Seemab Gul’s SANDSTORM is a coming-of-age story that navigates the tricky terrain of internet dating in a conservative Muslim society. The film questions the objectification of the female body and its relationship to honour in Pakistani culture. Academy Winner (Skin) Jamie Ray Newman and Jemima Khan board this important film as Executive producers’.
SANDSTORM has qualified to be considered for the 95th Academy Awards® after winning the top awards at Rhode Island and HollyShorts Film Festivals. SANDSTORM can soon be seen at Calgary International Film Festival from 22nd September to 2nd October.
Zara, a schoolgirl in Karachi, Pakistan, shares a sensual dance video with her virtual boyfriend, who then blackmails her. Caught between his manipulative behaviour and the desire to experience love on her own terms, Zara searches for the strength to reject the confines of a patriarchal society.
Executive producer Jaime Ray Newman, gained acclaim as an actress in high-profile projects including Hulu’s Emmy nominated DOPESICK, LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE and upcoming THE BIG CIGAR for Apple, is equally known for her work producing films with social impact at their core, including the short film ‘SKIN’ which she and filmmaker Guy Nattiv won the Academy Award for in 2019, and the feature film SKIN directed by Nattiv which premiered at 2018 Toronto International Film Festival where it won the Fipresci Prize. Jamie shares “Seemab Gul has crafted a beautiful, moving piece of art that in only 20 minutes thrusts you into the nuanced life of what young women around the world must endure in restrictive societies. As the mother of two small daughters, I know how lucky they are to live in a country that allows them freedom of expression, but I also know how easily those rights can be taken away. SANDSTORM is a quiet, moving battle cry, a film that must be seen around the world and I am honored to come on board.”
Seemab Gul – Sandstorm/ Mulaqat
Interview with Dr Fykaa Caan
Please tell us a little bit how the journey started and where did the concept come from?
I had been reading online about a 15-year-old Egyptian girl who shared an innocent dance video with her boyfriend at the time and a few years later when they broke up, he put it online to shame her and her family and that made me realise there are probably many other cases and that the Pakistani culture is quite like Egypt, in terms of patriarchy; the position of women and of course honour. So, I started thinking about a short film on the same topic but with it potentially being set in Pakistan. I started talking to others, my friends and researching in to it and it really surprised me once I looked deeper just how many women and young girls were sharing explicit photos of themselves on social media; sometimes without their face which they were doing on impulse and which they immediately regretted. I started to look in to it a lot more and came up with some ideas and a concept for the film and then started writing. It took me about a year to write the script and due to the pandemic, I was given extra time. I had also pitched it to Abid Merchant who immediately got on board and thought it was an interesting topic. He likes female led stories and wants to champion new filmmakers. He became my main producer in Pakistan and then the journey began.
How was the experience for you of putting your idea together?
I had not realised just how controversial the story could be in Pakistan until we started looking for the right cast vis auditions. With it being the pandemic at the time we had to have many online auditions where we had to ask a lot of teenagers across schools and dance schools to send their self-tapes. It was actually a great experience because you can tell a lot by a person introducing themselves and when they talk about what they are interested in. The second part of the auditions were in Pakistan, this time we were seeing the same people again as they were the ones that we were interested in. These teenage girls came with their mothers who were very suspicious initially, they were like “we want our daughters to act but we do not want them to dance on camera”. Some of them said “they can dance for you but we want to choose what they wear”. Even the mothers who were open-minded and educated said “Seemab we understand your intention but we live in an unforgiving society, so please keep in mind my daughter’s honour” and that was something that I actually wrote down because it really made me think about how contentious this topic really is, even though we were in cosmopolitan Karachi – a huge modern city where a lot of western educated people live.
At the same time, I was researching videos of actors and girls who were trying out their new hip-hop moves online in Pakistan and could see from their comments they were getting everything from slut shaming to death threats. In the first dance scene, I had this idea that there should be a slip worn but then we changed it to a kameez chemise slip, which had a bit of sleeves and where you don’t see the underarm as much. This made me realise how important these details are in how a girl is perceived even as an actress in Pakistan.
The preproduction took two months, a little longer than what it should have had simply because we were on a schedule. It was my first short fiction and was a trial to see how I could work out there. We had a great team of a hundred cast and crew members and the biggest challenge was the sandstorm because we had to create it. When I told Mehnaz Diwan (executive producer and Abid Merchant) the surprising news of let’s create a sandstorm. They were like great no problem. However, when it came to creating it, it was actually a task and very expensive. A mock sandstorm had to be done first where we had to get trucks of sand and large vans and it was a huge effort. On the day of the sandstorm, it was a lockdown day and we had to get special permission from the police, ministers and all the relevant authorities so it was a big deal. One of the foreign crew members who is Spanish said “Seemab you are trying to do a Hollywood style scene in four hours on a budget -a little bit like organised chaos, if you can do this, you can do anything.”
It was actually a miracle that we pulled it off in literally four hours. At that time, we had in total more than 40 extras, their parents/ guardians, fans, 10-15 cleaners, a huge production design team and on top of that we had to create smoke and dust. Hamza Mushtaq was the boy stood at the gate for many hours with sand being thrown in his face. There was a lot to do and was quite satisfying when it came together and was edited a few months later. And yes, the premier in Venice really was a dream, it was wonderful.
To have been qualified at Oscar level, how does that feel for you?
To be here for the Oscar qualification is an honour. This means that the Academy voters can vote for my film for a nomination or for the shortlist. There are still a few crucial steps to go but having won two Oscar qualifying awards alongside tens of others is important. This is because to be accepted in the industry as a female, director, writer, producer as a minority and appreciated for my work is great.
You have Jemima Khan involved; can I ask you how that happened?
Jemima has a production company and I had been in touch with them sharing documentary ideas so when the short film was in postproduction, I asked her to get involved as an Executive Producer. She agreed, Jemima is supporting the film and is helping with the Oscar rounds which has been great. We are talking about potentially working together again in the future. So having a strong female producer supporting me as a great name and a British umbrella is amazing.
You have a young girl playing the lead and you mentioned that you are interested in the messages that are communicated through your work. With social media and this kind of thing happening more and more, what do you think is the message that you are trying to get across and how do you think it is possible?
Interestingly every time I watch the film and I have watched it hundreds of times now. I start to see new things in it. For example, in the beginning of the film the dance of the young girl has a different meaning for her and her friend. Then as the film goes on the meaning changes.
Girls perceive themselves not as necessarily sexual objects and an innocent dance which is just to them a little expression with music. Can be to others seen as sexualised whether they are potential partners or not. The boy in question is threatening with “what would happen if your father found out and other people? How will society see it and how would it be for your honour”. Whilst doing this the dangerous thing is the boy is also discovering his power.
To be honest, It isn’t really about how much you reveal because these days in Western pop videos they have girls dancing and in bikinis. It is about once something like a video is out there and you have shared it with somebody you lose control over it and it’s about what happens when you lose that control. I think that that this is a very important question because even in the pandemic, the stats are showing increasing numbers of young girls sharing explicit images online because they weren’t allowed to be with their friends. Not really knowing where else these images could go. Other things that break my heart, this August a 15-year-old girl in Canada killed herself because her images were shared by someone that she had met online. These kinds of stories when you start researching them are really scary and show how common it is. It begins a dialogue about images of women and what does shame mean collectively as a society no matter where we live in the West or in the Muslim world. Women/girls from Italy, Pakistan and all kind of places in all corners of the world suffer from feelings of this so-called fear and shame. Even when we are in societies where it is kind of okay to reveal yourself and it’s okay to be called sexy. That is something that I am still learning and discovering.
Please tell us a little bit about you and how Seemab’s journey began?
My background is in Fine Art at the University of Creative Arts. To be honest for a while, I really did not have a direction. In the art world you needed a studio, you needed curators, you need somebody who believed in you and I think my biggest problem was that I did not believe in myself at the time and I did not have the support system. Instead, I got into political and anti-war activism. At that time, it was the Iraq and Afghan wars and we did a lot of fundraising and protests. I took some time out from work and art and I was doing small jobs. Then I missed being creative so I decided to go back to studying evening courses whilst looking for jobs, it was a real struggle. I started to doing a course in visual anthropology which introduced me to visual documentaries. I then mentioned to my tutor that I was thinking of studying filmmaking and he said “are you sure? there is no guarantee of work, it’s a cutthroat industry and very very competitive. Are you sure you want to spend so much time and money doing a Masters?”.
A long story short, I did the Masters and that really changed my perspective on the kind of cinema I liked. I grew up on Hollywood and Bollywood but I started to be exposed to others such as Iranian arthouse cinema, Italian neorealism, post-war Japanese cinema and Romanian new wave which had huge influences on me. I realised Iranian cinema is very close to the Pakistani culture especially in terms of the way that they reflect. Our poetry and our literature are interested in tragedy whereas Bollywood is song, dance, colours and celebration. In fact we are culturally closer aligned with Persian history and literature so I wanted to make films like what I learnt on the Masters and what I really admired but in Pakistan and wanted genuine and social realist stories not just song and dance.
For 10 years I struggled I made short films, low-budget films but I was the token here and there. I knocked on every door you can imagine and just persisted. I was like I want to make art and I want to make films. I will do it in any capacity so I started producing, I started doing camera I started editing so now if you look at my IMDB I have different categories in what I’m doing. Then the pandemic happened and it made me have no pressure to look for jobs, to hustle constantly, to worry about money so suddenly I had the time to focus on what I wanted to do which was write and direct and that’s exactly what I did without fear without any self-doubt and for the first time I said to myself I am going to go for it. Then Sandstorm was born, Sandstorm is my biggest achievement and now I’m writing feature films.
I was a rebel as a teenager and gave a little bit of a hard time to my parents which I guess is normal for a teenager. But now I feel like as you grow you realise it is a responsibility to tell stories of our culture from a female perspective which really matters to me as now as I feel like I’m talking for all, I want to tell stories with a voice now- I feel like it is not only a privilege but also a responsibility to tell the stories and to reach out. Cinema has the power to do that.
What are your plans for the future?
You can search online there is a film that I am developing. It is a feature film of stories of key women living in a safe house in Karachi and in that period one day they leave the safe house and it transpires that the family’s would rather call them crazy then to give them their rights for example in access to children and inheritance. We are in the financing stage now. I am writing and directing it and hoping to try for it to be my first feature film.
How are you finding this experience?
The Masters prepared me for writing feature films and feature-length films. I think what I wasn’t prepared for was getting used to rejection and the number of rejections. I had written TV dramas and had written feature films. I pitched them to producers here and there and when it really changed was when I decided to go to Pakistan to work a little bit more out there a few years ago. Although Abid and I are from Karachi we met at a film festival, at the time I was going to labs and workshops around Europe and around the world to keep on improving my skills. I went to many and there I started to get a lot of recognition and respect as a female Pakistani filmmaker. When the big organisations came scouting in Pakistan, they realised that I was one of the few people who has done a Masters in filmmaking. There are literally a few tens of people that you can say have done that standard of education in film.
I still had to deal with rejections as there is far too much competition and we are also seen as the token. The South Asian immigrant and given the token tiny piece of whatever is out there. Where as in Europe they started to see me as someone educated from Pakistan, who is doing cinema on a serious level and has the potential to tell some interesting original stories. I am very privileged and honoured to be nominated for the British Independent Film Awards recently and it has been a journey. I am grateful of course that now so many British producers want to work with me and that one of the broadcasters is now going into development with me for a second feature so lots of doors that were closed for a very long time have started to open after Sundance London.
In Pakistan and in the South East Asian community, it is not really encouraged to study the cinema or the arts. A lot of parents don’t allow their children to study that way. I did it initially with hesitant parents and supported myself. It was a financial struggle along the way but they can now see what I have achieved and support me. There is an understanding in Pakistan that women are not treated right in our industry which is partially right. But now they realise you have a stronger role as a producer and as a director. Within it you have power and we as women can empower others. Thus, creating a safer place for young female actresses to be working with us.
My parents as well as others are starting to see the power of cinema and the meaning of stories and messages in Sandstorm and Zahida. Zahida is a documentary about Pakistan’s first female taxi driver which I did with Al Jazeera English now online. When they see what these have achieved, of course they are proud alongside my relatives who are finally understanding that this can also be a respectable industry and you have the power to create your own heritage as well as many other things.
Dr Fykaa Caan- “Seemab you have opened the doors to many. The fact that you have done this even under all the obstacles that you have gone through is admirable and inspirational. Especially with the stigmas attached, through personal and cultural struggles. It shows just how incredibly determined you are. This is not just about a film; it is a lot more than that. It is about what you are doing for the country, for young girls around the world opening doors. They want to grow up to be you and their parents will see what you have achieved and will now be open to the idea.
It just takes one person to make a difference and you are that person.
Thank you for the messages! We wish you all the best from The Hollywood London Magazine”