We may be fixated on features but it’s the short films being made in Pakistan that are getting international recognition. Three visionary directors weigh in on the art form that needs visibility for more than one reason.
Alina Darling dreams of being the next stage star, gyrating her way through lustful male gazes, to possible fame. Shani is naively besotted with her, unperturbed that she isn’t quite the conventional dream girl. Both their dreams find reality in a different place, like the little white goat that has gone missing. This is Saim Sadiq’s Darling, which just picked up the Orrizonti Award for Best Short Film at Venice Film Festival. The storytelling is so gripping that it’s impossible to turn away.
Rani is a transgirl with a maternal heart; she thinks she’d do a better job of raising an abandoned baby and nurtures the child - buying her clothes, formula and even baby powder - until she realizes society is too cruel to sanction her the sense of humanity she feels. Hammad Rizvi, in this award winning short, Rani, allows Rani - portrayed brilliantly by Kami Sid - the hope that we all seek in fiction.
Tackling an equally complex subject, Omar Rahim’s Agency revolves around two men looking to complete their unconventional family with the help of a surrogate, for which they approach their best friend. Addressing contemporary South Asian relationships, most of them blended, Agency reflects on the quest for self-determination and yet confusion and the intrinsic need to conform. Agency is being screened at South Asian Film Festivals in Chicago and Washington this weekend and, undoubtedly, pushes the creative envelope.
These brilliant, 20-odd-minute long films are trekking through territories that commercially driven filmmakers are shying away from: LGBTQ + relationships, surrogacy, transgenders and the underbelly of society as well as humanity. They’re raw, honest and sincere to the subject. Where Anwer Maqsood’s Naach Na Jaanay casts Yasir Hussain as the iconic transgender Akbar, both Saim Sadiq and Hammad Rizvi cast transgirls to play their parts, thus bringing in the authenticity. In their sense of adventure and exploration of often risque and bold subjects, the shorts are tackling real stories and yet their own existence and accessibility remains quite fictional.
Where can we watch these short films, which desperately need to be seen?
"I don’t see the short film finding a future in a non-digital space," says Saim Sadiq, who’s back from Venice Film Festival and is in Karachi these days. Saim lives in New York but works between NY, Lahore and Karachi. "The only space these films get is at film festivals. I uploaded my first short film, years ago, on Facebook and it got 400,000 views, which got me to Columbia. Darling will go to more festivals but it won’t get the attention that my first film got unless I upload it, which I can’t until it’s being screened at festivals."
"Generally, short films can’t be made available online until after their festival runs," Omar Rahim elaborates on the subject, over the phone, from New York where he now lives. "Shorts are also sometimes acquired by distributors who determine how and when they are made available for wide release. That said, I think it would be a terrific idea to organize festivals all over Pakistan for short films - perhaps even find a way to monetize them as companions to full-length feature screenings."
Quentin Tarantino, for example, was doing a special premiere for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in LA last week, Hammad Rizvi shares, and he showed a short alongside his feature.
"Rani is luckily online and it is on the PBS channel on YouTube but I admit that took time," says Hammad, who lives in LA these days. "You have the literature festivals and the biennales but it’s sad that Kara Film Festival isn’t there anymore. Pakistan is full of storytellers and people want to see films and stories. There has to be a way."
Why there has to be a way is very simple: filmmakers are using the short film form to tell stories that may be too bold or may not find the funding to be made into a feature. Feature films, as entertaining as they are (though some aren’t even that) are facilitating the mass dumbing down of our national psyche. We all enjoy song and dance and good looking - albeit not always talented - actors and actresses for the feel good factor, but films also have a bigger purpose. A film gives filmmakers a chance to get into peoples’ heads and fire off ideas, often revolutionary ones.
"I think short films are critical to the development of a vibrant cinema ecosystem in Pakistan," Omar says. He has worked on features and is now working towards his own first feature film. "Given the high cost and high stakes of feature films, short films provide a chance for content creators to hone their craft, take risks and even make mistakes (the only way to learn), given the relatively lower cost of production. That said, the short film is not simply a prerequisite to feature filmmaking - it is a legitimate art form in its own right, much like the short story versus the novel."
"Things have been tough around the world and superhero films, for example, are an escape," Hammad chips in. "I definitely have thought of making a feature around Karachi but I would split in into a wide variety, not just one social cause because that would be too heavy. I love cinema and I go to escape too but even a film that entertains should give some form of a message. This is a unique time for Pakistan; there is a desire to tell stories. Unfortunately many people making films are going after what works and that’s automatically Bollywood. That takes you away from the real Pakistan. I think short form gives people the opportunity to express themselves."
Expression, yes, but the impact is limited with the restricted viewership. Saim Sadiq, having won a prestigious award at VFF, has no delusions about his future as a short filmmaker.
"Darling got the attention because it shows you a side of Pakistan that the world hasn’t seen before," he says, modestly adding that he still isn’t sure why it got the recognition it did. "I was just trying to be honest to the story I was telling. It was open and sexual, two things we’re uncomfortable with."
But making short films is definitely a stepping stone for him, he says, an opinion that resonates with all three film makers. Asim Abbasi, in fact, is living example of someone who made short films (Whore) before making Cake, which won the Lux Style Award for Best Film in 2018, and was also selected as Pakistan’s official contender for the Oscars in the same year. While there’s no denying the liberty of creative expression that shorts allow, a director’s desire to be seen by a larger audience can also not be disputed.
"Shorts are very limiting," Saim reiterates. "I like people to watch what I make, not just festival people but normal, regular people. Shorts don’t have a reach, they don’t play in theatres or on TV. It restricts the experience of what a film should be. For me it was a learning on how to make a film."
"A short film is a complete work of art and should be able to stand alone. That said, strong shorts can and often do develop into feature films and episodic content (online or television)," Omar says, adding that he sees Agency developing into something episodic as the world of Anjali, Kartik and Saif is fascinating and people want to know what happens next. "But a good short often serves as demonstration of a filmmaker’s ability and can open doors in the media industry."
The short film can stand on its own and develop as an integral part of the film industry; it is a great, experimental ground for storytellers who want to walk on the road less traveled and don’t necessarily have the budgets to make something big. Most short filmmakers will also use the short form as a stepping stone to creating something big. Khoosat Films co-produced Saim Sadiq’s Darling and while Sarmad’s upcoming film, Zindagi Tamasha is being released and distributed as a feature, it is also headed to Busan Film Festival, thus finding space on the festival circuit. So the short film can also grow into a larger, artistic film, which the industry most certainly needs to balance out the commercial ventures. A healthy and progressive film industry will need both forms to thrive and survive; the question is, how and when will we create the space for it?