It’s shortly after 9 o’clock on a Monday night and I’m sitting on a couch across from Fazeelat Aslam, the young documentary filmmaker, journalist and co-producer of the Oscar-winning documentary short ‘Saving Face,’ and I have to admit, I couldn’t be more impressed. Astute, incisive and remarkably articulate are just a few adjectives that come to mind as I throw questions at her and she aptly takes them on, enlightening me with cheerful aplomb about her background and achievements in life thus far. Naturally though, it doesn’t take long for the conversation to stir towards the magnum opus that’s had every Pakistani giddy with excitement since the fateful night of February 26—the night of the Oscars.
It was only two short weeks ago that Fazeelat and Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, along with the rest of the ‘Saving Face’ team were in Hollywood living the ultimate Pakistani—no, Global—dream. And while one would assume Fazeelat’s still high on the sweet tang of victory; perhaps taking a break from work and basking in the glory of an Academy Award winning project that she co-produced, they’d be wrong. “I haven’t had a day off since I came back to Pakistan. I’m positively exhausted, but I love my work. It’s all worth it!” She declares, and I believe her, because documentary making is not the kind of work one gets into if they’re not categorically bent on it—Which I can tell she certainly is: the woman eats and breathes work like a bad habit!
And that makes me all the more glad to have caught hold of her for this interview. I can sense she has a lot on her mind as we speak, not the least of which is her flight to Muzaffarabad in Azad Kashmir, where she’s filming a documentary series for Sharmeen Obaid Films, barely ten hours from now…
Getting to know Fazeelat
I understand you’re a very well-traveled soul, with homes at one point or another on four different continents. Tell me a bit about them and all the traveling you did as a child.
I’ve never lived anywhere in my life for more than five years. When my mother was expecting me, my parents were stationed in Zambia in Africa. They had the choice of giving birth to me in either Switzerland or Pakistan and they chose Pakistan. They wanted me to be born here and be a true Pakistani citizen. So, I was born in Lahore, and then we flew back to Zambia immediately after that. We moved to Karachi from the time I was about two and a half years old till I was four and a half. I started going to school during this period, but soon after that my father was transferred to London. When I turned eight, we relocated to Greenwich, Connecticut, where we lived for about six years. I went back to London for high school when I was fourteen. When the time for college came, I flew back to the United States to attend a small arts college just outside of Boston called Wellesly College, where I studied film.
Children who’re forced to move so much during their school days often end up resenting their lifestyle. Would you call yourself a happy child, or did you find yourself struggling to fit in and make new friends?
Traveling so much creates a totally different type of personality. You either become an introvert and try not to mix in with the crowd, or you become very bold and confident; this-is-who-I-am type of a person, which is very much how I think I’ve turned out to be. My sister is the opposite though; she’s the introvert! I think that as children, you have to learn to acclimate, and sometimes it can be really difficult because you feel so out of place. Coming back to Pakistan and trying to adjust here was particularly hard for me because everyone seemed to have friends from when they were fetuses. The only reason I was able to cope with the change and get past it was because my parents made it a point to visit Pakistan every summer and winter. I never really lived here but I was still very familiar with the country, and that helped when I came to work here.
Tell me about your parents and siblings. What do they do?
My dad’s a banker and my mom is a jack of all trades who’s done everything under the sun, really. My father started working at entry level in Citibank in Pakistan and worked his way up. He’s a completely self-made man and I respect that a lot about him. My mom was working before she got married, but due to the nature of my father’s job, and also perhaps because she really wanted to devote all her time to the family, she never took up a 9-5 job after getting married, except the time she worked at American Express after completing her masters. She’s done everything from a children’s clothing line to designing jewelry, but I think above all she’s always been a philanthropist. She’s not your typical charity aunty though. Actually, both my parents are very hands-on when it comes to giving. The children of our domestic help have always been financially supported when it comes to their education and sometimes my mother even personally tutors their kids.
As for siblings, we’re just two sisters. My sister Nour is two years younger than I am and she works at Bonhams’ auction house as their Pakistani art specialist. I think she has a very cool job. If she sees a fake Sadequain, she’ll be able to tell is from a mile away! My father really enjoys the contrast and loves cracking jokes about how one of his daughter works with billionaires while the other works with the Taliban and people in mental asylums! We have completely opposite jobs, but the fact that neither of us have grown up in Pakistan we’re both doing very Pakistani things is really funny.
I can practically envisage all the interesting dinner table conversations you guys must have when you all get together…
Ah, yes! All four of us in the family have very different personalities. Our dinner conversations would never revolve around the latest lawn-ka-jora one of us bought… they’re more likely to be about how Nour just discovered a 2 million dollar painting or I just stumbled across an underground Taliban ring of children suicide bombers or something!
When you first came to Pakistan you started working as a news anchor, but quickly gave up. Why?
To be honest, I was a pretty terrible news anchor! I did the international feed for Geo English which never launched, and then I joined Dawn News. It didn’t take me long to realize I didn’t want to be a news anchor anymore. There are quite a few reasons why I chose to quit: I didn’t enjoy getting my hair and makeup done at all for one. It was one of the most irritating things ever. I was also beginning to have some real problems with my eyesight. I was anchoring from 9-6 every day and the light in the studio was killing my eyes. Also, I didn’t really enjoy working at a news channel. I didn’t think it was as intimate as it should have been. I also tend to get more involved with my subject matter than most people and you can’t do that as a news anchor. Moreover, I’d never studied here or taken Pakistan Studies or Islamiat, so I didn’t know the fundamentals of broadcast journalism in Pakistan. I learned those on the job when I started making documentaries.
What do you think is the reason why English channels such as Geo English, Dawn News and Express 24/7 weren’t able to survive in Pakistan despite the fact that our media has undergone a major paradigm shift over the last decade?
Geo English never launched. If they had been launched, I think they would have been akin to Express 24/7. I was really impressed by Express 24/7 and was quite upset when I found out that they were shutting down. I think Dawn only catered to a niche market, and it probably has itself to blame for not making it. Our masses just need more time to start watching English channels, I guess.
Is there a milestone or a marker that impelled you to think about documentary making as a serious career option? Where did you get your essential dose of preliminary inspiration from?
I don’t like using it as a milestone or a marker but I think 9/11 really changed the way that Muslims were viewed the world over, and one of the things I really appreciated was when Michael Moore came out with Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, which were both really inspiring. I admire him as a documentary filmmaker not necessarily because I agree with his content a 100 per cent all the time, but because of the way he does things. It’s very effective and very convincing, and his films affect millions of people in such an easy way. As a Pakistani I know most of my country’s population is illiterate, so what better way to reach out to them than through a visual medium? But like I said, I was always more involved in social work. The only reason I decided to do documentaries is because I think they make a tangible change in the world and give you a platform to make an actual difference. So, for me, I guess it was when I stumbled upon the effectiveness of documentaries when I realized I really wanted to do them. I didn’t realize how much I loved documentary making until I started making them though!
What kind of films did you grow up watching?
When you’re a Pakistani living abroad you tend to watch a lot of Indian movies, and we did that too! We watched a lot of old classics as well as all the big Bollywood productions of the day. Also, we weren’t allowed to listen to the radio, so my mother always had Lata Mangeshkar or Gita Dutt playing in the car. In terms of English films, I think my parents had a rather eccentric taste and made us watch a lot of musicals. I think I’ve literally seen everything that had Barbara Streisand in it, and that’s why I’m slightly more theatrical than the average person! My father is a real history buff and loved watching ‘The message’ and ‘Ben Hur’ type movies. We were into serious, heavy films.
With such a solid film background and an obvious interest in Bollywood cinema, would you ever consider delving into commercial cinema by making a contemporary song & dance ridden flick?
I don’t know about song and dance, but I’d love to do a feature film someday. Films play a very important role in people’s lives; I think it can be just as effective and moving as a good documentary. A lot of my friends work in film and I keep thinking of signing on to a project to be an assistant producer or assistant director for someone just to see what it’s like. Maybe one day soon I’ll give it a shot. Of course it will be difficult because I’ve been doing documentaries for so long I can’t even imagine the task of trying to do a feature film.
You’ve been working with Sharmeen Obaid for a good four years now. How did you first land a job with her?
Well, I knew Sharmeen from when I worked at the news channel. After I quit Dawn, I went to her NGO camp and told her that I wanted to be a part of her next documentary, and that if she thought I was capable she should hire me. She was very open to the idea, but advised me to volunteer with the Citizens Archive of Pakistan first, which was really cool. She liked the way I worked and eventually hired me to work on the documentary, ‘Children of the Taliban,’ that went on to win the duPont-Columbia Award as well as the 2010 Emmy!
Tell me a bit about the independent projects you’ve worked on for Al-Jazeera and other international organizations?
All the documentaries I’ve done so far have been with Sharmeen other than a project I did for Al-Jazeera and another piece I did independently about a mental asylum in Hyderabad for a UK based organization called Mental Health Concern. They want to collect funds for this completely dilapidated mental asylum and reconstruct it and rehabilitate its inhabitants.
Working in the field with all sorts of people beleaguered by myriad social issues must often take its toll on you. Have you ever found yourself unable to cope with the sheer intensity of your documentary’s subject matter?
Well, most of the projects I work on are pretty disturbing. I mean it’s great when at the end of the day you have a finished product to put out there and make it very acceptable for people, but when you’re doing the work, it’s pretty disturbing and challenging on an emotional level.
What I saw at the mental asylum in Hyderabad was one of the worst conditions I’ve ever seen human beings in. I remember there were 80 people locked up in a room without any bathroom facilities so they would just use one of the rooms which had been set aside for that purpose. My cameraman Asad Faruqi and I would drive for two hours to Hyderabad every morning, film there till dusk and then drive back to Karachi, after which we wouldn’t be able to eat, drink water or go to the bathroom. It wasn’t just emotionally overwhelming; we found ourselves struggling physically as well. The smells, the sounds and the sights would stay with you for a long time… yeah, that was a really tough piece to work on!
For someone who hasn’t lived in Pakistan for any significant amount of time, you sure have a strong connection with the country and its people. What exactly is it that nurtures the bond and keeps you from leaving and moving on to the proverbial greener pastures?
You know, when I was in college in America, I often felt ostracized by my Pakistani friends because I didn’t really understand the Pakistani politics they would be discussing. There were times when I would feel actively maligned and was called all sorts of names like ABCD and BBCD and whatnot. But you know, I moved back to Pakistan after living all my life abroad to try and make a difference in this country. I don’t think I’m physically and mentally doing anything that others couldn’t, but it’s ironic to me that the people who criticized me for not being able to engage in conversations about Pakistan and Pakistani politics are now doing things that have absolutely no effect on their country. I don’t think you have to become a documentary film maker or an NGO worker to make that difference. Small things like how you run your household and how ethically you live can make sometimes make a bigger difference… So, the message is: if you put your mind to something, you can do whatever you want. I think we’ve seen the worst of what we can do. You can be of a certain political standing and still be stealing tons of money from the country; you can throw acid on your wife’s face and get away with it. But what people don’t see is that you can start very humbly and end up winning an internationally acclaimed award like an Oscar and change people’s lives.
Pakistan according to Fazeelat
Do you think the Pakistani audience is ready and mature enough for hardcore, often taboo, subjects to be broadcasted and debated on a public platform in the form of mainstream documentaries?
I think if you wait for people to be ready, you’d be waiting forever! I think we need to start filtering that through, and eventually people will catch on. I think the hype of the Oscar is great for Pakistan, because so many people who’d never in a million years want to watch a documentary now want to watch ‘Saving Face.’ It’s the kind of piece that will engage you whether or not you’re into watching documentaries.
I studied film at university, and one of the main issues with film is that initially it was more of an art form, and it slowly began catering to the lowest common denominator. I think if used effectively, we can certainly creative a lot of positive change with it. You need to challenge the people and obviously the people also have to challenge themselves. You can’t watch movies like ‘The Hangover’ all of the time. Sometimes you need to put yourself out there too.
In your opinion, what are the major social issues that haunt Pakistan and its people and need to be brought to the forefront and dealt with immediately?
Look, everyone harps on about education, and while I do agree it’s a very important issue, I think domestic abuse is a bigger problem that needs our attention more. It’s probably why ‘Saving Face’ is so close to my heart as well. It’s a huge issue in Pakistan, and I don’t just mean in villages and illiterate homes; it’s everywhere.
It’s unnerving to see that when a man is physically violent towards a woman, instead of being reprimanded and ostracized from society, it’s the woman who’s blamed and shamed. It happens every day and I think it’s despicable. I think it’s frightening to say that I’ve seen abuse with my own eyes and didn’t do anything about it.
On another level, the amount of intolerance in this country is absolutely disgusting. The minority issue is also very dear to my heart. I think it’s absolutely disgusting that 20-30 years ago this country was far more liberal and open minded than it is now. Just the fact that people like Maya Khan can go out on the streets and ask people for their nikkah-namas and think her actions are justified is absolutely revolting. It’s a shame that back then this kind of moral policing was sanctioned by the state, but now it’s being done by the society. We can’t blame the government for this one!
So you don’t feel our media—big & bad as it has become—is progressing in the right direction?
I don’t think we’re going on the right track at all! One of my dreams until a couple of years ago was to do my masters in visual anthropology, one of the most important aspects of which is media ethics. We need people in this country who know, not just through experience but in an academic way, how to regulate the media. Media is a very powerful tool, and it could be our white horse, but unfortunately there aren’t any check and balances to control it. People can go on air and say whatever they want and it could get a person killed the next day. It’s nice to see our media grow, but at the same time scary to see how irresponsible it can be at times.
What, according to you, are the main reasons for this building lack of tolerance in our society?
There are so many number ones for that answer, it’s not even funny! I think first of all we need to accept that there’s intolerance in all parts of our society and not just in the uneducated lot. You can go to a salon and see an aunty with a naqaab talking all kinds of nonsense about what Islam is and isn’t. You can find that same kind of mentality in a village. I don’t think education itself is the solution. We as a nation don’t really know who we are anymore. I don’t think we’ve known for a while now. So we cling to this warped sense of religiosity. It’s like: Since I don’t know what it means to be a Pakistani, I’m going to call myself a Karachiite or a Lahori; Since I don’t know what it means to be a Muslim, I’m going to call myself a shia or a sunni. We’re labeling ourselves more and more because we can’t seem to identify with any kind of national identity. I think that’s a major point of concern for our generation.
So what it all really boils down to at the end of the day is an identity crisis?
When you compare the Pakistanis abroad with the Pakistanis here, you’ll notice two totally different Pakistan’s going on. I don’t think we see Pakistan like our parents saw Pakistan. Our sense of nationality is quite warped, and that’s the problem. When you don’t know who you are, you cling to whatever you can. Half the people Pakistan have turned against Islam and the other half have their lives revolving around deobandi and wahabism etc. So yeah, I think our main problem right now is lack of identity.
What’s your take on the controversy Sana Safinaz’s new ad campaign has stirred up? A lot of people have denounced the campaign with the same logic they’ve condemned ‘Saving Face,’ saying that it’s “insensitive” and sends out the “wrong” picture of Pakistan, and that the socio-economic class differences found in Pakistan are nothing to be proud of. At the same time, another set of people ask what’s so wrong about showing a coolie doing his job? And that if acid attacks are a reality we should face, then aren’t class differences also? What’s your take on all of this?
Anyone who denounces ‘Saving Face’ because it highlights class differences means they haven’t seen the film, or they’ve just learned the catch phrase “class difference”. ‘Saving Face’ is about a doctor actively involved in the empowerment of disenfranchised women, using his privilege to benefit others and furthermore not to victimize but empower them– these are survivors, not victims and we CAN make a difference if we try! This is a story about resilience of the human spirit and our capacity to be good. I saw with my own eyes how Dr Jawad gave young children and women a new lease on life through his work and efforts, much of which was not featured in the film, but purely as his philanthropy—and to be a part of that team gives me great pride.
How will we solve our problems if people don’t comprehend the gravity of them? Show me one person who doesn’t personally know a victim of domestic violence and who knows the man guilty of it faces NO social repercussions- I find it morally reprehensible that a man can be violent towards a woman and neither his society, friends, family or government will hold him accountable. An Indian philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti, is quoted as saying “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” The day we start penalizing, incarcerating and rejecting those members of society is the day we should stop making documentaries about it. Saving Face is about people from different socio-economic classes coming TOGETHER to empower those of them who are disenfranchised to bridge the gap, not widen it. The film aims to end a sordid form of gendered violence through social awareness.
To compare ‘Saving Face’ with the Sana Safinaz lawn ads would be insulting if it wasn’t so ridiculous. Lawn campaigns do not bring awareness to the levels of class disparity—they sell lawn. This campaign emphasizes luxury by juxtaposing it with the poverty we seem to have become numb to. I personally think, as an academic with an anthropological background, that this kind of advertising is insensitive and plays into the larger discussion of media regulation and ethics, something this country is badly in need of. Whether their business ethics are sound, I think one might deduce from Saba Imtiaz’s article in Express Tribune that the ignorance in displaying these insensitive images is perhaps a reflection of the attitude the brand has towards the class disparity this country faces—let them eat cake. Saving Face is about Pakistanis actively engaging in ending the issues that plague this country, I personally believe we all have a social responsibility to engage in solutions—not perpetuate or profit from the pre-existing problems.
Fazeelat on ‘Saving Face’
Would you call working on a piece that goes on to win an Academy Award, a dream project?
Working on ‘Saving Face’ was indeed a dream come true because it gave us such an amazing platform to spread a message. That’s what documentaries are supposed to do, right? The reason why I love making documentaries is because you can tell a story to someone who’s lived a life completely different from yourself or the subject’s, and still give them something to relate to. I think that’s one of the biggest gifts for me. I’ve actually had people who I haven’t seen or spoken to in ten or fifteen years write to me and say they can’t wait to see ‘Saving Face.’
On a personal level, I’ve always been very ambition, but was never the one to get many awards. I think the last award I got was probably in class 9 for English. And then this! You know, you never think in your life that you’d go to the Oscars and come back a winner! It’s Surreal. We all use that word a lot now…
How has the experience of working with Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, the Oscar winning documentary filmmaker, been for you?
Like I said, I’ve been with Sharmeen since the end of 2008, and she gave me an opportunity that I will always appreciate. She is a real hard worker. I don’t think I know many people who work as hard as she does, and I guess that’s one of the reasons I enjoy being a part of her team. Luckily, the topics she’s been allowed and has worked on were all very interesting to me as well. If you love your work and the subjects you’re dealing with, then that makes your life so much easier. Sharmeen is the kind of person who knows how to get what she wants, and I find that to be a very inspiring characteristic.
You know, I like working with the people I work with because we not only work ethically not only with our subjects, but we work very professionally with each other for the most part as well!
I’d also like to mention Asad Faruqi here. On paper he’s our cameraman but he helps a lot with the direction and production as well. We’ve both been working with Sharmeen for the same amount of time, and even though he’s a very young guy, he’s impressed every foreign crew that we’ve ever worked with. I’m talking Oscar and Bafta winning directors who’ve only had good things to say about him. He’s great to work with. He understands how to capture and enhance and accentuate the natural beauty of things, just like Sharmeen, and I’m just so lucky to be working with both of them.
What was your first reaction when you found out that you’d be making a documentary called ‘Saving Face’ with Daniel Junge, the then Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker?
When Sharmeen first told me about ‘Saving Face’ and Daniel, I was very excited and immediately ready to start working because like I said before, domestic abuse is a serious issue that’s very close to my heart. And acid attacks are a different ball game altogether. It’s unbelievable that one human being could do that to someone else and get away with it. Working with Daniel was an unbelievable experience for me. He’s one the most generous and talented people I’ve ever known. We all knew his last documentary was also nominated for an Oscar, so he was kind of a big deal! It’s great when the people you’re working with build you up and give you confidence instead of scaring you. It makes you a better worker, and Daniel did that for me. He noticed the little things I do while working and complimented them. For a guy who’s accomplished so much, he’s a very humble guy, really.
What kind of problems did you and your team face while researching and filming ‘Saving Face’?
We faced so many problems while working on ‘Saving Face,’ I don’t even know where to begin! For one, our legal system and courts are a complete mess. I would be sitting in a court from dawn till dusk and it would be futile because nothing would happen. Most of the problems were access related because the husbands of the victims were quite stubborn. One of the biggest shocks came half way through the film when we found out that one of our subjects had become pregnant with her husband’s, who was also her attacker, child. We didn’t know what to do with her. We couldn’t have the doctor operate on a pregnant woman, so we handed her case over to another NGO that we were working with. Later when I visited her in Islamabad I found out that she was two weeks overdue and her doctor wasn’t doing anything about it! I literally had to facilitate her C-Section and have her baby born so that she didn’t die! So, making a documentary, especially with these kinds of subjects, you’re not just making a film; you’re getting involved one hundred percent.
While most of Pakistan couldn’t be more proud of you guys for making this film, a few scattered groups have actively denounced it for “publicizing the negative side of Pakistan” on a global platform. What do you have to say to such absurd criticism of a film that hasn’t even been released yet?
First of all, if you haven’t seen the film, you have no right to criticize it. It’s ironic that people would deny talking about a problem that needs to be talked about. I think until we realize the gravity of the situation, we’re never going to be able to resolve it. The Taliban documentary we did is a really good piece in answering that question. I don’t think people were aware of the extremism and urbanization of Taliban before that. It’s the same with acid attacks. People didn’t think about them before ‘Saving Face’ made it to the news, and now I don’t think there’s anyone out there who isn’t thinking about it; the fact that acid attacks are a disgusting crime against humanity and they should be stopped. Of course I understand that criticism is natural when one’s in the limelight, but people should look at the broader picture. I think the good we’re doing far outweighs the bad we might be doing. The film is about Pakistanis saving each other. It’s about a Pakistani doctor who grew up in Pakistan, and came back to the country out of his own volition to help these women and in the process, empowering them. I think if you take away anything other than positivity from this film, then I think you should reassess your perspective.
When is the Pakistani release of ‘Saving Face’ planned?
We’re hoping to release it in Pakistan once it’s subtitled, but there’s a bit of a contention because we have to be very wary of how the women in the documentary feel. Acid attacks are a very vilified form of violence. When women are attacked, they have to answer insensitive questions like: What did you do to deserve this? We have to make sure that they are and feel safe before it’s broadcasted here.
Fazeelat at the Oscars
Tell me, were the Oscars ever mentioned during conversations while you were working on the film, or was finding out that ‘Saving Face’ had been shortlisted for an Academy Award a total surprise?
You know, ‘Saving Face’ was Daniel’s film from the beginning. It was his concept, and I think he knew that it was going to be a big film. It was towards the time we were ending the film that we realized how strongly people were reacting to it. We’d sent parts of it to HBO, and eventually the name ‘Oscar’ started echoing in the background. I didn’t pay much attention to it initially because I was totally blind to the whole Oscar process. But then one day we found out that it had been shortlisted and we were all over the moon. We thought this was it; that we could all happily retire now! And then a few weeks later we found out that we’d been nominated, which was amazing and weird at the same time. It was like a dream and I was afraid I was going to wake up! I don’t think the win has actually sunk in yet. I don’t know if it ever will, actually.
When did you find out that you would be joining Sharmeen and Daniel for the Oscars in Los Angeles?
Initially, it was just Sharmeen and Daniel who were going fly to California for the event. But then, less than two weeks before the big day, I and the rest of the team found out that we would be going as well. I had no idea what I was going to wear and I certainly didn’t know how I was going to handle the stress of being on a red carpet! It was insane! I had some fabric lying around the house that I took with me and it was after flying down there that I found out that it my mom had bought the fabric to make lamp shades. Yup, I was rocking it in LA in lamp shade material!
Tell me about the famous three-day dress Feeha Jamshed designed for you. Was picking something off the rack a complete no-no for you? Were you completely satisfied with what you hit the red carpet wearing?
Absolutely! I tell everybody that got my Oscar dress made in three days by the very talented and gracious Feeha Jamshed. I absolutely love Feeha! Her silhouettes are amazing and I completely trust the way she fits a woman’s body. I’ve worn her designs ever since she started designing and she really came through and pulled me out of a tough situation. I actually had something planned but it completely bombed at the last minute, and I was left high and dry with nothing.
I think we have a lot of talented designers in Pakistan and I might have just picked something up and worn it because I literally didn’t have any time, but I never just pick something up like that. I wanted to get something made especially for the occasion. I didn’t care if it was my dream outfit; I just wanted it to be something that I’d be comfortable in, you know something I could wear without constantly worrying how it looks on me.
My mother designed all the jewelry and she at the last minute gave me one of her Noorjehan Bilgrami block print silk dupattas to wear with the outfit and it looked perfect.
I would have loved to wear something more ethnic if I had more time to plan it out properly, but what I ended up wearing was a good combination of western and ethnic wear and I was very proud and happy to wear it. Feeha made me feel great. If the designer you’re planning to wear to such an important occasion makes you feel good about yourself, you end up feeling good, and Feeha did that for me. I only had one fitting, and she gave it to me the night before I left… and it worked. It landed me the cover of Xpozé, didn’t it!?
Was this your first trip to Los Angeles? Were you able to fully assimilate and enjoy the whole LA mood when the Oscars are right around the corner?
I’ve been to California before but this was my first time in LA. Los Angeles is just so magical; you literally feel like you’ve hopped into a movie. It’s everything that you see on TV. It’s all very in your face and glitzy. It’s Hollywood; the real deal! Over all, this trip was an amazing experience. Meeting so many people and talking to them about your work which is incredibly meaningful was quite fulfilling too. Everyone was so complimentary. I got to meet the American side of the ‘Saving Face’ team, which was great. We’d only corresponded over email before so it was really nice catching up with them on such a grand occasion. I met Daniel’s wife and parents. We all got along really well and had a great laugh. I’m really glad I got to share this experience with them.
I’m sure you’ll always remember 26th February 2012 with exhilarating clarity. Walk me through the whole day and hours before you got ready to hit the red carpet.
Actually I don’t remember much because those 2-3 days are still a blur… I remember the day before the Oscars I was out shopping for shoes because I didn’t have a decent pair to wear on the red carpet. The day of the Oscars began with me looking for maraschino cherries for my friend, and running around West Hollywood like a mad woman while everyone prepared for the Oscars. Finally I gave up, got ready and went to the Four Seasons to meet the rest of the team, piled into the limo and headed to the Oscars. It’s only once you hit the red carpet that you realize the grandeur of the event, there are fans screaming all around you- I found it bizarre that people waited all morning just to watch the stars from a distance and the mania that we were immersed in. Walking through security I was behind Michelle Williams and followed by Viola Davis. I remember the first person I saw on the red carpet was George Clooney! We were barely five feet from each other! Can you believe that? I talk about him all the time! It was bizarre and surreal.
The strongest memory I have from the day is right before our category was announced, we all got quite and right before the announced the winner we were all whispering “Saving Face” under our breath. It was exhilarating to hear it called out and of course imagine what would follow. After that the congratulations swept over us in what seemed like waves, before we knew it we were hanging out of our limo waving the Oscar at security and being waved into the Vanity Fair after party. At that point we were surrounded by so many celebrities I didn’t know which way to look shocked. I still can’t believe it all really happened, and I’m incredibly grateful for the experience– to be part of such a prestigious event for something I’m so proud of.
But unlike the ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ team that literally took over the stage after winning, you didn’t get a chance to go on stage with Sharmeen and Daniel to celebrate the moment of victory. Did you resent that in any way?
Well, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ won 8 Oscars and we just won one. Also I think documentary shorts are the least glamorous of all the nominations. Sure it would have been nice if we’d all had a chance to go on stage to receive the award, but now we’re all even more motivated to win Oscars for ourselves so we can get to go on the stage too!
So what do you think was bothering Morgan Freeman that night? The man refused to acknowledge Sharmeen’s heartwarming speech when the rest of Hollywood clapped!
God bless Morgan Freeman! If he doesn’t want to clap, he doesn’t have to clap. I don’t know what he was thinking. The poor guy was probably just tired!
Fazeelat in a box
• Birthday: April 6th
• Birthplace: Lahore.
• Current home: Between Lahore & Karachi.
• Marital status: Single.
• Plans to get married: Not if I can help it!
• Currently working on: a documentary series on people making a positive change in Pakistan.
• The last good movie I saw was: so long ago, I don’t even remember!
• I stay home to watch: ‘Dexter’. Which is ironic because he’s a serial killer. But then he’s a good serial killer, so it’s all good, I guess…
• The book I’ve been reading is: ‘In Cold Blood’ by Truman Capote.
• Favorite pigout food: Mexican.
• Prized possession: My laptop.
• Personal heroes: Definitely my parents.
• Every New Year’s eve I resolve: to not spend it with my parents, but it never works. They always rope me in! Also, to not fight with my mother about clothes anymore.
• Nobody knows I’m: a serious foodie.
• I wish I could stop: stressing!
• I’ve never been able to: do a cartwheel!
• I’m better than anyone else when it comes to: eating.
• I’d give anything to meet: Russell Brand. I think he’s hilarious!
• My dream project would be: doing something on the minorities in Pakistan without risking my life. I don’t see that happening in this lifetime!
• The one thing I can’t stand is: intolerance
• If I could change one thing about myself, I would: have better eyesight. I’m almost blind!
• People who knew me in high school thought I was: overly dramatic.
• The price I’ve paid for my success: white hairs, excessive weight loss and probably a few years off my life!
• If I wasn’t a documentary filmmaker, I’d be: a social worker
• Major accomplishment: When my team and I literally saved the lives of eleven members of a family from being burnt alive in a brick kiln.
• I’m positively humbled when: I realize how little some people in this world have. It sometimes makes me guilty for all that I’ve been blessed with.
• Three words that best describe me: Loyal, animated and curious.