Doc Blog

[TIFF will be showing Shame (left), a documentary about Pakistani activist Mukhtaran Mai, in Real to Reel as a work-in-progress. Here the director takes us behind the scenes - Ed.]

We needed a few crucial pick up shots done and I was in the middle of editing in New York. To get these pick ups, I would have had to go back to Pakistan for a few days. At that point, however, we were nine days away from the Toronto International Film Festival deadline and it wasn’t possible for me to leave the edit with such little time left.

I then began the scramble to find a cameraman and camera in Multan, the closest city to Meerwala, the Punjabi village where most of my film takes place. Now the area surrounding Meerwala is quite treacherous, full of armed highway-men and generally people who don’t take to kindly to “TV Folk”. In addition, it is about a two and a half hour drive from Multan to Meerwala, most of it on a single lane road with dual carriage traffic- traffic that includes huge petroleum trucks and cow and donkey mobiles.

After a slew of rejections, I managed to convince a local cameraman to take the journey for me. My next challenge was to make him understand my shot list.  I like to think I speak Urdu fluently, but I have no idea how to communicate “B-Roll”, “Close-up”, or “POV shot” in Urdu. I sent him some screen captures and stills to serve as a guide for the types of shots I wanted. The cameraman kept on pacifying me by saying, “no problem,” repeatedly and by insisting that he knew perfectly well what I was talking about in my shot list. But the few times I tested him about some of the shots I needed, he would pause, and then say, “What do you mean?” and then end his response with a lackluster “no problem”, before I had a chance to elaborate.

I was going to need more help in getting this shot list properly communicated. What I needed at this point was an assistant director. But no one else was willing to go to Meerwala. So what I needed specifically, was an assistant director in Meerwala.

Four years ago, Meerwala had no electricity, no paved roads, and a weak water supply system, let alone assistant directors. This was 2006, however, and Meerwala, was now hooked up to the Internet and I was closer to finding my AD. Who ended up being my AD? Two residents of Meerwala: Mukhtaran Mai, the women’s rights icon and gang rape survivor who is the subject of my documentary, and Naseem Akhtar: Mukhtaran’s friend and principal of Mukhtaran Mai’s School for Girls.

I admit it is a bit unorthodox to have the subjects of the documentary assistant direct the pick-up shoot for the film that is about them, but after all these years of shooting them, I felt that they would be the most knowledgeable about what shots I needed.  Neither of them had any AD experience, so I wrote a meticulous shot list for them.

Here is an excerpt of the shot list I e-mailed them:

From the school roof, slowly zoom into the window of Mukhtaran Mai’s bedroom or as close as you can get. Press record (red button). Then, hold your hands very, very still and then zoom out all the way. Once the picture is all the way out so you can see the house and the school. Hold for 25 seconds. Press record (red button).

Press record (red button). Walk inside the house from outside the gate, holding the camera very still. Walk straight down the path towards the guest room. Turn towards the center of the courtyard and walk slowly towards the kitchen. Stop. Hold the shot for 5 seconds. Turn the camera, aimed at the kitchen, and slowly aim it towards the last bedroom door. Walk towards the bedroom and enter it. Have Mukhtaran Mai sitting on the bed cross-legged. Have her face away from the camera looking tired and sad. Make sure she wears dark colors. Go a bit closer to Mukhtaran Mai until most of the room is in the frame. Hold the camera still for 25 seconds.  Press record again.

I got a Fed Ex package four days before the Toronto Deadline containing all the pickups I had gotten done. They came out great!
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