Interview with film director Schokofeh Kamiz

"I was surprised she wasn't a bigger sensation"

In early 2015, Pakistani activist Sabeen Mahmud organised an event on missing Balochi activists in her cafe. Later that day, she was killed by two men on the streets of Karachi. The documentary film "After Sabeen" is a very personal portrait of the woman. Interview by Schayan Riaz

What prompted you to make a documentary about Pakistani activist Sabeen Mahmud?

Schokofeh Kamiz: The first time I heard of Sabeen, I was very surprised over the fact that she wasn’t a bigger sensation. She was just a normal woman, who walked through the streets, joked with everyone around her, but had touched so many people through her activism. I was fascinated with how she started small and then achieved a lot. She reminded me of a nail file, touching the nerves of different people. I just had to make sure that more people get to know her.

The film starts with you watching an interview of Sabeen. But after that you decide not to appear again. What was the thinking behind that decision?

Kamiz: At first I didn’t want to show myself at all. For me, "After Sabeen" is an observational film. I wanted to get to know the woman myself too. But my friends kept asking me, what exactly is drawing me towards her? After all, I’m an Iranian. So I thought, okay, I will show myself at the beginning and make sure why I’m tackling this subject and what I think of Sabeen. The scene is a sort-of prologue.

Filmmaking is a difficult undertaking the world over, but especially in a city like Karachi. Was it a challenge for you?

Kamiz: “After Sabeen” is a no-budget-film. I simply had no chance of getting any sort of funding. And even if I would have liked to, I wouldn’t have been in a position to pay my crew. So I flew to Pakistan with as little equipment as possible. I basically went with a Canon, an audio recorder and headphones. I wanted to attract as little attention as possible. Neither from the government, nor from people unknown to me. I had just given birth and couldn’t afford anything happening to me.

So how did you actually work in Karachi?

Kamiz: The minimalist set-up actually worked in my favour, because the interviews I conducted were all very intimate and the lack of equipment helped in that regard. Whatever was shot indoors felt free to me, because anything could be said freely. But shooting the outdoor portions of Karachi were trickier. Eventually I decided to shoot them from inside the car. And that was interesting for me, because Sabeen also loved driving around town. I got to see the city from her eyes, so to speak.

But why did you have to shoot the city from inside the car? Were you threatened at any point?

Kamiz: No, nothing of the sort happened. It was just a precautionary measure. Only once was I stopped by the army when I was driving in a rickshaw. I had my camera with me and the officer wanted to know why. The driver really saved me at that time, because he explained to the officer how I’m not from Pakistan and can’t even speak Urdu. My phone was confiscated and checked thoroughly, and only then did the officer realise that I really wasn’t from there. Luckily they didn’t take my camera, I already had several interviews saved on it.

These interviews form the centrepiece of the film. You speak with Sabeen’s mother, Mahenaz Mahmud, and with several of her friends. How did you prepare?

Kamiz: I really didn’t know in what direction the film would go. I didn’t have a personal agenda and I didn’t want my interviewees to say what I wanted them to say. I just knew that I had to speak with Sabeen’s friends and naturally with her mother. And with people who continue to do her work. I was lucky to find Marvi Mazhar, who was a close friend of Sabeen’s and is now the new manager of Sabeen’s cafe, "The Second Floor". At one point, I realised that the film had too many "talking heads". And because I kept researching, I found several Facebook posts dedicated to Sabeen after her death. I used these quotes and incorporated them into the narrative. They give the interviews some structure.

In the film one can see how Sabeen’s room is unchanged after her death. What was it like shooting in that room and in her house in general?

"After Sabeen" film poster
After the murder of Pakistani activist Sabeen Mahmud, director Schokofeh Kamiz follows Sabeen's mother and friends to not only record reports and memories of her, but also to create a portrait of a woman she never knew

Kamiz: I really wanted to live with Mahenaz. I first spent a week at her place, then I returned for three days and finally for two days. I never imagined that she would give up her own room for me. And that she would sleep in Sabeen’s room.

I’m based in Berlin and so I had this Berlin attitude of just turning up somewhere and sleeping on the floor. The place was big enough anyway. But Mahenaz didn’t allow it. Which, when I think about it now, was very important for the film. Since Mahenaz slept in Sabeen’s room, and I interviewed her there too, she was very involved and also very emotional.

You only speak with people close to Sabeen and create a very personal portrait of her. But that portrait is quite homogeneous. I’m sure there are many people in Pakistan who celebrated Sabeen’s death. Were you not interested in exploring their twisted point-of-view too?

Kamiz: The themes of "After Sabeen" are already very difficult enough and I thought, if I show a cross-section of society, it won’t really help the film. Especially for an audience in the West, because they might not know who Sabeen is or what "The Second Floor" means. A place like that, in a city like Karachi, has a high value. I would have loved to shot the entrance of "The Second Floor" and asked men walking past the building, if they knew who Sabeen was. But my hands were tied. I just couldn’t do it. After all, I didn’t want to draw attention to the project.

Would you perhaps shoot a sequel in a few years?

Kamiz: Absolutely! I’m originally from Iran and even there you have several people, who get killed when they do something that isn’t liked by someone else. They are either put behind bars or killed. But what happens after that? How do the people left behind cope with the situation? I have already spoken to Sabeen’s mother. I’d like to return in five years and make a second part. I want to see how Pakistan has developed and what role Sabeen and her ideas have played in that development.

You ask your interviewees what they’d do if they would get a chance to meet Sabeen again. What would you do yourself?

Kamiz: That’s a good question. I never thought about it, because I never got to know her personally. If you ask me like that, I think I’d hug Sabeen and kiss her and just enjoy the moment. Actually, I’m quite a pragmatic person, but I always felt as though Sabeen was there with me when I was making the film. That she was there and was giving me strength. So I’d just hug her tightly, with all my heart.

Interview conducted by Schayan Riaz

© 2019

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