The late Japanese auteur, Akira Kurosawa has said that “there is nothing that says more about its creator than the work itself”. This is especially true of the winners of the annual Dawn.com and Deutsche Welles’ ‘It Happens Only In Pakistan’ short film competition.
The top prize-winning entries — Waahi, Seven Vertical Miles, Unbound Breath, and Saf-e-Awal over the past four years — give us a peek into the lives of the Pakistanis one would otherwise miss at first glance: the everyday heroes that are nestled away in the golden fields of Punjab, the pitch-black mines of Balochistan and the ashen corridors of hospitals.
As remarkable a story each of these films tell, the architects behind them are no less incredible, whether due to their sheer determination to make a mark, their unbowed spirit looking to give voice to their people, their never-say-die attitude seeking to inspire, or in the unassuming manner they brought to life their childhood dreams.
As the competition enters its fifth year, Dawn.com spoke with these champions to find out what they’ve been up to since they took top honours in the competition.
Arsalan Majid, along with Haris Sehgal and Ghulam Abbas, tenderly crafted Waahi, the story of Iqbal Mai, a woman who becomes a farmer in deeply patriarchal Pakistan, shattering gender stereotypes in the process.
Winning first prize was a “game-changer” for the Karachi native and his production company AWB. “Before winning the competition, we were just a bunch of film enthusiasts who fooled around with a pretty basic DSLR camera,” he tells Dawn.com. “We knew that, eventually, we do want to work on feature films but didn’t know how or where to get started.”
But Arsalan, who always wanted to be a filmmaker since he could remember, took the leap and submitted his film to the competition.
Deftly shot in warm earthy hues with a Panasonic GH5 and a DJI Mavic Pro, Waahi is a moving portrayal of a woman’s maternal devotion to her family and her crops in the rural Punjabi heartland.
“The love and respect we got from people all over the world after winning the competition opened a lot of doors for us,” Arsalan says.
Waahi was also selected in several film festivals all over the world, including the American Documentary Film Festival in Palm Springs in 2019. That same year, it won first prize at the Frames Film Festival in Mumbai.
Arsalan and his team were also embraced by the Pakistani industry. “That led to several projects down the road,” he says. “We ended up making several documentaries and commercials for clients all over Pakistan,” he adds. Among those clients were the likes of Aga Khan University and SIUT.
They also ended up working with Jami, from Azad Films, who he describes as “arguably one of the best filmmakers in Pakistan”. Jami was one of the judges for ‘It Happens Only In Pakistan’. “None of it would have been possible if Dawn and DW hadn’t provided us with a platform to showcase our work.”
Arsalan’s passion for filmmaking is clearly evident, as he talks with an almost child-like enthusiasm about a project that took him to extreme terrain and sub-zero temperatures.
For the past two years, he’s been shooting his first full-length feature film called Beyond the Wetlands, which he says is the first Pakistani film based on Pakistan’s high-altitude mountaineering community.
“We shot the film in the K2 region where the temperature was -30 degrees Celsius,” he says. “This is the first time in the world that a film crew shot a feature film in its entirety near K2 and we were lucky enough to cast real-life mountaineers who have summitted all the highest peaks of Pakistan,” he adds. Post-production on the film is nearly complete.
Even though Beyond the Wetlands has yet to release, Arsalan and his team have already begun chipping away at their second feature — a science fiction film. “All I can say at this point is that it will be based on space travel and will explore themes of life outside Earth.”
And what became of Iqbal Mai? “We check up on her from time to time; she’s doing well Alhamdulillah. She has become a local celebrity in her village since Waahi came out and spends her time between her farming business and empowering young women, teaching them about the dos and don’ts of wheat crop farming.”
The theme of the second competition was ‘Our Diverse Pakistan’, a celebration of the country’s diversity. That year, the top prize went to Ali Haider’s Seven Vertical Miles, a riveting story of a hardy band of ethnic Hazara men who work in an often deadly trade: coal mining in Balochistan. The men face not just the occupational hazard of working thousands of feet underground, but also of getting killed by militants for merely existing.
It’s impossible to look away from the claustrophobia-inducing imagery as a beaming Agha Ewaz, with a coal-stained face, narrates a day in the life of a miner while descending miles deep into the pitch-black mineshafts. “When we used to leave home for work, we would say goodbye to our families as if they were our final goodbyes,” Ewaz says in a particularly poignant moment in the film.
The film’s theme is very close to Ali Haider’s heart. Ali, an ethnic Hazara, was drawn to filmmaking because he wanted to tell the stories of his persecuted people. He has seen death up close, narrowly surviving a bomb blast in Quetta in 2010. “I had major injuries,” he tells Dawn.com. “In that blast, I lost my father and a cousin.”
But he is as resilient as he is resolute. “Getting the voice of my community out to a global audience is important to me,” he says, before going on to describe how monumental winning was for him. “It changed my life.”
“It was my first short film and winning first prize on a national level was very important for me. The festival was very exciting and it was a great motivation for me.”
Since winning the Dawn-DW accolade, Ali says he drew motivation from the well of comments underneath his videos. “There was a tremendously positive response from the audience. The fact that Dawn used its platform for my film led to so many people seeing it on social media. I would read the comments below the video, which were very motivating.”
He said the win also led to other filmmakers from across the country reaching out to him, including those from Balochistan, whose praise he cherishes. But the one thing that stays with him the most is the reactions to the film that came in the wake of the killings of Hazara coal miners in January 2021.
“After that incident, many people started sharing my film on social media and reached out to me, saying they hadn’t realised the conditions in which the miners worked [until they watched Seven Vertical Miles].”
Ali has kept busy since. “Recently, I worked on a cross-border collaborative project by Indian and Pakistani filmmakers — ‘Seeds of Peace’ which was funded by the US consulate general in Karachi.”
His documentary, called ‘Small Time Cinema’, was an official selection in the Orlando Film Festival this year, where it scored two nominations. It was just last month that he went to Orlando, Florida, to attend the festival.
That’s not all. “I’m currently working as a cinematographer on a feature-length documentary film, which is being helmed by an Iranian director,” he says, adding that he’s also working on an experimental short film.
Ali also dedicates his time to a deeply personal project. “I’m working on my first feature documentary which is based on my personal story,” he says.
The year 2020 was the year the blunt sword of the coronavirus fell on the world, cleaving apart families and friends with crude social distancing protocols. The safety measures that followed were reflected in the theme of the year’s competition: ‘Creative Distancing’.
That year, it was Omer Nafees’ Unbound Breath that bagged first prize. The prevailing sense of isolation that the country felt at the time closely mirrored the lonesome journey of Dr Amna Batool, a Covid ward doctor, who refuses to let societal expectations mould her career choices, all the while managing her asthma.
Dr Batool’s tenacity in a way is also the story of Omer Nafees, who won first prize in the ‘It Happens Only in Pakistan’ on his third attempt. “The first time I was an honourable mention, the second time I was a finalist, and the third time I won,” he tells Dawn.com.
“Before winning the prize, I would show my films to a small circle of friends and then stow it away in a hard drive,” says Omer, a graduate in film and television from the prestigious National College of Arts in Lahore.
“After winning the prize, many doctors — women and men — reached out to me to voice their appreciation for the film, which was very motivating [and was evidence] that my voice was being heard.”
He was overjoyed to learn that people related to the film. “They said that this was very much their story and the film discussed the very problems they were facing, and that they hadn’t seen anything like it. The fact that I was relating to people through my work was very motivational.”
Omer, an avid reader since childhood, says he didn’t really watch many films and instead dove into the tales of Umro Ayyar, Aladdin, and digests like Nonehaal and Taleem-o-Tarbiyat “which really strengthened my ability to imagine and visualise things”.
He channelled that visualisation into conjuring Unbound Breath, which he shot with a Nikon Z6 and a cool, desaturated colour pallette reminiscent of a David Fincher feature.
Omer has his hands full, as he’s currently in Germany pursuing a master’s degree in visual anthropology and documentary practices from the University of Munster.
“I’m also working on a documentary series with DW, called Her, which is about Asian women working for change in Asia,” he says. “I have shot six episodes from Pakistan.”
Moreover, he recently shot a documentary titled My Mother’s Daughter for Oscar-winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and the Scottish Documentary Institute, which was an international hit.
Of late, he has been editing a documentary about blasphemy. “Whatever I work on, whether they are documentaries or films, I want them to be relatable for everyone.
“If even one person is inspired by my documentary or finds an answer for their issues, I believe I have completely succeeded in my goal. And even now the projects I work on are related to real life, [issues] that get easily overlooked.
“I’ve always aspired to tell stories of the challenges people face in their professional life — or personal — in their raw unadulterated form.”
In 2021, two friends from Dera Ismail Khan, Afnan Yousaf and Rehan Zafar, won the ‘It Happens Only in Pakistan’ competition that was themed ‘HOPE (Heroes of Pakistan Edition)’.
Their winning entry Saf-e-Awal — or the frontline — follows the footsteps of Mohammad Ashfaq, a healthcare worker who swabs suspected Covid patients for lab tests. But there’s a not-so-slight wrinkle: he is a cancer survivor with a compromised immune system. Afnan and Rehan’s contemplative depiction of Ashfaq’s courage and selflessness in a lonely and uncertain world won over the jury and audiences alike.
Both Afnan and Rehan are engineers by education but their passion for filmmaking led them to launch their own studio, Capture Crew, which primarily covers weddings and corporate events.
“I have always wanted to be a photographer and I started it as a hobby but eventually I started to get interested in cinematography as well because I always wanted to make films,” Afnan tells Dawn.com. “So yes, you can say it was a childhood dream.”
Even as Afnan busied himself in covering events, he would take time out for what would eventually become a full-blown passion. “I would write and discuss short film ideas that we could work on in the future,” he says.
Storytelling is as much a passion for Rehan. “I have always looked at people as stories and tried to read their lives, struggles, experiences and contributions.”
“And then always wanted to make my audience feel the way I felt about them. How every tiny piece is playing its role to complete the puzzle. The camera has given me the power to live the dream!”
What did winning mean for them? For Afnan, it spurred him to consider filmmaking as a career. “Well, it boosted my confidence and gave me a push to actually pursue filmmaking more seriously,” he says.
When he submitted in the 2021 edition of ‘It Happens Only in Pakistan’, he wasn’t expecting to win. “I wasn’t focused on winning. I was focused on just participating and giving my best,” he says. “But it was a huge surprise and a big moment for me when I got to know that I had won the first prize and it was a really big deal winning this competition.
“This achievement has opened many doors for me because winning this competition has given my profile a boost in a way that now people want to work with me and want to collaborate on different projects.”
For Rehan, the acknowledgment has energised him to “keep working for an even better [world]”. He says things changed “very positively” after winning. “I put the prize money to upgrade the equipment which was long overdue.”
They shot Saf-e-Awal with a Sony a6400 and Canon 6D. “With the prize money I have upgraded the camera to Canon EOS R,” Rehan says. Afnan, meanwhile, adds he has upgraded his post-production system.
Afnan continues running his wedding studio business, and of late is also a media manager in Mivida Pakistan, a housing society in Islamabad. But when it comes to film projects, he has plans. “I have a few scripts in the lineup which I will start shooting soon.”
“I have worked on some commercials for local brands and then I did a short film which I haven’t finalised yet,” he says. “Also, I am working on my bike vlogs.”
Rehan, for his part, says he has decided to go for a series in the same genre as Saf-e-Awal “in which we go and explore the unexplored communities and heroes of our society”. He adds: “It’s been an inspiring journey and so wonderful to learn how amazing our people [are] and how diversified our culture is.”
When asked if they’re still in touch with Ashfaq, Afnan says: “Yes, I’ve been a very good friend of Mr Ashfaq and every now and then we meet for tea and share thoughts.”
Rehan says he, too, is in touch with Ashfaq and “MashaAllah he was so happy when he got the recognition that he deserved.”
In celebration of five years of the competition, Dawn.com and DW are hosting a documentary film festival and awards show on December 11. The event will have filmmaker Sarmad Khoosat for a panel discussion, content creators Patangeer for an interactive session, a live performance by band Khumariyaan and other surprise acts.
Winners of the competition will also be announced at the event for which tickets are available on Ticket Wala. It is being held at District 19 by The Commons Karachi and will kick off from 3pm to 10pm.