"Haya is always on the go,” says her mother as she keeps us company while we wait for Haya at her abode. Co-producer of the Oscar winning documentary A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, Haya Fatima Iqbal is a documentary film-maker and producer who likes to tell “stories of people and places all over the world, especially in Pakistan.”
Haya grew up watching war reportage and hence her interest in journalism. “When I was in Saudi Arabia, I remember watching lots of war coverage at the time of the Gulf war and I found it very fascinating that people go to different parts of the world and risk their lives while telling stories. I thought that was a very interesting thing to do.” She goes on about other events that sparked her interest in world events. “I never got bored of all of this. Many of my friends have stopped following news because they say it is too depressing. Yes, it is depressing but you need to know what all is happening and what all is wrong so you know what needs to be fixed,” she says with an unwavering determination.
It was in high school that she decided she didn’t want to do a desk job. “I wanted to be out and meeting people.” She joined University of Karachi and started contributing to different publications as an undergraduate student. “By the end of my degree, I realised I was more inclined towards doing something in electronic media.” After graduation, she went to the New York University, where she was a Fulbright scholar studying News & Documentary. That is when her directorial debut City of Parties, a documentary film on ethno-political violence in Karachi, came into being. The film went on to receive Special Award for Documentary at the World Extreme Film Festival.
With her interest in local stories, she returned to Pakistan in 2012 and started working with the award winning documentary film-maker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. “When I came back from the US and joined her team that was the time she had just won her first Oscar, so everyone wanted to get their films made by her. There was a sudden influx of work and fortunately a lot of it required travelling to different parts of Pakistan. I travelled a lot and met a lot of people during that time and learned a lot from the people I was working with,” Haya talks about one of the best learning experiences of her life.
With 15 films under her belt, Haya masters the art of storytelling and follows anything that tugs at her heart. “I value the fact that real people have real stories to tell. I am generally interested in their life – it doesn’t have to be a particular issue,” she says. With so many untold stories out there, her focus is on the stories of different cities in Pakistan. “The more I travel in Pakistan, I realise that people are much more different from each other,” she talks about her interest in local lives.
Why not fiction films? I ask. “In fiction films you can tell stories through actors who may be able to act very well but they haven’t really gone through all of that in real life. In documentaries, you get into the lives of people who are not trained for the camera, they are not trained to say things a certain way. They will say and do things as they know it and that’s where the beauty lies. In documentaries, you just take the camera and show the life as it unravels in front of your eyes,” she averred.
Living in a conservative society, there are all kinds of social pressures that one has to deal with while making a film that might hurt the sentiments of a certain kind of people. “There are obviously pressures when it comes to telling real stories. There are some issues that people are ready to talk about and then there are issues they won’t talk about in front of the camera because that might endanger their lives. With each step you take, as a film-maker, you need to consider ‘will it tell a story more than it will endanger the lives of the people in the film and the film-maker?’” she opens up about the risks attached to the field.
Talking about the challenges one faces as a documentary film-maker, she says, “You need to create a bond with people. You have to go in their lives and convince them to trust you and tell you their stories.” Haya believes the skill of a film-maker lies in the way they communicate with people. “It’s not like you can shove a camera into their faces and say ‘bataein aap humein’ – it’s not TV reporting. You have to spend months and years with people and once they trust you, they will talk to you about anything in the world otherwise they won’t even talk about a seemingly innocuous topic.”
While working on real life issues with real people, film-makers often get close to their subject and their stories. “It happens very often. Whichever documentary you are working on, it becomes a very important part of your life. You start caring about that cause a lot. There are times when you get sad and worried about those things. You can’t sleep at night because you are thinking about a certain person or their problems,” she confesses. However, she also emphasises on the need to be professional while filming a story. “I won’t call it distance because it sounds like a very conscious effort to stay away from people but you need to make sure that you don’t get too involved and so close that you can’t see the other side of the picture and lose objectivity and balance of your thought,” says the woman who spends most of her time with the characters of her films.
Documentary films are still in its infant years in Pakistan. According to a popular belief, there is a very limited audience for such content in the country and therefore they are not aired on TV anymore. “There needs to be time slots on news channels for documentaries. They were there 10 years ago and now they are gone.” Is lack of interest on the part of the audience a reason? I enquire. “It will be a little unfair to say that there are no slots for documentaries because people don’t like them. People do like them, they used to like them even back then but they have been removed because documentaries cost more money and time to make as compared to the production time and cost of a talk show,” she retorts.
To create awareness about this genre of films, the 30-year-old film-maker believes, “we need to make more documentaries and develop an audience for it at the same time. When you screen more films and show them in public spaces, there is definitely going to be a higher interest.”
Haya is already trying to bring about this change. “I, along with some friends, have recently started a new project called Documentary Association of Pakistan (DAP) and we have had several screenings of three documentary films in different parts of the country. While the events were small, the feedback has been amazing. So there is a demand for these films,” she asserts.
Another major obstacle in making documentaries is the absence of local organisations that could fund local film-makers to make films for and about local people. “There should be a local organisation that funds documentaries because they would know what is the importance of all the untold stories that don’t see the light of day in western countries because they are not relevant to them,” she opines.
When I asked her how she spends her day when she is not working, she echoed the same sentiments as her mother, “I am always working.” With an aim to “make films that enable people to think and analyse more,” Haya is en route to change the world of documentaries in Pakistan and we wish this young lass all the success in her journey.
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