A film and an imagination away

December 9, 2018

Are you a keen set-jetter? Have you chosen a holiday destination as a result of seeing a film? Here film buffs take a pick of the films that have given them their wanderlust

A film and an imagination away
New York, New York!
by Sabahat Zakariya
The American dream was well entrenched in my generation of Pakistani kids growing up in the 1980s. Pakistani state television aired censored versions of Full House and Star Trek; teens scrambled to grab contraband tapes of MTV and Rocky from posh video stores. It was only natural then that Pakistani youth, born and raised in that era would aspire to dress, behave, and talk like American teens they had never met except between the pages of Archie comics and Hollywood frames. While India kept its economy closed to the world, Pakistan imported Britain and America, creating a generation of wannabe western teenagers who existed physically in the confines of their Muslim country fast veering towards further Islamisation, but thrived mentally in the Upper West Side apartments that flashed across their television screens.

A rent-a-book shop near me stocked Sweet Valley High and Sweet Dreams romances that fuelled fantasies about dating and love, western-style. What would it feel like to date openly, we wondered; have a handsome, well-dressed boy show up at your door and whisk you away as your parents waved you goodbye? Pakistani dating was a series of furtive phone calls and closeted kisses informed constantly by the threat of discovery. American high school, in comparison, seemed like a hedonistic paradise of sinful self-indulgence.

Girls who came back with stories of Magic Kingdom and Universal Studios at the end of the summer ruled my school the way blonde cheerleaders lorded over the high schools of Hollywood films. For the slightly less fortunate, one way to access America was through relatives who visited from "abroad." The things they brought with them carried the sheen of those distant lands. The American lunch box with its finely crafted plastic and authentic cartoon characters announced its presence from far across the playing field, the possessor of which was immediately granted an elevated status among peers.

The urge to go and live in the US then, particularly New York, that shining chimera of all that represented America, was the ultimate desire of my young upstart heart. My New York was perpetually shiny and spectacular, untouched by such plagues as poverty and illness. A New York that shimmered beyond visa rejections and expensive air-tickets - Sex and the City brought to life: female friendships and Jimmy Choos, bright lights and unadulterated freedoms, first dates and easy sex. Admittedly, my New York was more romcom than Scorcese, more Breakfast at Tiffany’s than Gangs of New York. To me, this was the entirety of its reality: a fall stroll in Central Park.

When in my middle age I had the opportunity to actually move to the city, my Hollywood dreams sorely let me down. My apartment was half the size of the one ‘Friends’ lazed around their days in. I also discovered there’s no such thing as lazing in New York, and Friends was quite the sham that way too. Then there was the smell of piss at every subway station, the homeless poor, the men and women who kept their heads down and disappeared into the subway tunnel even as a woman hid her face in a corner and wept loudly. Not Breakfast at Tiffany’s, not When Harry Met Sally, certainly not the freelance writing of Carrie Bradshaw and the life of Jackie O.

The writer is a culture critic.

Paris, je t’aime
By Moazzam Sheikh

I began watching the world classics when I started my undergraduate studies in Cinema at the San Francisco State University in 1986 or 87. Even though the break from the studio system to films being shot on sets came with the arrival of Italian neo-realism cinema, which some historians maintain began with De Sica’s Bicycle Thief, for me the break came with the French New Wave, especially with Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, for whom the city of Paris became the main character.
I began watching the world classics when I started my undergraduate studies in Cinema at the San Francisco State University in 1986 or 87. Even though the break from the studio system to films being shot on sets came with the arrival of Italian neo-realism cinema, which some historians maintain began with De Sica’s Bicycle Thief, for me the break came with the French New Wave, especially with Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, for whom the city of Paris became the main character.

Both Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Godard’s Breathless introduced me to Paris, and planted a yearning to visit the city someday. One can find online articles that explore the real locations used in both movies, but I had no way to remember those spots when I finally managed to visit Paris.

As it turned out, Paris is not only the city of lovers, artists, writers, composers, bookstores and cafés, it is also the city of walkers. I could barely speak any French when I visited it in the early 1990s and that made me reluctant to take public transportation. So I walked. I walked everywhere.

I am by nature not drawn to famous monuments and the wonders of the world, such as Eiffel Tower, but I did walk to it. I am drawn more to people, places where ordinary people gather, busy boulevards, neighbourhood bakeries called patisseries or boulangeries. I stayed at a hostel on the north side of Seine and crossed it many times during my aimless walks.

The two highlights of my visit to Paris were frequent stops at French cafes, ordering single espressos with my clumsy, incorrect French, and a long visit to Pere Lachaise Cemetery, where the French bury their beloved artists, writers, composers, and directors. I was surprised to run into the grave of Sadegh Hedayat, the famous Iranian writer, who committed suicide. I laid one flower on behalf of a friend in love with the author and another on Marcel Proust’s grave made with black stone.

The writer is a fiction writer and film critic

Riders on the storm
By Umar Majid Ali

A friend of mine, knowing my thirst for travel, adventure and cinematography, came over one day with a USB device. He said, "I think you need to see this".

I plugged it in, and played the video file inside. In a few minutes through the introduction, the film grabbed me completely. I got lost in mesmerising landscape and jaw-dropping shots of a bunch of climbers who are into high altitude skiing -- they go up on foot or on a helicopter but come back down riding their skis.

The film, Into the Mind, is backed by The North Face, one of the best outdoor and mountaineering gear makers, and is a Sherpas Cinema production. The story is about a bunch of daredevil skiing pros and one really crazy guy who, after facing an accident on one of his downhill runs, comes back again only to surrender and respect nature. The beauty of the story, especially towards the end is about how gracefully one can let go of an ambition or goal. But wait. That’s not what the film is just about. The soundtracks are amazing so you will need good output with your screen to enjoy the other half of the film -- music.

This film was shot with the final production design well in mind. The cinematography is so captivating while the edit has done wonders to a well thought out production. From Chile to Alaska to Nepal, the audience is flying around the mountains, trying to capture these skiers zipping down causing massive powder slides that are potentially very dangerous. It really shows the passion of those who love skiing and how, for some, it’s a way of life.

Into the Mind has been directed by Dave Mossop and Eric Crosland as well as photographed so magically by the same two.

There is something about the cinematography and the magic of the post-production design that grips the audience at once. Again the music props-up this amazingly shot film to a larger-than-life perspective. The transitions, bass and percussion connect heavy jump cuts with the flow of the story. This one will make you fall in love with the outdoors if you haven’t already and cause you to jump from your seat with the mind-boggling and stunning capture of nature, its elements, and the raw sportsmanship of these daring individuals, thrill seekers and adventurers who have been captured with their antics by probably the best crew for this work in the world.

The writer is a traveller, photographer and filmmaker

A place among the stars

By Fazal Ahmad

Visionary directors have a unique talent of transforming peculiar landscapes into fantastical lands. Deep woods can become a refuge for a shy monster, an abandoned town takes shape of a battlefield and a hostile, cold glacier can reincarnate into an otherworldly planet. Iceland is one such place. With its glacial landforms and rugged lava fields, it is becoming a go-to-destination for an assortment of sci-fi directors.

South of Iceland is witnessing a tourism boom after a number of film productions, most notably the 2014 epic science fiction Interstellar, directed, co-written and co-produced by Christopher Nolan. The famous Interstellar poster shows actor Matthew McConaughey walking on a hostile, wintery planet shot in Svínafellsjökull that is said to be the largest ice cap in Europe with a glacier tongue most accessible for tourists. Witnessing a glacier tongue up close reveals a river of large ice cracks that are formed as a result of glacier movement. The view certainly is a treat for the imagination and regular glacier hiking trips are planned for tourists.

With a visual stimulant like this and Interstellar’s soundtrack being played in your earphones, it certainly can’t be hard to go for an intergalactic leap into a far off planet with a personal twist of imagination.

Interestingly enough, another planet shown in Interstellar (The Water Planet) was also filmed just an hour’s drive away from Svínafellsjökull on the island of Máfabót. But this was Christopher Nolan’s second trip to Iceland. He has previously shot sequences of Batman Begins in the same country. Other notable mentions are the North of Wall in season seven of Game of thrones. Ridley Scott’s alien inhabitants in Prometheus and parts of Russell Crowe’s Noah, directed by Darren Aronofsky of the Black Swan fame.

The writer is a filmmaker and cinematographer

Yeh hai Bombay meri jaan

By Haniya Chima

If I had the chance I would visit the sets of Kiran Rao’s film Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries). Watching that film was the first time I saw life as I know it, both beautiful and ironic. The film is a tale of longing, dreams, yearning and desires, in the vast city of Mumbai. What blew me away is that life in Mumbai could be so similar to what I had experienced in Lahore.

We are born into social bubbles and will likely die within them. Though they are invisible, these bubbles are made of solid glass -- they will never merge. Dhobi Ghat plays with the theme of these social bubbles, coexisting in the same space -- all in the city of Mumbai -- but never mixing.

The film follows four characters: Arun, a pensive artist; Shai, an investment banker; Yasmin, a lonely middleclass housewife; and Munna, a dhobi and aspiring actor. The characters are engulfed in their own worlds, absorbed in the daily mechanics of their lives when the film’s writer decides to walk them to the edge of the bridge. Will Munna and Shai fall in love? Can Arun meet his muse, Yasmin? Will Shai fulfill Munna’s dream to become an actor? Will these characters break out of their bubbles? The heart yearns for them to cross over to the other side. They are so close, yet so far.

The film teases you by flirting with the idea of bursting those bubbles and breaking the monotony of social norms. However by the end the film heartbreakingly embraces reality and succumbs to the rules of South Asian society, leaving you yearning for what could have been.

I would love to go set jetting to the locations where this magic was shot. I would like to experience the spaces in Mumbai that imaginatively toyed with these impossible possibilities.

The writer is an actor and film producer

Those were the days…

By Naazir Mahmood

One can cite names of hundreds of movies that were shot on real locations and others that seemed so real that you thought the location was real, for example, David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago. The film was shot in Spain and Finland, and mostly used artificial ice and snow, but you can hardly believe that it was not Russia.

When I became interested in the history of cinema, one of the first films that impressed me greatly was a masterpiece of early cinema Nanook of the North, shot in the 1910s but released in 1922. Shot entirely on frozen locations in the Arctic Circle, this was the first film that sparked in me a desire to actually see how it feels to be there.

The producer of this film, Robert J. Flaherty, was not a professional filmmaker then. He was a mineral prospector in Canada’s Far North. He spent not months but years in the Arctic Circle with the local people.

This gem of real filmmaking chronicles the lives of an Eskimo family led by Nanook who was a celebrated Inuit hunter. The wilderness shown in this movie and a series of vignettes that document human courage and fortitude in the face of extremely hostile nature fascinates you.

Further, I would recommend two Russian movies: The Battleship Potemkin (1925) and The Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Directed by Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov respectively, these films have become textbook material for filming on location. If The Battleship Potemkin is a legend of a movie for its structure, symbolism, sources, and effects, The Man with a Movie Camera exploited every available device of filming and editing including animation, blurring focus, freeze-frames, multiple images, slow motion, split-screen, zooms and reverse zooms.

The real locations for The Battleship Potemkin is Odessa and The Man with a Movie Camera is Moscow. When I went to see the stairs near the Odessa port, where the famous shooting scene was shot, I sat there for a while, imagining the out-of-control baby carriage on the steps, so movingly filmed by Eisenstein. Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera is a ‘life-caught-unawares’ movie that records a day in the life of the modern city, mostly in Moscow, but with some footage shot in Kiev, Yalta, and Odessa.

The next film that comes to mind for its extraordinary location is John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948). For Hollywood, it was one of the first films to be shot almost entirely on location. Only the night scenes were shot in the studio. The film portrays three American drifters in Mexico prospecting for gold. The film’s texture delineates the dusty aridity of the Mexican landscape. Watching it with intent may give you a gritty feeling in your teeth.

In The African Queen (1951), John Huston and Humphrey Bogart paired as director-actor duo in this classic flick. It was mostly shot on location in Belgian Congo and the scenes in the reed-filled riverbank were filmed in Dalyan, Turkey.

Go for these films, I assure you a feast, if you love location filming.

The writer is a film buff and film critic

A film and an imagination away