It would be tempting to think there couldn’t be anything more compelling than the making of “Dukhtar (Daughter),” the first feature from writer/director Afia Nathaniel. Presiding over a two-month production with a crew of 40 in conflict zones in her native Pakistan, Nathaniel was constantly bombarded with threats of inclement weather and the other kinds of storms that gather when you’re a rare female filmmaker in a culture still dominated by men. But that would be discounting the nailbiter Nathaniel actually made, the struggle to realize it both during its 10-year gestation period and the grueling physical production in sub-freezing temperatures evident only in the transcendent passion the filmmaker brings to bear on the story of a mother who learns her daughter has been promised as a child bride to the tribal leader to satisfy a blood feud, yet attempts to flee the region with the help of a truck driver reluctant to carry such dangerous cargo.
Their travels on the world’s highest-altitude roads are filled with only slightly more twists and turns than Nathaniel’s own trek to becoming a director. After spending her youth hopping between a middle-class life in the urban center of Lahore, where the fear of being kidnapped was always a real possibility, and an Air Force base, where ironically she could be free to roam in sequestration, Nathaniel pursued computer science, unaware filmmaking was a possibility until making her way to Columbia University in New York. Since then, she has accomplished plenty, setting up a production company in Pakistan to support filmmakers in the country, but her own film has had to wait, requiring the patience to mount a production that required pinpoint precision in scheduling and investors willing to back filmmakers who would have to brave landslides, threatened fatwas and inexperienced crews.
Still, the results are thrilling, with riveting chase sequences on foot and by truck amidst a tender story from a largely unseen part of the world. Shortly before “Dukhtar” premieres at the Toronto Film Festival, Nathaniel reflected on the crazy shoot, and how her own daughter carried her through it, as well as the ornate ornamentation of Pakistani trucks, working in a burgeoning film industry and showing a side of Pakistan that even most in the country haven’t seen before.
I recently spoke to Cherien Dabis, who I noticed was in the special thanks section, and she described how difficult it was to shoot in Jordan because of how new a process filmmaking is to the people there. Did you find a similar situation in Pakistan?
For sure. The Pakistani industry is not really known for its cinema because it does not really exist. We used to have a really grand tradition in film way back in the ’60s and the ’70s, but after the army took over the country [and imposed martial law], our cinemas just died. The ’80s and the ’90s was really death of independent cinema in Pakistan. Only now as we speak, there’s this resurgence and it’s a very exciting time to be making films in Pakistan because we’re working in an industry that is being built from the ground up. There are challenges, but there’s also very exciting opportunities because you get to set your own rules as you go.
Even though our cast and crew were working on their first feature, they were a very well-seasoned crew — [some had] worked in the advertising sector. But it was their very first time being on the road for two months on a feature — in the middle of mid-winter in an area that had bomb blasts happening. We were working in a very difficult region that’s controlled by the Pakistani army, a disputed area of Kashmir, which has been a contentious source of dispute between India and Pakistan for a while. For us, the challenges were tenfold compared to other countries because not only are we working in an industry when things are being built from scratch where there’s no institutional support, but there’s not that much of technical know-how. Still, there’s a lot of passion to do something new and different and take a risk and that all worked out for us.
And it’s a region that hasn’t really been captured on film before, right?
No, it hasn’t. Sometimes, you get a foreign crew coming in to do something like a National Geographic piece in the area, but there’s never been a local crew that’s gone there to make a feature film. We shot chase scenes on these desolate highways at 8,000 feet above sea level and it was really very ballsy for the actors doing all the stunts themselves.
And for you as well. The chase scenes are impressive, especially the ones on foot. In those scenes where you’re running down some very narrow corridors with rocks jutting out of the walls, did you break any cameras?
We actually had a makeshift little steadicam and the [director of photography] held it. It wasn’t really a steadicam, it was just something like a monopod that he ran with and I was right behind him. [In the scene you describe] it’s literally two takes that we then edited together. The production value was great but with very modest equipment. We had two brand new Canon Mark III cameras, and they performed really well for us because we needed to be mobile and go guerrilla style in certain areas. We had to be extremely well-prepared for the weather and this camera really withstood a lot of extreme temperature and extreme handling.
For an American such as myself, the truck the characters ride around in seems crazy since it’s so ornately decorated. Did it bring the production a lot of attention while shooting it?
That’s actually a very typical cargo truck in Pakistan. What happens is that every driver owns a truck like that and he very lovingly has it hand-painted and customized according to his love for poetry, his love for songs, on literature or just images that he wants on the truck. Literally, the drivers refer to their trucks as their brides. They’re on the road for months and months and months and for them this vehicle is more important that their life. They take good care of it.
During the [pre-production] phase, I saw this particular truck when my production manager was marking some of these trucks that could be interesting. When we saw this together with the tiger at the back and this crazy poetry on it, we said, “Alright, this truck belongs to our film, the truck driver and the film.” Every truck has its own personal story, so when we took this truck, the driver who actually accompanied us throughout the journey and he was fantastic, though he had never driven this far.
For us, the truck [posed] a logistics problem because it moved so slowly compared to the rest of the vehicles. In terms of planning, we had to make sure this truck, wherever it was at any location, needed to arrive at least four days ahead of us, so it was more of a logistics nightmare than a security problem. Going back and forth across this vast distances without cell phones, that was the bigger challenge. How do you communicate with your crew when you’re all out there in different directions? But it was a beautiful experience and the truck driver was like, “I’ve seen so many places now because of this film. I’m coming back here with my family.”
You’re able to tell a lot of the story with shadows and the way you use light. Was there a particular scheme you had in place as far as that was concerned?
For me, the staging and the action informs the composition within that. I want to be able to tell the story within the shot. In terms of the landscapes and the eventual places that we shot in, it was very important how this landscape or how this particular setting becomes almost like a character in the film, a part of the frame. That’s why I chose the settings that I did because they were a very integral part of that moment of that visual that was required for the emotion that was needed. It all came together very organically once we found our main locations. For a road trip film, you have to really be open to the elements. You never know when the sun is going to go out, the cloud is going to come in or when it starts raining or snowing. We were really mindful of how the light was moving, how our days were shifting and the seasons were changing within the filming itself and to stop that shift of light as much as we could.
You’ve said this film took 10 years before it went into production. Did the meaning of the story that you are telling change for you as a filmmaker during that time?
It became even more personal as the years went by because I became a mother myself. I have a seven-year-old daughter and this issue of child marriage became even more important for me because I really cannot imagine the life and innocence of a girl being taken away from her so early. The urgency to tell the story and to make it meaningful took on a newer dimension for me, so that’s why I never gave up. It’s my daughter. She kept me grounded. She kept me focused on the story.
You’ve also said that you come from a family of strong women, which I wondered if it informed some of those early conversations in the film where the female characters depend upon each other to educate themselves.
Yes. I come from a family of women who teach in school —English, math, history — and the tradition of education was very strong and very, very important for us in our family, especially for the girls. I had very fond memories of my grandmother teaching us. It was a very strict house. Back home, you have to get good grades. That’s how South Asians are. It’s a very strict environment when it comes to studies.
The scene in the film where this mother who yearns to learn what her daughter learns was a very organic scene because I saw this yearning in my research when I went to see a lot of these women in tribal settings. They had a good idea of current affairs, but there was always this yearning to learn more. The children were going out to school, but [the mothers] were illiterate and they used to watch a lot of TV. They spoke really well and that scene [spoke to] how important education is for mothers and daughters and women for a healthy life.
There was another scene that’s not in the film, but it was in the script, in which a mother invites some friends to watch a very popular local soap drama and that’s how these women learned the language Urdu and about cultures and countries other than their own. They’ll even watch English language content without understanding English because they want to know, they want to learn and they’re curious. Unfortunately, there was no time [to shoot that scene], but that yearning to know more is a very important part of the women in household.
You’re still able to get the idea into the one you have since it’s a brilliant role-reversal seeing the mother ask to watch TV while the daughter insists on seeing the lesson through. It’s a wonderful scene. Let me ask, is it exciting to be letting go of this film you’ve worked on for such a long time?
It is. It’s like watching your child learn how to walk and you look forward to that moment where they take a step forward and they can hold out on their own. Once a film is released, it really belongs to the audience and then it’s theirs forever. I’m really looking forward to seeing that moment where this film is out there and audiences are going to watch it.
You know the average Pakistani has not seen these places [either], as you were saying earlier. It has not been experienced. Back home, everybody’s really excited about this road trip film and the ability of cinema to transport you to places. It’s something very new in our country, this kind of cinema where it can blend realism with entertainment as well and give audiences something new, beyond than the regular song and dance routine that Bollywood offers them. It’s something very different.
“Dukhtar (Daughter)” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 5 at the Scotiabank 13 at 7 pm, Sept. 6 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema at 3:45 pm, and Sept. 13 at the Scotiabank 4 at 3:30 pm.