"Breaking stereotypes about Pakistan has become fun."

May 10, 2015

Documentary filmmaker Shehzad Hameed probes the education crisis in Pakistan through a profile of one defiant woman’s battle against illiteracy.

There hasn’t been a more crucial time in Pakistan to talk about education. With the country’s population currently comprising a youth majority, this passing era could very well be a turning point for the nation, except that the absence of an adequate education system prevents young people from attaining their game-changing potential.

Filmmaker Shehzad Hameed Ahmad puts this failing system in the spotlight in his latest documentary, Flight of the Falcons. Having previously helmed a very well-received The Pakistan Four, which highlights the stereotype-defying journeys of four Pakistani women in the US, Ahmad now highlights the extraordinary example set closer to home by Gujranwala’s Sister Zeph.

Over the film’s 48-minute duration, Ahmad follows her as she takes on the socio-cultural issues surrounding the reluctance of girls’ families in letting them attend her free school and skills centre in the Aroop village. The status quo is dismal, the documentary reminds us - but goes on to give us heart by showing that the situation doesn’t deter courageous champions like Sister Zeph and inspires us to follow her lead.

Instep spoke to Shehzad Hameed Ahmad about Flight of the Falcons; excerpts follow:

Q. How did you discover Sister Zeph and her school?

I began filming this documentary around eight months ago when I came across a Facebook page, created and run by Sister Zeph, which she used to highlight the achievements of her two-room school in Aroop, Gujranwala. Since the attack on Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban, I was always interested in making a documentary on Pakistan’s battle against illiteracy in general and girls’ education in particular, in order to highlight the various issues that have resulted in 25 million out-of-school children in the country.

After initially discussing the idea on Skype with Sister Zeph, I pitched the idea to Infocus Asia and Channel News Asia who collaborated with me on producing this documentary. I began filming in August 2014 and spent considerable time in the little town of Aroop, just outside of Gujranwala in the Punjab province in order to find and understand my main characters, namely 14-year-old Saira, 15-year-old Ayesha and 19-year-old Reena. It was during this time that I realized the various difficulties each individual was facing and how Sister Zeph and her school was helping these girls to overcome the social, economic and structural problems that were symbolic of Pakistan’s battle for girls education.

Q. We know that challenging and overturning stereotypes about Pakistanis is one of the motivations of your documentary work. How does Flight of the Falcons fit into those goals?

Breaking stereotypes about Pakistan has become fun. I enjoy surprising people with something positive and inspiring that they never expect from us. I’ve always been a rebel, choosing a profession (broadcast journalism) that didn’t have acceptance with my family or society back in the days, and later, became an anti-status quo journalist, usually taking up issues that spoke for the weaker segments of Pakistani society - be it women, minorities or children. My films’ main forte is ‘call to action’, or more accurately, they revolve around the idea of change. Filmmakers live in an ideal world where they think -- and rightfully so -- that their films are going to have a real impact on the societies they are working in. Without this belief system, filmmaking makes no sense to me.

For instance, women empowerment is an issue that was really close to my heart. 51% of Pakistan comprises of women and without their active participation in all walks of life, the country can never progress an inch. Girls in Pakistan, especially the rural areas, need heroes like Sister Zeph who can act as a catalyst towards change. If we had a Sister Zeph in every village of Pakistan, this country can progress within the next few years.

The worst thing that has happened in Pakistan is that there are very few heroes for young girls. I’m glad that Malala has become an inspiration for millions of girls across the globe. With people like her coming forward, the world is definitely heading in the right direction. But so much more needs to be done.

I think we all need to better understand Pakistan, which I believe is one of most misunderstood places in the world. An accurate definition would be that it is a land of contradictions that produces a courageous girl such as Malala and at the same time, produced a coward who attacked her. Western media perceptions of the country have often been defined by a very narrow representation of mostly news articles. I would say people should visit Pakistan and that is when real change would occur. Academics, filmmakers, artists, actors, singers, archaeologists, mountain-trekkers should start interacting with young Pakistanis so that both can learn from each other. That is essential if the world has to progress in equal measure.

Q. Has your documentary had any impact on Sister Zeph’s endeavors?

It is obviously too early since the documentary has just been released but the hope is that people will be able to cooperate with Sister Zeph at all levels to aid in what she is aiming to do. People have been all praise for her school and courage on social media and that is very meaningful. In order to keep going, you need that moral support that is often lacking in Pakistani society, especially when you’re trying to go against the tide. As you can see in the documentary itself, pushing parents to let their girls attend school isn’t easy at all for Sister Zeph but she’s still at it. My hope is that Sister Zeph becomes a household name that people can trust and that people can finance her endeavors to make them into a reality one day. I think Sister Zeph is extremely ambitious and I have no doubt she’ll change the fate of many girls in Gujranwala who are looking up to her.

Q. What kind of response has Flight of the Falcons gotten from the audience so far?

It’s been extremely positive and uplifting. I got an email from this girl in Bangladesh, saying that she wanted to become a filmmaker and document the harsh realities that women face in her country. Similarly, this guy from India wrote to me saying that he always thought that it was the women’s fault for not being able to educate and uplift herself but after watching the documentary, he’s a changed man. These are the reasons why you keep making documentary films and one day, these incremental changes will add up to make the big difference in making the world a better place for all of us. The Malala Fund has endorsed the documentary and has been gracious enough to share it on their social media, which means a lot coming from them.  On the other end of the spectrum, there’s been a bit of a criticism such as ‘things aren’t that bad’, or ‘look at Lahore and Karachi where women can work openly’. I’ve usually had to explain to them that a majority of Pakistan lives outside of these major cities where things are pretty grim. Flight of the Falcons will enlighten our own people that we have the second highest out-of-school children in the WORLD! Let’s do something about it. Those who can do something, should come forward. Now is the time!

"Breaking stereotypes about Pakistan has become fun."