challenges and rewards of directing and producing films in Pakistan? 


We have a lack of technical infrastructure, so there are very few people who are technically able to craft cinema. Also the people who are good, usually work in commercials. The only two or three technically efficient people in Pakistan, are likely not to be interested in your project because they don’t understand its value and are also likely to be very much expensive. So even if you are able to get them to work on your project, they would charge you an arm and a leg. The problem with getting students to come on board with your projects is that they’re not well trained, so your project would then not be able to compete in international forums. So the technical team is very hard to gather and that extends to post-production too; post-production is basically impossible in Pakistan because the post-production houses here also specialize in commercials so they’re used to fairly big budgets.


There are of course cultural challenges as well. For instance with Stray Dogs, because the topic was dealing with male sexuality and male prostitution, no actors wanted to be in this film because they say it will ruin their careers if they play such roles; so even being able to say certain stories become very difficult. Ultimately, I’m a storyteller but I want to keep my team safe, and there are very real challenges in that regard so we have to be very careful with what we say and how we say it. 


As for rewards, I think there’s power in constraints, and it forces different muscles in your ability as an artist. If we look at the history of the subcontinent, we understand where Pakistan came from and why culturally we’re more in the South-Asian sphere. We have a bit of an identity crisis in terms of our religion and our culture. In Pakistan, we are creating what our identity is every day, and that creates a lot of conflicts as well as a lot of interest for me as a storyteller because conflict is where good stories come from. So the rewards are that in these situations you’re more forced to dig really deep in what matters, and still be able to tell your story.




7. How has it been for you to find the necessary financial support? 


When I was making my first films, I would self-finance by using my savings, or one thing I did was to start a Kickstarter campaign for my very first student film, and that went kind of viral so a lot of attention was brought to it, and even though at this point I wasn’t yet much of a filmmaker, a lot of people were suddenly interested in my work. That Kickstarter helped me raise money and since then, I’ve been continuously making films, and people have been interested in my projects because they are kind of unique in the Pakistani realm. I used that attention to be able to finance my work. I see everyone as a potential producer, so I’m always pitching my stories. Since there’s not much state support, if I see a high net-worth individual, I try to charm them into funding films, and that has been a strategy that has helped me keep it going.



8. How does your production normally work? Which stage do you find more important?


I hate pre-production! It’s where all the work happens. I have very long pre-productions, like the pre-production of this new short film has been going on about a year and a half. From developing the initial idea, to raising the finances, to casting and location scouting, it’s really important to get all those things together before shooting, especially when you are on a limited budget. I also have a long rehearsal period with my cast, because usually, we have little time and money to spend on production, so for me the longer we rehearse, the better the shooting experience is. I also like to workshop my scripts with my actors, so the rehearsal process is very integral because then I end up rewriting my script based on my experiences with the actors. I don’t storyboard anymore because I think they’re limiting to what you can do on set, but what I do is I go to locations with my DOP and we make very detailed shot lists. So we still have that flexibility on set to reframe or redesign what we have in mind. Being on set is definitely my favorite part; it’s a rush, there’s adrenaline involved. I also really enjoy post-production because that’s when I can say goodbye to everyone and be in my own head. I edit myself and I love that process, as I have my film and now I can actually build it. When it comes to music, color, subtitles, and so on, I tend to disengage from the film and consider myself just as the post-production supervisor, because I need to be less invested in order to make the best possible film.




9. What are some valuable lessons you’ve learned so far as a filmmaker which you think might help others in this process?


One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is to always keep an open mind. Always be open to constructive criticism because I feel like every person has something of value to say. But it’s also important to keep in mind your own perspective and your unique point of view in the world because that’s what makes people attracted to your storytelling. We should take the bits that can improve our practice, and it’s often just a trial and error of learning what that would be. A lot of it for me has been a journey of trusting myself and my vision as an artist. It is a process of being open and vulnerable because with this art form, or any art form really, the vulnerability of your own voice is what will make it unique. Cinema is now more open than ever, so you really have to find what sets you apart. Another important thing is to take your time; keep making work and keep putting your work out there even if it’s not great because that’s how you learn.  



10. How is the pandemic affecting your upcoming projects? 


For one thing, all of our meetings have been on Zoom for the last three months. Our lead actor for the next film is on the spectrum, so it’s challenging for him because he’s used to seeing people in person and is uncomfortable with the camera, but it’s also great because when we shoot, there will be a camera, so it’s kind of preparing him for that. We had our first real meeting two days ago which was the first time I met my producer after five months and my DOP in six. It’s been weird and different from what we’re used to. Pakistan is slowly going back to a normal situation now but we’re still planning on taking a lot of precautions with our shoot, but I can’t comment more than that because so far, I’ve only been on pre-production stage and we haven’t had a shooting during COVID yet.



Interviewer: Parnian Gharehsoory

Read Parnian‘s other interview with Baran Sarmad, whose short film has also been selected in Locarno Film Festival 2020 here.

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