Set (and shot in) in contemporary Pakistan, Seemab Gul’s BIFA nominated drama short Sandstorm (Mulaqat) is the story of a teenager who finds herself blackmailed by her boyfriend after sending him a sensual dance video. Gul captures protagonist Zara closely on this journey, following her with the camera intently and allowing the audience to see the world as she sees it. It’s a subtle decision but it has a great impact that feeds into the film’s social commentary on how societal restrictions and modern forms of exploitation can intersect in deeply problematic ways. This journey is represented in the film’s final sequence too which is both narratively powerful and an impressive feat of filmmaking. DN spoke with Gul about the creative impetus for her story, the decision to follow Zara closely, and the challenge of executing the finale in Karachi during lockdown.

When did you begin your journey as a filmmaker and what drew you to film as an art form?

I started experimenting with filmmaking while doing a BA in Fine Art at the Surrey Institute of Art & Design (now called the University of the Creative Arts). I made a few short 8mm films and some digital ones for gallery projections, etc. I also taught myself how to edit then. But it was much later that I decided to study on the filmmaking MA at the London Film School. This was after a few years of political activism and doing a short evening course in Visual Anthropology at Goldsmiths University in London, UK. Although painting was my first love, I started to see that filmmaking was much more versatile as a medium and it suited my personality to work with teams and create visual stories. Film also has the power to reach huge international audiences and is an important tool for communication and inspiration.

I wanted to approach this concept in Sandstorm where the internet brings new social opportunities for teenage girls while having so many societal restrictions.

What was the origin of the idea for Sandstorm?

I read a news article online about a teenage girl in Egypt who shared a fairly innocent dance video with her boyfriend and when they broke up a couple of years later, he put it online and it shamed her. This story made me think about how difficult navigating dating can be in the Muslim world. In Pakistan, many teenage girls are not allowed to date at all, nor dance in public. I wanted to approach this concept in Sandstorm where the internet brings new social opportunities for teenage girls while having so many societal restrictions.

The camera often follows Zara closely, capturing her intimately, what motivated you to take that approach?

The Cinematographer Alberto Balazs and I had discussed Iranian and Romanian new-wave films where there are long takes and observational-style camera work. But since we wanted to stay close to the protagonist’s experience and Alberto was drawn to the films of the Dardenne brothers, we decided to go with this style.

How did you capture the sandstorm sequence? Was that something you were able to plan for? It feels like the perfect backdrop for what’s going on in that scene narratively.

We created the sand storm in the middle of the pandemic lockdown in Karachi. We had to get special permission from the local authorities and the police to film and block off a main road. It was a huge challenge and an expensive scene to execute because we also had to shoot a half-day trial run, which made us go over budget. We had to get trucks with sand and huge fans as well as smoke to create it. We also had a hundred cast and crew members to create this stormy scene. It was shot in about four hours as we had tight budgetary constraints and a few hours of daylight to do so. Therefore, we were only able to do one or two takes per shot. It’s a miracle that we pulled it off and I call it ‘organised chaos’.

How long were you shooting for and what challenges did you face during production?

We were in pre-production for about two months part-time but the actual shoot was only four and a half days. This was due to having a tight budget. One of the biggest challenges was creating the sand storm. The shoot took place during the pandemic so it was risky and nerve-wracking. Getting a visa for the cinematographer in the pandemic was also difficult and he only arrived a few days before the shoot. Other challenges were having in-person auditions and trying to convince parents of teenage Pakistani girls to allow them to dance in the film. This experience made me realise how contentious the film is likely to be.

I read that your films are fostered through improvisations, was that the case on Sandstorm? If so, how does that manifest itself?

Yes, I like to allow the actors to improvise and try out different ideas with their own characters as well as the other actors. This process makes them understand the story better and I ask them to bring their own experiences to their characters where possible.

This experience made me realise how contentious the film is likely to be.

The first few meetings between the two lead actors took place online only, to allow for that mystery and that style of online communication. They played simple acting games to break the ice and get into their characters. I also asked them to watch Iranian films for them to understand the kind of naturalistic acting style I was looking for. I believe this really helped with their performances.

Could you talk a bit about casting Parizae Fatima and Hamza Mushtaq? What were you looking for both of them to embody in their characters?

We did the first set of auditions online where actors were asked to send ‘self-tapes’ with basic introductions and to answer a couple of questions about themselves. I liked Parizae’s self-tape so much that I knew that she was perfect for the role. One of my questions was ‘what is unique about you?’ and her answer was that she doesn’t have a mobile phone. Although my film was about teenagers literally living on their phones, I was fascinated by Parizae as a modern teenager not having a phone while living in a modern metropolis.

When casting Hamza as Omar, I didn’t want the antagonist to come across as a ‘bad guy’. I wanted someone who looks somewhat innocent and possibly likeable too. This is because I wanted the audience to see Omar from Zara’s perspective. Both the lead actors were also able to listen to instructions very well in the auditions and later in the rehearsals and the shoot. This was a blessing and key to the film’s success.

What are you working on now?

I am developing a couple of feature films with one of them in the financing stage. My debut feature film HAVEN OF HOPE, set in Pakistan, is a French, Dutch and Pakistani co-production so far. It was developed at the Venice Biennale College Cinema and at La Fabrique Cinema, Cannes. HAVEN OF HOPE is about three Pakistani women who are inmates of a ‘Safe House’ in Karachi. They dare to venture into the outside world for a day and soon discover that their families would rather conveniently brand them lunatics than give them their rights. Leaving them with no choice but to return to the asylum to seek refuge from a society that has shunned them yet again. I received the Rotterdam’s Hubert Bals Fund for script and project development this year and I hope to shoot it at the end of 2023.

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