Pakistan is an extremely cinematic country: “Noor” directors Çağla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovanetti

By Nandita Dutta • Published on June 26, 2012

[A]fter its World Premiere at ACID, a parallel independent section at Cannes Film Festival this year; Pakistani film “Noor” directed by Ça?la Zencirci and Guillaume Giovanetti of Turkish origin will compete at the upcoming 47th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. The directors of the film tell us about their project and the inspiration they found in Pakistan:

What inspired you to make your debut feature in Pakistan?

We visited Pakistan for the first time in 2002, 10 years ago. With our Turkish background, we were expecting to find some similarities between the two cultures, but we also observed many surprising new aspects. Above all we discovered an extremely cinematic country. In particular, we were amazed by the stories that local people would tell us. We straight shot our first short documentary there! After this experience, we’ve been coming back almost each year in Pakistan, spending months immersed in the culture. At the beginning it was mainly to enjoy with our friends, but after some time, as the country is an endless source of inspiration, it became natural that we would develop a big project there. In 2005, we launched our feature film project.

How did the story idea originate?

There is this anecdote that happened in a Religious Festival where millions of people from Pakistan and India gather every year for the anniversary of the death of a Saint: the co-director Guillaume Giovanetti, who has weak facial hair, was approached by a young beardless uneducated man in a crowded narrow street. This man turned out to be genuinely surprised that Guillaume could have a wife in his country in spite of his “handicap”. Then he just vanished in that street, and we totally forgot about him. It’s only months later that his question came back to our minds: “In your country… No beard, no problem?”At that moment we decided that our film would raise questions about masculinity in that region: further than accepting one’s physical appearance or fitting some social codes, what does “To be a man” mean?

Then, since we were directing short films in parallel, our way of filmmaking gradually focused on non-professional actors playing their own life in a story we write for them. Therefore, for our Pakistani project, we have been looking for real characters to play in the movie we were developing. This research took us several months. After having met several choices in various areas of the country, we eventually came to bump into Noor by chance, in a street of Lahore, Punjab.

Despite the fact that it was the first time in his life he had met some foreigners, he turned out to be very open and on that same day he told us his own story, the one of a previous Khusra who wanted to be a man again. His storytelling and his behaviour were also the proofs of an extremely smart personality who can carry a feature film project on his shoulders. This encounter was decisive, and at the end of the 5 hours we spent listening to him in his tiny room, we knew he was our main character. Then we had to adapt our movie to his story.

Were you familiar with the Khusras? What kind of research went into developing the film project?

During the years we spent in Pakistan, we of course got acquainted a lot with the Khusras, as they’re part of the daily life, especially in Punjab and in Karachi: you come to see them in the streets, during weddings and celebrations for the newly born. We remember several times when, during evenings we would spend with some musician friends, we would share some time discussing with some Khusras. Still, their community, like the Hijras in India, had been portrayed many times in movies, so at that time they were not our primary goal as the subject of the film. Somehow this detachment was a good thing, as we could see their community with a distance, as a part of the local landscape.

Then, when we came to meet Noor, we of course – as we always do with our non-professional actors – spent a lot of time with him, in order to understand him in deep. This stage was necessary so for us to be able to direct him the best way during the shoot and to render his story accurately in our film. In that period we also spent long time with some Khusras Noor introduced us. We stayed in their houses, followed some of them during events and we took part into their private gatherings. They are a very warm and welcoming community, and as we got close to them, some even accepted to play in the movie. It was a great experience. And we must say that we were impressed by their acting skills!

How did you secure funding for the film?

As you can guess, it was very hard. Being non Pakistani-born directors was the main obstacle for us to match the international funding requirements. When it was about development money, the project was very successful, but then, when it came to production money, no fund would follow us because in their minds, as we didn’t have Pakistani Citizenship, we would not be able to make a good film about Pakistan. No matter how many years we would spend there, no matter how familiar we were with the culture, the rules were too rigid. Furthermore, in Pakistan, the situation of Independent Cinema was in a bad shape, and most of the time the Pakistani Directors had to count only on themselves to achieve their movies.

Ça?la Zencirci and Guillaume Giovanetti

After many years without giving up, we were lucky enough to be supported by several production companies in France and in Pakistan, who took the risk of helping us, financially and logistically. We also used our own structure in Turkey, and thanks to this gathering of motivated and courageous people, we could finally launch the production in Pakistan.

What kind of experience you had while shooting in Pakistan? Any challenges you faced?

We had built our golden team over the years, made of Pakistani people working in the field of independent documentary, filmmaking and producing and of 3 French technicians. This – light – crew (around 12 people) really all committed themselves to the shooting. It was of course very hard as the budget was very limited and as we shot in many locations, from hot plains to highlands throughout the country, but the whole crew gave all their energy to achieve the best result. We were also very much helped by locals during the shoot: indeed most of the people we shot in the various regions of Pakistan were old friends acting for us, and their families and friends came willingly into the game trying to fulfil our demands. We also didn’t have any problems with the authorities. We of course had all our shooting permissions, which we had to show once or twice to the local police coming to the set. But they mostly came out of curiosity, and the only difficulty we had was eventually to say no to some policemen, as they also wanted to have a part in the movie!

On the other hand, any kind of shooting in any country in the world needs quite a deep knowledge of the local culture. In some areas of Pakistan, for example in some parts of the Karakoram Highway, we definitely knew that a shooting crew including foreigners and a previous Khusra may cause inconvenience, so we basically shot only landscape scenes in those areas, again with the cooperation of the local people.

Still, the most challenging parts of the shooting didn’t come from the people, but more from the environment: our poor sound engineer was bound to find solutions for his microphones breaking down everyday because of the extreme heat, some members of the crew were suffering from altitude sickness in the Himalayas. The worst situation was due to a dam that was created 10 days before the shoot in the Hunza Valley because of a landslide. This dam modified the local climate: it went down to minus 10 at night in early June, we had rain and snow where the crew was trying to sleep in tents. Coming from the 40 degrees of Punjab, that was challenging! Furthermore, still because of that dam, we could not access a whole zone where we had casted people and scouted locations. We had to change the whole sequences at the last moment, finding new places and new people to shoot in no time. But actually, we like the unexpected in our shootings, so these last minute changes brought some fresh breath into the film!

Tell us about your professional background. 

We started filmmaking together, being co-authors and co-directors, and in parallel of the development of “Noor”, we shot 7 shorts and documentaries in several countries (Turkey, France, Iran, Germany, Italy, Japan) which were screened and awarded in more than 100 Festivals (Berlinale, Locarno, Rotterdam, etc.), all of them with non-professional actors. Among those films, “Ata” deals with the meeting of an Uyghur and a Turkish in France, and “Six”, which we shot in Japan, is a portray of several people in Tokyo.

We’re now very happy that “Noor”, after the Premiere in Cannes 2012 in the ACID section, is shown in Karlovy Vary, and we really hope this will help the film to be shown as much as possible, especially in Pakistan and India.

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