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|Through the Lens of a Pakistani-American: The Ground Beneath Their Feet|
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|By Cee Zee|
Travails and Triumphs of Two Pakistani Women
Meet Nausheen Dadahboy, a Pakistani-American film-maker whose first instinct after hearing about the catastrophic earthquake in Pakistan was to get there!
She had not imagined undertaking such a project when she was studying Film and Video Production at the California State University at Long Beach, nor did she know that she would be shooting a film in the remote areas of Pakistan even before starting on the MFA degree program in Cinematography from the American Film Institute that she later completed.
Equipped with her digital camera and a motivation to make a difference, in 2005, Nausheen embarked on a mission to shoot a documentary about the victims of the October 8, 2005, earthquake in Pakistan.
The resulting film earned her a grant from The Hollywood Foreign Press Association and is now in post-production.
With “The Ground Beneath Their Feet” Nausheen tells the story of two ordinary women whose lives were turned upside down because of the earthquake.
What made you get involved in this venture: The Ground Beneath…?
As a Pakistani-American when I heard about the earthquake I was greatly affected by the tragedy, and I wanted to do something to help. As a filmmaker I felt the best way for me to help was share the stories of the people affected by the earthquake. In the end the film became about much more than the earthquake. It’s about two women, and their families, and their struggle to find a place in society once they have lost their apparent value in society. In Pakistan a woman’s role in society is based upon her becoming a wife and a mother. This is something that society feels these girls can no longer do, so what kind of future will these women have.
Why did you think their story was compelling?
I think my answer to the last question helps answer this question. As someone who understood Pakistani culture, I understood the enormity of what had happened to these women. They had been affected by the earthquake in a capacity that was much graver than many of the people I had met. They hadn’t just been injured, but they’d lost their whole future.
How did you pick Khalida and Ruqiya? Why these two…what do they represent?
I chose Ruqiya and Khalida, because they represented two opposites. Ruqiya starts out as much more hopeful about her situation. She has her sister Bushra taking care of her, and her fiancé Saleem is still interested in marrying. Khalida is very depressed when we meet her. Not only has she lost the use of her legs, but she received her injury while trying to help her blind father escape during the earthquake. Unfortunately Khalida’s father passed away. She also comes from a very rural village in the mountains, and she knows that in her condition she will not be able to return home. Over the course of the film you see Ruqiya and Khalida switch places. Ruqiya’s family refuses to let her marry even though she’s learned to take care of herself. Khalida on the other hand uses her disability as an opportunity, and moves away to the big city of Muzaffarabad, where she has a job.
Did you have a theme or outline in mind when making the film?
I didn’t know what I would find when I first got to Kashmir. I spent almost a month filming different people, and searching for what themes I wanted to explore. I knew that I wanted to make a film about women, and in that part of the world I would have better access to women than men, because of the culture. I also knew that I wanted to tell a story that would humanize Pakistanis, and something that would be about the lives of ordinary people. Something that would put a face on Pakistanis that had nothing to do with political instability, terrorism, or the oppression of women. I wanted people to be able to relate to the subjects in the film. When I met Ruqiya and Khalida I knew that their story would be able to transcend the barriers of culture and religion. People see those girls and they think, “this could be me, my sister, my daughter, etc.”
Was it easy to communicate with the subjects? Did you need a cultural interpreter? Can you give some example of the challenges of communication?
Urdu is not my first or second language, so it was a little difficult for me initially, but the more time I spent with the subjects the more my language skills improved. On two of my trips I did take a translator, but only because I sometimes I had difficulty phrasing questions so that the subjects could understand them easily. The only times I really needed a translator was when I spoke to Khalida’s mother, because she only spoke “pahari” which is the local dialect. I had other family members translate for me. I didn’t really need anyone to interpret the culture for me. I was actually surprised to find that they were a lot less conservative than I had anticipated. The men and women spoke and mixed freely.
Can you relate to Ruqiya or Khalida in any way?
I think everyone can relate to their story, and especially as a woman I could relate to them. I feel that if I wasn’t able to understand what they were struggling with I wouldn’t have been able to tell their story truthfully. Even in the U.S. marriage is still so much a part of Pakistani culture, and I knew how much their disability would alter the course of their lives.
What were the challenges of shooting the film?
So many challenges! I was my entire crew, so that was always difficult. I was recording camera, and sound while also conducting interviews. Physically it was challenging especially when we went to Khalida’s village in the mountains, we were hiking up and down the mountain with our equipment. It was challenging being a woman on my own, because even if I look Pakistani my giant camera would make me stand out no matter where I went. Luckily though I never felt that I was in any danger, and most of the people were more curious about what I was doing than hostile.
What was your one greatest disappointment during the production? Triumph?
I think the only disappointments that I have are for parts of the film where I couldn’t be there. There were two instances after I had come back to the U.S. when I hired a crew to shoot for me, because I was in graduate school, and I couldn’t get leave. One was for Khalida’s brother’s wedding, and the second was when Khalida went to Karachi to have a second spinal surgery. I hated not being there more because I wanted to share in their joy for the wedding, and I knew how scared she was about the surgery. I have become so attached to both of these girls and their families, and I think my relationship with them is the greatest triumph of the film. It’s certainly not something that I expected to experience when I started the film. I truly feel like I have two adopted families in Kashmir.
How long did it take you to shoot?
I shot the first half of the film between October 2005 and July 2006, so I was in Pakistan for almost nine months. Then there were two instances in 2007 when I hired a crew to shoot in my stead. The second half of the film was completed in June of 2010 I spent two weeks in Kashmir doing a follow-up with both women and their families.
Has there been a surprising outcome?
The biggest surprise was Khalida. Seeing her five years later, so full of hope for the future was really exciting for me.
What has the film done for the girls? What is the impact on them?
The film is not completed yet, so I can’t say that it has done anything for them yet. I know that my contact with them has certainly helped them. Throughout my time in Kashmir my mother collected funds here in the U.S. for the earthquake victims, so we were able to help the families with a portion of their expenses to rebuild their homes. Khalida’s second spinal surgery in Karachi was organized by my family. Ruqiya’s family has fallen on some tough times financially since the earthquake, and she is often in poor health, so we’ve been able to help her out with some of those expenses. She broke her wheelchair, and we helped replaced it. I want to clarify though that in many of these instances, we haven’t provided the financial assistance, but we’ve told people about their situation, and they’ve come forward, and helped. We’ve just provided the link to the girls.
How did the girls react when they saw the finished film?
They have not seen any portion of the film, and as I said the film is not completed. I am hoping to show it to them the next time I go to Pakistan.
Are you still in touch with them?
I have been in touch with them since I left Pakistan. I call them almost every month. I like to know how they’re doing physically and emotionally. I’ve also become friends with them, so I can’t imagine not having them in my life.
What is your next venture?
Right now I’m very focused on completing this film. I have other documentary stories that I would like to pursue, but nothing is concrete yet. I do know that I want to keep telling stories about Pakistan. In addition to my documentary work I work as a cinematographer on other films, and my next venture as a cinematographer is a narrative feature entitled “Josh.” It’s a mystery thriller set in Karachi, but at the heart of it it’s also about showing a side of Pakistan that hasn’t been seen outside of Pakistan.