Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 26 November 2020

Dukhtar: a rare Pakistani film that explores honour crimes

Afia Nathaniel's Dukhtar (daughter) is a rare chase film that explores honour crimes, tribal courts and a thirst for revenge, following the journey of a mother who runs away with her 10-year-old daughter before the child is forcibly married off to an elderly tribal leader.
A scene from Dukhtar by Pakistani filmmaker Afia Nathaniel. The film is is Pakistan's entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2015 Oscars. Courtesy DIFF
A scene from Dukhtar by Pakistani filmmaker Afia Nathaniel. The film is is Pakistan's entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2015 Oscars. Courtesy DIFF

Following hot on the heels of Iram Parveen Bilal’s Josh: Independence Through Unity comes another exciting Pakistani thriller, a first-time feature from Afia Nathaniel. Dukhtar (daughter) is a rare chase film that explores honour crimes, tribal courts and a thirst for revenge. It follows the journey of a mother who runs away with her 10-year-old daughter before the child is forcibly married off to an elderly tribal leader. The film is Pakistan’s entry in the Academy Award Foreign Language Film category.

Nathaniel, who is 40 and from Quetta, Pakistan, says she was inspired to make the film after hearing a real-life story of a mother from tribal areas who kidnapped her two daughters. Although she heard about the story years ago, she is reluctant to say too much as the mother remains in hiding.

“The real story was very surreal, very different, but the seed for the story was really her courage and her dignity in the face of what happened to her.”

The decision to start with a tribal dispute came about because Asif Khan, who plays the husband in the film, is a well-known Pashtun actor who has first-hand knowledge of tribal courts.

“He has actually sat on a lot of these trials, where these matters of life and death are decided,” says Nathaniel. “It was very organic on our part to create the scene where the father has to reluctantly go for this barter deal with this tribal leader. The actual courts can take days, weeks, or months; we had to distil in into something shorter.”

It was a struggle to get the film onto the screen, with financing being the first barrier to overcome.

“Nobody wanted to invest in Pakistan, least of all the Pakistanis,” says the director. “It was tough. The big problem was that our leads were two unknown actors.”

Watching the film, it’s clear why the director was determined to proceed with her choices. Both actresses – Samiya Mumtaz as the mother and the newcomer Saleha Aref as her daughter – are excellent. Mumtaz, who has worked in television, delivers a performance that mixes fear with stoicism.

The director’s determination was needed, too, when the film finally went into production in 2013 after being kick-started by a grant for Arab films from Norway.

The beautiful landscape that serves as a backdrop to the action, the remote mountainous areas of Gilgit-Baltistan in northern Pakistan, which forms part of the disputed Kashmir region, is not exactly an ideal shooting location.

“I was looking at a lot of areas,” says Nathaniel. “When I saw this landscape I knew it was right. For me the landscape is a very important character in the film, it’s in the frame always. So when I saw the desolate mountains, long, long roads and the village itself, that’s where I thought ‘this is where we should make the film.’”

And then the production issues started.

“It was -30°C, which most of the cast were not used to,” she says. “Every day was a surprise – the sheer logistic challenges presented. How do you avoid landslides on the road? What happens when you’ve just left a place where a bomb went off? Your cellphones are not working so you’re living in a bubble.”

There was even a tribal leader who threatened to raise a fatwa if Nathaniel did not stop filming.

It’s all a long way from her first job as a computer scientist, which gave way to film school in 2001.

“I had always wanted to be a writer, so I went into advertising to become an English copywriter and, made ads for Volvo, Nestle, whatever,” says Nathaniel. “I wanted to tell stories in a visual medium. I applied and won a Dean’s fellowship to go to Columbia in New York and that is where I completed a five-year masters programme on filmmaking.”

Dukhtar screens at Mall of the Emirates 12 on Thursday, December 11, at 9.30pm and at MoE 7 on Friday, December 12, at 5.45pm. For more information, visit www.diff.ae

artslife@thenational.ae

Updated: December 8, 2014 04:00 AM

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