New York-based Pakistani journalist and filmmaker Fazeelat Aslam has had a pretty illustrious career so far; at 29, she’s produced documentaries for Vice, PBS, HBO and Al Jazeera, co-produced the Oscar and Emmy-winning Saving Face, and recently co-producedTomorrow We Disappear, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this year. I chatted to her about how she gets people to open up to her, what it means to be Pakistani today, and the joys of finding Jewish-Japanese food in Brooklyn.
What’s your morning and evening regimen like?
I wash my face with Cetaphil every morning and evening. I love getting a nice tan, but I’ve been told by my dermatologist that it’s not good for your skin, so I’ve finally started using sunscreen – Aveeno’s Daily Moisturiser with SPF 30. One day, when I’m grown up, I’ll have a more luxurious regimen.
Tell me a little bit about Tomorrow We Disappear.
The directors were inspired by Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. It's about an artist colony in New Delhi which is filled with puppeteers, magicians, acrobats, tightrope walkers, and traditional artists who are being displaced to build a skyscraper. On a larger scale, it’s a story about what it means to lose your home; how that affects your identity, family, and future. It's also a story about what it means to be an artist.
What’s the best way to get people to open up and be comfortable?
The most important thing is to build trust, and the first rule to doing that is to listen. It helps not to go in with questions at first; it’s so important to hear what someone’s saying without forcing the agenda. You’ve also got to withhold your judgment. Being a documentary filmmaker, you get very used to going into a space and thinking, “We need to help these people escape their poverty or violence or generally terrible existence,” but it’s actually very unfair to go into someone’s home and essentially say that it’s not good enough, you know? One of the things I hated most in Pakistan was when we'd lose electricity, but I think of the ways we coped with it – we'd all get the candles out and the stash of food that doesn't need refrigeration or reheating, and we sat around and did the fun things you do when there's no electricity. It's something I'll never experience in New York. There's beauty in the things you lack just as much as there's beauty in the things that you have.
Do you remember the moment you realized you wanted to be a filmmaker?
Absolutely; and it might surprise you, because I was already a filmmaker at the time, albeit at a bit of a crossroads. I’d been in Pakistan for six years making documentaries that were for the most part very painful to make, and it had wiped me out; emotionally, physically, spiritually. Then I met one of the co-directors of Tomorrow We Disappear, and he invited me to come up to New Delhi to be a part of this film. I remember the first time I visited the colony, which they'd already been working in for a couple of years to make this film. We walked in and the children just poured out and jumped all over him. Before I knew it, everyone was laughing and talking, and the puppets came out... I realized that what I was seeing was a very sincere manifestation of trust. It had stopped being a film and become a family, and I understood then that it's possible to make documentaries and not just hear someone’s pain, but be in it together.
What has been the most gratifying moment of your career?
There are a couple. One was when we premiered Tomorrow We Disappear. Salman Rushdie was sitting four seats down from me and Puran, one of the protagonists of the film, was two seats across from me. That moment, to be able to reach so many different levels, was incredibly rewarding.
When we won the Oscar in 2012, I could only spend one night in LA after the awards because I had to fly to Kashmir to film the rehabilitation of people there after an earthquake. One of the hardest things for me is establishing trust, and I wanted a young woman to come on camera and talk about her story, but she just wasn’t having it. I remember asking her whether she’d read about Pakistan winning its first Oscar, and she had. I told her that I was there just three days ago, and that I wanted her to know that it was my life’s work to put these stories out so that they could be heard. I appealed to her as one human being to another, and she finally agreed to come on camera. That was more rewarding, and more gratifying, than any award.
What’s the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to you on a shoot?
When we were in the colony making Tomorrow We Disappear, I remember asking Puran, one of the protagonists, how he wanted most to be heard, and he said he wished he could throw a parade. Long story short, that’s what we did – threw a massive parade in the colony. There were stilt walkers and fifteen-foot puppets and monkey men and drummers – all artists who’d go out and perform independently, but no one up until that point had ever entertained for the colony. So there were about 3 dozen artists just doing what they do best, flooding this colony with their performances, and it was just incredible. It was one of the most magical moments of my life. It was the first time a lot of kids in the colony, many of whom can’t afford regular entertainment as we know it, had seen anything like it. And to be surrounded by all these talented people just sort of waving their artistry around in this moment of complete joy; it gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.
What’s the scariest thing that’s ever happened to you on a shoot?
When I was producing Saving Face, which is about female survivors of acid attacks, we were dealing with two women who were both attacked by their husbands. One of the women still lived with hers, because she had nowhere else to go. Right before she was about to have her surgery, we took her to the doctor and found out that she was pregnant. I’d spent so much time with her that I had started putting myself in her shoes, and to find out that she was pregnant with her attacker, which meant that she couldn’t leave him or get surgery; to me, that was terrifying. She ended up having the baby, staying with him, and never got the surgery.
As a Pakistani, how do you feel about your country right now?
I went back to Pakistan, where I hadn’t lived since I was 4, after I graduated from college because I wanted to know my country. What I saw was indifference - there's a real dehumanization and villification of those who are angry and violent, but no one is asking why these people are revolting. People aren't born angry and violent.
I feel like history repeates itself, whether it's the civil rights movement in America or the French revolution or what's happening in Pakistan right now. I've spent a lot of time in Peshawar when I made a docmentary about sex trafficked children who were recovering from heroin addiction there, and it was the most emotionally exhausting thing I've ever done. It's already a very hard place so with the recent news it's... very difficult.
I think it’s time for the youth to take action because that’s the only way we’re going to move out of this; by adhering to long term goals of education, women's rights, socioeconomic opportunity and democracy. You can’t go from being an Islamic country to a secular one in a day or a decade, but you can start taking steps towards these long term goals. I don’t have the answers to Pakistan’s problem, but this definitely isn’t a time for blame. It’s a time for people to unite.
You’ve spent time in both America and Pakistan; what are the biggest differences between the two?
There are pros and cons to living in each country. In New York I can take public transportation and have any cuisine I want on any day, but Pakistan is where people know how to pronounce my name and where I can indulge in my mother's cooking. The way I see it, America gave me opportunites for which I'm so grateful, and Pakistan gave me the perspective that made me the person I am, without which I'd be lost. There are similarities between the two; there are issues of women's rights, minority persecution, ethnic conflict and even suicide attacks in both. These problems exist because of a lack of social engagement globally. No country is perfect, and I feel like I've lived in too many places now to call any one country home.
Who are your favourite filmmakers?
Satyajit Ray has always been an inspiration. He’s standard learning if you’re a film student, but I was really blown away by him, and really immersed in his work when I was studied film at Wellesley College.
Joshua Oppenheimer is another favourite; he spent 8 years in Indonesia making The Act of Killing, a documentary that reenacts the murders committed by the Indonesian paramilitary in the 1960s. He’s done it in a way that makes you leave the film thinking not about what you saw but who you are as a person. It’s not just filmmaking, it’s a psychological experiment on the audience. Some of the most amazing filmmakers today are transcending filmmaking, and he’s one of them.
Have you been anywhere interesting lately?
Living in Brooklyn means there’s no dearth of new restaurants to try, and I love experimenting. One of my favourite new discoveries is this restaurant called Shalom Japan, which serves Jewish-American – that's American Jewish, not Israeli Jewish – food. They change the menu about every week, and everything there is spectacular.
As told to Jossbox. Fazeelat Aslam photographed by Melodie Jeng. View more of Melodie's work here.