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Of Empathy and Passion—An Interview with Filmmaker and Poet, Makhdoom Ammar Aziz

Afshan Shafi

For her final curatorial fortnight of the year, Afshan Shafi begins with an interview of critically acclaimed filmmaker Ammar Aziz

Makhdoom Ammar Aziz is a poet and filmmaker from Pakistan. His multi-award winning films have been screened in over a hundred countries at major film and art festivals. His debut feature length film, A Walnut Tree, had its world premiere at IDFA. The film won awards for best film from FilmSouthAsia, Moscow International Documentary Film Festival, and others. As a filmmaker, he was initially known for his work about the working class of Pakistan. A graduate of Lahore's National College of Arts, he was the only filmmaker from Pakistan to be selected in 2012 for the Talent Campus of the Berlin International Film Festival. He was selected for his documentary about the power-loom workers of Faisalabad, which was also screened at the Solidar Silver Rose Award 2011 in Brussels.

His poetry has been published in Wild Court, Muse India, Dhaka Tribune, Narrow Road, FemAsia Magazine, among others, and is forthcoming in several prestigious journals and anthologies. His poems often use personal narratives and meditations on bodies, objects and mythologies. Aziz’s work across the genres of writing and film has been lauded for its sensitivity. In past years, Aziz also used his platform as a blogger for Pakistan’s Express Tribune newspaper to highlight social issues, including a Christian girl’s rape and forced conversion to Islam. His activism has been met with praise by major international news agencies and feeds into his documentary-making consistently. Read on for more from this multi-talented artist.

What makes a film great for you? Are there certain qualities that make a film substantially pleasurable for you?

I remember in the very first year of our film studies, one of our teachers said that as students of cinema we were eventually going to lose the pleasure of watching films. He was true to a certain extent—it wasn’t fun to watch everything from student-like, critical eyes, devoted more to the technique rather than the soul of a film. However, now, I don’t care at all about technical gimmickery or even the conventional grammar of films. The purpose of a film, or for that matter a poem, is to let the spectator or the reader float with it. And if it does that, it’s pleasurable.

It is said that it’s all been done before in the world of cinema and that we have seen it all. What do you do to keep it novel? Is there anything that you do to shake up the process to keep it original?

To be honest, I don’t agree with this statement. Film as a medium is still the youngest of all art forms—even though what it has achieved since the first ever moving shot in 1888 is truly incredible. However, I believe the language of cinema is still evolving. So, there’s a lot of room to experiment with the form. As a practitioner, I always like to blur the line between fiction and reality. I also like self-reflexivity a lot, and sort of like to question the superficial separation between what is in front of and behind the camera. So, I often like to break the imaginary fourth wall.

What role have film festivals played in your life so far and why do you think they are necessary? How do you get the most out of them?

I wish I could deny their importance but the fact is that for any indie, non-mainstream and art-house filmmaker, film festivals play a very significant role. Because at the end of the day, your films are not really hitting commerical venues; TV channels are not interested. And your films are not easily accessible online at leading platforms. (Even though I’ve been lucky in this regard). So what will you do when you make a film? How will you feel about your existence? All these film festivals have indeed played a very constructive role in my career—I’ve learned a lot by watching the work of my contemporaries from diverse cultural backgrounds.

Is the film business fair in Pakistan? What contexts do you think have been explored to death by local filmmakers?

There’s no film market in Pakistan. Our filmmakers are mostly busy shooting corporate commercials or are indulged into what they call ‘content creation’, because both these are profitable. Their names are destined to drift into oblivion.

Bourgeois media and film academics and foreign-educated practitioners have always been against the Punjabi cinema, which is now dead. So you have always looked down upon films that were loved by the masses. And what have you given them instead? Nothing.

The purpose of a film, or for that matter a poem, is to let the spectator or the reader float with it. And if it does that, it’s pleasurable

Is it the filmmaker’s responsibility to find and develop your audience? If so, why do you feel that way?

I truly believe that an artist’s job is just to create. That said, I understand film is radically different from other, older art forms. It involves multiple stakeholders, big crews and what not. So there’s definitely a distribution strategy in order to find an audience. And by the way, all these things—which make the filmmaking process a lot more complicated than someone painting or writing silently in their basement—make one wonder if cinema is truly an art form… because the process is not very spiritual. It doesn’t have that spiritual isolation and divine silence.

Was there a particular event in your life or time that you recognized that filmmaking would be your way of telling stories?

No, I can’t think of any such event. I was actually learning Hindustani Classical Music and there was, of course, literature and a bit of theater. And I thought perhaps by formally getting trained as a filmmaker, I could bring them all together. It was an amateur calculated decision back then. But, of course, I found my voice once I really started exploring the depths of the medium.

Who have been your most powerful influences within the industry?

I grew up on the cinema of the Soviet Union. So my early inspirations have been theorists and filmmakers such as Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein. However, I’m no longer a very political person and I’m not sure if it’s a good idea for a state to even patronize creative industries. But anyway, I greatly admire the Iranian neo-realist cinema.

Is digital technology an opportunity or a threat?

Film is a technological medium, after all, and digital technologies have really made filmmaking affordable—it has sort of democratised the medium. However, I’m cynical about these digital platforms. We are heading towards the death of the movie theater.

As far as your poetic work is concerned, has a poem ever shocked or changed you for the better? If so, when did it happen and what did you do after?

It’s difficult to mention one poem in particular but if I really push myself, I’d say a long poem by Jaun Elia, Darakht-e-Zard, continues to haunt me. I first read it almost 15 years ago. I am not sure what I did the first time I read it—I must have cried. But the poem still makes me cry, whenever I revisit it. Then there’s another poem by Borges, which really inspired me to start writing free verse. I was earlier occupied with formal genres, particularly the ghazal.

There’s a mythic image most people have of poets being struck with inspiration and having to write out everything at once. Does this ever happen to you?

I don’t know, but I believe poetry to be a divine gift. You cannot push yourself to write a poem—and even if you do so, it will perhaps not be immortal like a poem which comes to you from the unknown.

If you had to do something differently as a young person to become a better writer as an adult, what would you do?

I wouldn’t study film. Jokes aside, my biggest influences have been writers whose works I have never been able to read in their original languages, for example Kafka, Borges, Sartre. I wish I could learn one more language at least—perhaps Persian to read the original texts by Sadegh Hedayat.

As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?

I have never thought about it. Perhaps, an owl?

What’s next for you as a filmmaker and as a writer?

I’m working on an exciting film project. But I’m deeply invested in writing. I’m looking forward to the next year, when some of this work will be out. Let’s see.


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