Urwa Zubair Talks About How Pakistani Filmmaking Needs to Change [Exclusive]

A serious rethink is in order.

Urwa Zubair's silver chord

The Pakistani entertainment industry has always been the subject of a lot of debate. It’s lack of diversity and often problematic narratives which are portrayed over and over again has garnered criticism from many who which to see more from our media. But there are some shining stars that are making way from a new kind of content to come from our own filmmakers. Meet Urwa Zubair, a Pakistani filmmaker who has worked on several award-winning short films. Her goal with her films is to showcase the diversity and representation that is still lacking in so many ways.

Urwa Zubair has worked on internationally acclaimed short films such as Panaah, which you can find on her Youtube Channel.

She shared her journey and inspirations with us, along with her hopes for a better future.

Q: How did you get started in filmmaking?

Urwa Zubair: I debated back and forth between film school and air school. My first love was and will always be cinema. Essentially, I think they both point towards an escape of some sort. A way you can defy time zones, the traditional formulas the society and the world has set for its inhabitants, it’s a chance to explore, create, build and control your own form of reality and the world. I’m a very curious person by nature and I think my love for filmmaking and even flying/traveling to different lands is fueled by the desire to witness lifetimes and stories of people across the globe. I feel cinema has the ability to bring different parts of the world together, by bringing forth stories and diverse experiences from all over the world.

As a young adult when I was finishing up high school, I constantly found myself making up stories in my head and moreover connecting with people, both from Pakistan and beyond, over their experiences, childhood stories and cultures. Moreover, I grew up watching movies with my family. My dad would take us to cinema when I was little girl, at the time cinemas were not necessarily established and weren’t considered a ‘family’ space of sorts by the masses. I think all these factors must have contributed somehow in steering me towards filmmaking but the biggest factor I’ve come to realize is that I always wanted to be surrounded by stories, learn others’ and tell of my own. So essentially, I think before calling myself a filmmaker, I’ll refer to myself as a storyteller.

Q: What was it like growing up in a military family and moving around so much?

UZ: I grew up in a Navy family. My father was in Navy until I finished high school. I don’t have anything else to compare it to but I don’t think I could have asked for any better environment to be raised in. I think military kids grow up sheltered and protected to a certain extent, for which I have to acknowledge our privilege but we’re also raised with a sense of discipline which goes above and beyond in all walks of life. Moving around has been another blessing. I was about 12 when we moved to the US for a year and a half and that visit took me out of my tunnel vision and broadened my perspective and knowledge over the different kind of cultures, societies, religions, ethnicities, languages and cuisines that exist outside of our own. Even basic ethics and manners differ. For instance, in most Western European countries and a few Eastern European countries like Russia, and Turkey – it is considered ‘rude’ if the man does not first fill the water for the women and serve/fill the plates with food for women on the table. On the contrary, women mostly serve men first in our culture.

All in all, this nomadic lifestyle not only taught me the worth of simple things in life and understanding to work with individuals of different ethnicities and cultures but broadened my horizons of curiosity – the norm to not just accept what is passed on to me by my ancestors but branch out and explore/curate/ think/discover on my own and form my own opinions even if they differ from the masses of my society – and this has been perhaps the most significant factor in how I approach my filmmaking or storytelling.


Pakistani Filmmaker Becomes Part of Jury of Association of International Broadcasting Awards 2020

Q: What are your favourite movies? What has inspired you?

UZ: That’s a question you can probably never get a straight answer of out of any filmmaker. It ranges from time to time, just like how we, our personalities and choices change on a daily basis, what’s attracting or impacting you changes as well. Some of the most memorable pieces from an art film point of view have been the works of Asghar Farhadi, Iranian film director. His films ‘A Separation’ and ‘About Elly’ were the first pieces that opened my eyes towards international cinema and branch out other than the usual Hollywood commercial films. I’m obsessed with Alejandro Innaritu – his film ‘Babel’ is amongst my favorites. In the most recent times and being away from home, I’ve really liked films like ‘What will People Say’ which is a Norwegian-Pakistani film and ‘Mustang’ which is a French-Turkish film or ‘Ramy’ which is an Egyptian-American TV show. It’s produced in the US but is committed to Muslim representation and exploring your Muslim identity in a western culture that, as we all know is now no longer just limited to the western countries.

In a typical commercial setting, ‘Silence of the Lambs’ is the first film that caught my attention as a young adult. Films like ‘Inception’ and ‘Interstellar’ have been a thrill, perhaps not as much from a story point of view but more from the visual and production practices point of view.

Q: Did you ever face backlash for choosing a more unconventional field

UZ: I have to acknowledge that I have been privileged enough to have the support and encouragement from my family and friends to do what I want to do and love. There is a certain sense of privilege involved to be able to do what you ‘love’ and not what you ‘need’ when you have responsibilities attached.

Q: In 2018, you took part in a PakIndia film series. Recently cultural exchange has been declining due to the political tensions between the two countries. What are your thoughts on sharing art and culture and why is it important

UZ: I think art is or at least should be free from politics and geographical boundaries. I see art as an entity that approaches and educates masses on a global scale, not bound between territories.

When we think of films, we mostly think of the commercial mainstream blockbuster films because that’s what Hollywood has accustomed us to but recently, we have discovered the richness of art and indie films. For the sake of my argument, I’ll say, can you imagine a world where you did not have access to blockbuster figures like the world of Marvel or Mission Impossible or that was something reserved for only the inhabitants of the US?

In the same way, how can you imagine a world where the indie art films from across the globe that educate you of the language, traditions, cultures, issues or norms of a particular society? We would be blind and have absolutely no knowledge of what goes on beyond our own society.

Curiosity is an inevitable trait of human beings – we are so concerned over what’s happening in the house next to ours – how can we be not curious about what happens in the countries/continents/races next to ours?

I’ve gained perspective about a few countries or cultures that I have not had the pleasure to visit through films and I certainly can’t imagine my life without the privilege of being able to connect on a global scale through cinema. What you have turned to in the middle of a pandemic is art. Can you survive just eating Pakistani/desi cuisine and nothing else for the rest of your life? You surely can – would you want to? Perhaps no! Similarly, can you survive with just content that’s created within your own boundaries, certainly! Should you be forced or restricted to just what’s created within your borders? Absolutely not!

Behind the scenes of Silver Cord

Q: How do you feel filmmaking can contribute to changing narratives and educating mindsets?

UZ: I think the answer above gives a decent insight into this question. Most of our beliefs in life are formed by the societal conditioning in our early years of aging. We’re privileged that our education is no longer restricted to just classrooms and our source of knowledge is no longer restricted to one society, country or culture. With a click of a button, we’re able to expand our bandwidth and can be in Iran or Turkey or France on an illusionary level. Our education doesn’t have to be limited to just ‘seeing’ the beautiful natural or man made landscapes a particular country has to offer. Works or Mira Nair, Innaritu, Deniz Erguven, Iram Haq, Asghar Farhadi, or Nuri Ceylan have taught me the issues, conflicts and problems these particular societies/countries are facing as well as the beautiful customs, norms and traditions of these societies.

You mentioned on your website that diversity is important to you in your work. How do you make sure you depict it accurately?

I think a key element of humanism is to forget branding ourselves into categories of muslims or non- muslims, Eastern or Western, Shia or Sunni. When you think of others as you think of yourself, when you treat others as you would like to be treated, when you create for others as you create for yourself – you automatically invite and create the dynamics of understanding and acceptance.

There’s no denying that you attract the kind of energy you put out in the world. If I stop branding or tagging others on basis of their race, color, religion, cast or ethnicity and just see them as what I am, a human being – you’re looking at personnel working in your film (to appear on screen) and working on your film (as crew) to be free of gender, age, color and ethnicity.

Mira Nair’s ‘Missispi Masala’ was refused funding by major studios back int he 90’s because of her refusal to be limited to casting ‘only’ a white lead. Her stance remained firm to be inclusive of color and race. The piece turned out to be unconventional specially in the 90’s (love story between an African American and Indian to put in labels). There was no ‘demand’ for something like this and it attracted massive talent like Denzel Washington. If it wasn’t for her ability to free her mind from the concepts of demand and commercialism and more importantly the labels we have restricted ourselves with, this astounding piece wouldn’t exist in the world.

Q: Silver Cord looks quite interesting. Can you tell us a little about what the film is about?

UZ: Silver Cord is a drama-fantasy piece that revolves around a woman named Maya who copes with the loss of her father through her own near death experience where she transcends into an underwater state of afterlife.

The film’s ideology originates from the concept of the cord called Silver Cord that connects our body and soul. When our soul leaves our body, this cord remains intact between the two. If the cord breaks, the near death experience becomes irreversible and results in permanent death but in many cases, the cord pulls back the soul into the body which is what we term as near death experience.

You must have heard of uncountable experiences where people say they saw a blinding light or say ‘Jesus’ or ‘Bhagwan’ or some form of God or in some cases, their loved one – of course what everyone sees is different and is based on what they were conditioned to believe in growing up. Maya’s underwater state of afterlife is based on her fondest memory with her father a little girl – learning how to swim.

Essentially, this piece is meant to be a thought experiment that explores not what happens after death, but what happens in our lifetimes that we need to hold onto in our lifetimes.

Urwa Zubair Silver Cord

Q: What can audiences hope to see from you next?

UZ: In the works right now is a feature film titled ‘Bani’ that attempts to create understanding and reduce conflict between the genders and generation gap. It’s a coming of age comedy-drama that revolves around a trio of sisters, suppressed by the conservative society but they somehow find a way to defy each restriction. Their longing for freedom and joy is filled at the cost of their childhood being stripped off and being forced to grow up and face reality at a very young age.

Essentially we’re trying to create a feeling of respect and unison by creating understanding between different perspectives. There’s a big divide between generation gaps and genders in the Middle Eastern & South Asian masses. This can be in the form of the pressure our boys take on in the name of taking responsibility of the household, I’ve personally seen many men give up on their passions just to be able to follow the traditional route of a ‘respectable job’ that runs the house. In addition, this divide can be the pressure women feel of being a certain way or not being a certain way to adhere/escape what a woman ‘should’ be in South Asian culture. And at the same time, this can be the insight behind why the generation before us has inflicted certain types of beliefs on the boys and girls of our generation. In my experience, I’ve seen even the most horrific kinds of beliefs stem out of care and fear.

The film ‘Bani’ takes a similar approach. The aim is not to just pinpoint a certain issue or subject matter like suppression or inequality or discrimination, it is to explore why these exist or why people believe/feel the way they do in an attempt to understand these particular groups and beliefs a little better. Having this understanding creates a lot more peace & love and a lot less hatred & conflict.

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers in a post Covid-19 world?

UZ: Our motivation can sometimes be swayed by success and validation which means we tend to create based on the formula of ‘mass appeal.’ I understand that’s important for the commercial aspect but if you were just to create for the mass appeal, let’s keep in mind the audience is changing it’s desires and wants at a rapid pace and it takes years to put together a film. In the words of famous David Lynch, if you’re going to create something and put it out and ‘most likely’ risk to go down for it, why not go down for something you were so passionate about, for your beliefs and something you wanted to say to the world rather than risking going down for content that was driven by what might be liked instead of being driven by your unique voice and story.

We’re living in a very interesting time – Need for diversity and representation specially of South Asian culture has never been this grave. We have series like ‘Rami’ on HBO or films like ‘The Big Sick’ that are exploring muslim identity and representation. Why are we deriving away from it? We can’t make an excuse and say it’s not in demand or what is liked to be seen – there has never been a bigger demand than now. Let’s remember that our identity is unique and a strength and refrain from borrowing that’s not our own!

It’s so motivating to