Pakistan made a splash at the Toronto International Film Festival with the Saim Sadiq directorial, and while we are proud, we wonder how momentum can be sustained to support talent concentrated in the country
2022 has been excellent for cinema’s revival all over the world. Post-Covid audiences have shown they are willing to come back to the theaters, with record-breaking numbers for blockbusters like Top Gun: Maverick and Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness. After limited activity during the past two years, film festivals like Cannes and Venice Film Festival came back in full force this year, showcasing the biggest films from all over the world.
Pakistani cinema has been having a big year as well. Apart from the release upon release the country saw in the summer, a lot of excitement was injected back into creative circles thanks to a lovely film called Joyland, produced by an international supergroup of people including Oscar-nominated director Ramin Bahrani and our very own filmmaker extraordinaire Sarmad Khoosat of Khoosat Films.
The film is director Saim Sadiq’s first feature film ever, though you would never guess it. Joyland was developed from Saim’s award-winning short film Darling, which won awards at SXSW Festival, Venice Film Festival and the Melbourne Queer Film Festival. It was also selected for the Short Cuts program at Toronto International Film Festival 2019.
Saim Sadiq is indeed a rare talent. He is a storyteller at par with all the greatest storytellers in film history. Joyland had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival this year and created huge buzz after winning the prestigious Un Certain Regard and Queer Palm Awards there. Many of you may have come across videos and images of the incredible cast and crew representing Pakistan at Cannes on social media. The buzz had also reached Toronto, and the tickets to all Joyland film screenings were sold out before the premiere.
On the day of the Joyland premiere, film buffs at the festival were already talking about the film. The festival director of MISAFF (Mosaic International South Asian Film Festival), the largest South Asian film festival in Toronto, Arshad Khan, shared that the COO of TIFF had said that Joyland was the best film at the festival this year. The film was shown at the historical Royal Alexandra Theatre. It was wonderful to watch this level of excitement in the audience for a Pakistani film. The film was graciously introduced by one of the senior programmers at TIFF who praised the film and its nuanced storytelling. The atmosphere was truly electric.
It took me almost a day to process watching Joyland, and to find the words to express how this beautiful film made me feel. Saim Sadiq and his co-writer Maggie Briggs wrote a film about a family which could have existed anywhere, at any time. The humanity of the characters and the silence in their conversations set the tone of the film. One could see Saim’s careful crafting of each character and the chemistry of this incredible little family set in a neighbourhood in old Lahore. And the pace is impeccable. The synopsis defines the film as, “As the happilypatriarchal Rana family craves for the birth of a baby boy, the youngest of the Rana men secretly joins an erotic dance theatre and finds himself falling for a fiercely ambitious trans starlet. Their impossible love story slowly illuminates the entire Rana family’s desire for a sexual rebellion.”
I wish this synopsis could explain the incredible depth of these characters. The film is as much about the moment as it is about the people in it. The central character Haider, played by the outstanding Ali Junejo, moves through the story taking you with him. As Saim explained it in the Q and A session after the film, ‘it is a coming of age story of a man, who finds his voice, at the cost of a few women.’ Alina Khan’s fearless portrayal of the trans character Beeba was fierce and authentic. She lit up the screen and demanded respect in every frame. The women in the film; played by Sarwat Gillani, Sania Saeed and Rasti Farooq, all felt real. Not pitiful or melodramatic or vindictive, as mainstream television has made women to be these days. Although, comparing this film to mainstream television would be unfair.
The imagery, the production design, the light, the locations, were so well done. Not a second felt out of place. The background score by the young genius Abdullah Siddiqui was spare and ethereal to give silence its place. Pakistani filmmaker Saqib Malik, who was at the premiere wrote, “Set in inner city Lahore, minus any of the cliches associated with representations of the milieu, Joyland explores the dreams and frustrations, the desires and heartbreaks and the different planes of existence its characters inhabit without judgment or contrivance”.
This film really is a defining moment for Pakistani cinema. Before the premiere, those who had seen the film at Cannes kept bringing up how this film is the one to take Pakistan to the Oscars. After the premiere, everyone walking out was talking about how there has to be a way for Pakistani cinema to have its place internationally. When Sania Saeed was asked about her part in the film, she mentioned how she had really wanted to work with Saim, but in addition, work like this is almost like ‘an act of resistance’.
The great thing about an event like the Toronto International Film Festival is that it is all about the people who love cinema. The celebrities are there, but the festival is really about the audience. People of all ages from all over the city volunteer to put this festival together. It really is the ultimate film watching experience. Industry centers are set up, where delegates representing their film industries come to the festival to network, build connections for the films being made in their countries, and to build bridges between filmmakers and audiences. India also hosts special events to promote its film industry.
There are film treaties between countries that give them preferential access to film locations as well as grants and tax breaks for choosing to work in each other’s countries. This is also the reason we see many times that multiple countries fund a single film together.
These matters are worked out between the film boards of the countries, allowing a smoother pro-cess for film projects to be shot in these countries since there is a system in place to assist them.
Unfortunately, Pakistan has no official delegation or representatives at this festival and probably at other festivals as well. This is a critical element for our film industry to be able to share our stories internationally. A film like Joyland reaching these international festivals and representing us shouldn’t really be as tough as it is, and so when one of these local masterpieces does cross international waters, it is indeed monumental.
Hopefully as our film industry grows, we will develop an international structure to support our films. This will require a lot of collaboration and cross-collaboration not just between distributors, studios, and media houses, but also government entities. Obviously, we have our work cut out for us, but putting in this work is guaranteed to reap long-term rewards.
With more and more actors, writers, editors, and directors joining the ranks of what is and will be the Pakistani film industry, there has never been better motivation for us to organize ourselves and mobilize the industry as a whole. The question is, can we as a fraternity put aside any differences and competitive elements and work together for the greater good? It only ever takes one step in the right direction.
– The writer,Nariman Ansari,is a visual artist living and working in Toronto.