Repurposing Perceptions

July 4, 2021

The National Amateur Short Film Festival Awards, held in Islamabad last weekend, honoured 15 young students who had created positive and uplifting short films with the sole purpose of changing the global perception of Pakistan.

Actor/producer Humayun Saeed with the excited winners.
Actor/producer Humayun Saeed with the excited winners.

Sitting cross legged under the protective shade of a wise old Banyan Tree, Dr. Farah Deeba Akram, founder of the Aalam Bibi Trust, narrates the story of how she started this amazing project that today schools hundreds of underprivileged girls and boys in Lahore.

“I had been funding the school for 15 years and in the 16th year Allah and I made a deal,” she says with an unwavering smile. “The deal was that I would look at the management side (of the schools) and Allah would take care of the financial side. We didn’t have government funding, foreign funding or corporate funding. It’s been running on personal funding and it’s been running because Allah took care of the financials.”

Dr. Farah Deeba’s story, brought to the world through Yawar Shah’s lens, was one of the 300 short films submitted to the first National Amateur Short Film Festival (NASFF). It was also the film that landed him first prize, rewarding this young Lahore University student a one year scholarship to the University of California (UCLA), to study filmmaking. He already has the eye; the exposure and expertise will give him the vision to take his skills to the next level when he returns with his diploma and experiences. An important part of the deal is that he must return.

Fifteen such jubilant students queued up as their names were called out at the very first NASFF Awards 2021, held in Islamabad last weekend. It was a prestigious ceremony, held at the Pakistan China Convention Centre in presence of Prime Minister Imran Khan and the DG ISPR, Major General Babar Iftikhar. Fawad Chaudhry, Minister of Information and Broadcasting – having played an integral role in bringing this project together – was also present along with an ample assembly of dignitaries and of course, celebrities.

The afternoon had Mahira Khan and Ahsan Khan as hosts while Humayun Saeed, Wahaj Ali, Ramsha Khan, Aiman and Muneeb Butt, Ali Rehman Khan, Mashal Khan, Fizza Ali Meerza and Nabeel Qureshi sat in the front row. The sparsely occupied auditorium was by no means an indication of low attendance; it was responsibly planned as per Covid SOPs.

NASFF, in a nutshell, has been created with the sole purpose of creating positive and uplifting content that may change the global perception of Pakistan. Since Pakistan has one of the highest youth populations in the world (63% according to the United Nations Population Fund Report), it was also an encouraging move to involve students in the process. The initiative was rolled out in November 2020, after which 1100 registrations were made and over 300 short films were received from 72 universities all over the country. Out of all submissions, 15 lucky winners made it to the top.

NASFF brand ambassadors, namely Humayun Saeed, Mahira Khan, Bilal Abbas Khan, Wahaj Ali, Mashal Khan, Zara Noor Abbas, Iqra Aziz, Farhan Saeed, Colonel Qasim Shah, Ayub Khoso and Shaan (as mentor) were roped in to conduct webinars across the country, helping students with the process. Most of them made it to the awards too; the entertainment industry has, after all, been working hand in hand with the ISPR for content creation. Humayun Saeed has just announced their next collaboration, Sinf e Ahan, which will track the lives of five female cadets. Farhan Saeed went the extra mile by composing and performing a song specifically for the event. Wahaj Ali, also present that day, was one of the 5 actors that headlined drama serial Ehd e Wafa and he has signed up for more ISPR-driven projects too.

“When the idea of NASFF was initially shared with me, I was really excited about the initiative,” Wahaj said, after the event. “I was a bit confused as to how the kids would react and work in Covid times; I was worried that they wouldn’t be allowed to step out. But we connected with the students via Webinars and not only were they excited but they were bursting with energy. They had so many questions. They wanted to discover, generate and create. They wanted to do it all. It was delightful to see the youth being so energetic.”

As an actor, he said, it was important to connect with the youth. “It was such an opportunity for us. This is how we get to learn too. It was all very pleasant and there was a lot of positivity.”

Ramsha Khan, Mashal Khan and Wahaj Ali at the NASFF Awards
Ramsha Khan, Mashal Khan and Wahaj Ali at the NASFF Awards

“NASFF actually made us wonder why this hasn’t been done before,” Wahaj continued. “We often complain that we don’t have opportunities and there aren’t many authentic platforms. The good thing is that this platform is authentic and there is a genuine appreciation and encouragement of art. Other than that, as the PM said, originality is very important. What I love about NASFF is the confidence it has given the kids; this will be so constructive and priceless for the future of these kids.”

Important speeches and words of encouragement were delivered by the dignitaries who were present. The Prime Minister’s speech has, since then, gone viral for both right and wrong reasons, but there was more motivational moments. The DG ISPR, in his address, spoke about perception and reality.

“Perception is reality and nations work on branding their country’s strengths,” he stated. “We have almost won the battle with terrorism and we now need to align the perception of Pakistan with its current reality. Not only will this (NASFF) create a new perception, it will also inject new talent into the industry.”

Fawad Chaudhry echoed that thought.

This is a time when we’re fighting a war of words and opinions,” he rightly said. “The media is used to build important narratives and we have to change the narrative.” Speaking of feature films, liberal arts, dance and drama as part of any thriving culture, he added that PTV and Radio were also being revamped.

“I think NASFF, which is the brainchild of the ISPR, is a great initiative because I’ve always had a problem with the fact that Pakistan has so much talent, but there is no avenue or platform to showcase this talent,” actor and producer Humayun Saeed spoke to Instep after the event. “As a producer I can say that I’m always on the lookout for actors, writer and directors; we have very few credible names that we keep working with. So a lot of kids in schools and universities are studying these subjects but they don’t have a platform. I was delighted when the ISPR approached me to be a NASFF brand ambassador.

“There are so many people and institutions that’ll be inspired to also take this initiative now,” he felt. “The youth felt very motivated. We are so pleased that this initiative has been taken so seriously.”

Speaking about the PM’s fascination with Turkish period play Ertugrul, Humayun pointed out the need for Pakistan’s content to run in Turkey too.

“It hasn’t happened yet but we are in talks with them and hopefully our dramas and films will also run in Turkey.” Speaking briefly on Turk Lala, the drama serial that is being fashioned in Pakistan on the lines of Ertugrul. Ertugrul was heavily funded by the Turkish state; would the Government of Pakistan be funding Turk Lala?

“I have stepped into a co-production on Turki Lala and pre-production work is in play,” he confirmed. “The PM has approved this project and has pledged his support. We haven’t reached out for funds yet but we are doing the budgeting and if need be, we will reach out and I am confident that we’ll get the help.”

Prime Minister Imran Khan, Fawad Chaudhry and DG ISPR Babar Iftikhar present the first prize to Yawar Shah
Prime Minister Imran Khan, Fawad Chaudhry and DG ISPR Babar Iftikhar present the first prize to Yawar Shah

As a producer, someone who has approved several of Pakistan’s biggest productions for TV and Film, one was curious as to why inspirational and uplifting content wasn’t being made independently. Why did dramas revolve around abused and oppressed women and overall regression?

“Channels are open to inspirational stories but they also want stories and dramas to be relatable so they get the viewership,” he responded. “Stories running on air right now are relatable and yes, they do revolve around women and their conspiracies but they are stories which the audience wants to watch. But we are looking to make inspirational dramas too. We are producing the upcoming Sinf e Ahan, which is an inspirational story about five young girls. This idea came from the ISPR, they were making a documentary and we suggested we make a serial instead. It wouldn’t have been possible without the ISPR as we will be showing the PMA for women, the journey of female cadets etc. This will definitely be motivational work.

The mission to fix Pakistan’s global image, brand and perception (while avoiding the word ‘softer image’) is a positive and welcome one. There are, unarguably, countless stories of champions, heroes, people, places and philanthropy that go untold because content creators have been besotted with reporting the underbelly, which just as unarguably, exists in abundance. The solution and way forward, one would think and hope, would be to facilitate fresh content but also allow the opposing stories an audience. One would pledge for content creation but not content control. Where shorts like Deedawar, Nageenay, Pathani, Magic Hands, Safarnama, The Road Army and Kaptaan are welcome watches, one would also want to watch the Zindagi Tamashas and Dhoop Ki Deewars in the process.

(All award winning short films are available to watch on the official NASFF YouTube channel)

Repurposing Perceptions