Filmmakers in Pakistan struggle for space and recognition


With its rich history and diverse cultural landscape, Pakistan has an abundance of stories. But a lack of opportunities and a shrinking local market are driving non-commercial content creators to the brink.

Every now and then Omer Nafees finds a suitable spot in old Lahore to sip a cup of tea and observe life in all its colors. This part of the city, also referred to as the Walled City, forms the historic core of Pakistan’s cultural center.

Once the Mughal Empire’s capital, Lahore has changed over the years, but the old city still reflects its glorious past. Nafees spent his younger years there among stories and storytellers. Therefore, it is no surprise that most of his films are based on or around life in these parts.

“In the old part of the city, every person is a story; every street, every corner, every turn has a story,” Nafees, who grew up in Lahore, tells DW, adding, “a filmmaker cannot ask for anything more.”

A student of the prestigious National College of Arts in Lahore, Nafees belongs to the younger generation of filmmakers in Pakistan. He likes making non-commercial documentary films, a genre that has attracted many young Pakistanis but is largely ignored by the masses.

No country for filmmakers

Documentaries have been gathering more attention since 2012 when filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy won an Oscar for her film Saving Face about acid attack victims in Pakistan and in 2016 for A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness about honor killings. Despite the success, documentary-filmmaking is still financially unviable.

For the most part of the last two decades, Pakistan has seen double-digit growth in spending on advertisements. Television, newspapers, and digital platforms have been the main beneficiaries, but none of this has trickled down to non-commercial content creators.

“Original or non-commercial content doesn’t really stand a chance in the Pakistani market,” according to Abdul Basit, a filmmaker, and YouTuber from the capital, Islamabad. Television commercials, serials, and soaps are successful in Pakistan, but nobody wants to embrace documentaries, he adds.

“What happens is, you study filmmaking and dream of being a phenomenal storyteller, but the reality is otherwise,” Ahmer Saleem, a young entrepreneur, tells DW. “I walked the path and within a year after graduating, decided to go into commercials because that’s where the money is,” he says, arguing that wanting to tell stories is one thing, but non-commercial content creators also have to earn their bread and butter.

“Unfortunately, there are no platforms for showcasing documentaries,” according to broadcast journalist and media trainer Imran Shirvanee. According to him, “Television is not a medium for documentaries, unless they are serialized [broken up into episodes]. And a serialized documentary would require a lot of funding; something that TV channels in Pakistan cannot afford.”

Pakistani society is still far from recognizing the talent and importance of filmmakers. “This is a country that does not even believe in authors. In that aspect, we are still a poor country,” Shirvanee laments.

Baby steps

On the other hand, commercial cinema in Pakistan cannot be put in the same category as its non-commercial counterpart. Pakistani filmmaker Mushtaq Gazdar’s book titled Pakistan Cinema 1947 – 1997 is widely considered the most accurate work on the history of commercial cinema in the country.

In his book, Gazdar points out that Pakistani cinema underwent a transformation from 1957 to 1966. The next decade was the ‘decade of change,’ followed by ‘the decade of decadence’ following increased state control. The author categorized the last of the five decades, i.e. 1987 to 1997, as the decade of revivalism in commercial cinema, which coincided with the revival of democracy in the country as well.

It was also during the 1990s that Pakistan became a huge market for Indian entertainment content; thanks to the rapidly developed cable distribution network.

Since then, it has been a mixed trend. Shoaib Mansoor’s blockbuster Khuda Kay Liye (For the sake of god), released in 2007, promised to revive the market but did not have the effect that people expected.

The last ten years have seen some success with private channels financing films, but the industry is still in a state of infancy. The net worth of Pakistani cinema is estimated at over PKR (Pakistani Rupees) 1.32 billion ($8,225,037) compared to India’s 183 billion Rupees ($2,475,893,742).

Films in the digital age

In the last two decades, a rapidly developing electronic media industry seemed to create opportunities for filmmakers to showcase their work. There were over 76.38 million internet users in Pakistan in January 2020.

Over 37 million of these are active on social media. Platforms like Facebook, Youtube, and Instagram are picking up really fast. Unfortunately, advertisements and market pressure often dictate what content goes online.

“The number of views on a video determines whether it’s a hit or a flop. Someone who has studied filmmaking is put into the same category as someone who is utilizing technology without any understanding or experience of filmmaking” filmmaker Omer Nafees says.

But other filmmakers see the new digital sphere as an opportunity. Filmmaker-turned-Youtuber Abdul Basit believes that social media platforms are crucial for content producers so that they can showcase their work, especially in the absence of film festivals.

However, this too has its challenges in a country like Pakistan, according to Basit. “Censorship, government control, irregular policies, the threat of a ban on Youtube, and prohibitions on websites are hurting us.”

Source-, 7 December 2020.


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