Interview met Mobeen Ansari over zijn debuutfilm ‘Hellhole’

Geplaatst door Sabine Kruijt - in Updates

De Pakistaanse Mobeen Ansari (1986) studeerde Beeldende Kunst aan de Hogeschool voor de Kunsten in Lahore, Pakistan. Hij is ooit begonnen met fotograferen als hobby. De passie van zijn vader en grootvader voor fotografie inspireerde hem om van het fotograferen zijn beroep te maken. Door middel van zijn kunst en fotojournalistiek wil Ansari een positieve kant van zijn geboorteland Pakistan laten zien, een kant die veel mensen nog niet kennen. Naast het fotograferen houdt hij zich ook bezig met schilderen, beeldhouwen en videoproductie. Dat laatste resulteerde in zijn debuutfilm ‘Hellhole’.

Deze korte documentaire is gebaseerd op het leven van Indiase onderhoudsambtenaren, beter bekend als rioolschoonmakers. Mobeen Ansari maakte een indringend portret van deze mensen, van wie ook wel eens wordt vergeten dat ze mensen zijn. We vroegen hem naar zijn beweegredenen om deze documentaire te maken.

Mobeen fotografeert voor zijn eerste fotografieboek ‘Dharkan; the Heartbeat of a Nation’ alles wat hij in het land tegenkomt. Zo liep hij op een dag langs een open borrelende rioolput in Karachi, de grootste stad van Pakistan. Wat hij toen zag was voor hem zo weerzinwekkend dat hij besloot dit vast te leggen, wat resulteerde in de film Hellhole. Mobeen vertelt verder over zijn persoonlijke stijl als filmmaker, zijn contact met de hoofdrolspelers en wat we in de nabije toekomst van hem kunnen verwachten.

Lees hieronder het hele interview met Mobeen Ansari. De korte documentaire Hellhole zal vertoond worden tijdens het INPUT festival 2017.

You are a photographer, painter, sculptor and author, what made you decide to also become a filmmaker?

I have always wanted to experiment and tell stories through every medium, including film. I have always been a movie buff as well.
In recent years the Pakistani film industry has been going through a revival and many of my friends have been involved as actors and filmmakers.
My desire to make a film grew and one day I decided to try my hand at it by making it on a subject I knew very well and that is how Hellhole came about.

What inspired you to produce the documentary Hellhole?

A few years ago I was photographing for my first book of photography, ‘Dharkan: the Heartbeat of a Nation’, which is about the people of Pakistan, both famous and unknown who have shaped Pakistan or contributed to Pakistan in their own special way.

One day I passed by an open manhole while walking in a street in Karachi. There I met Akram Masih, who works as a gutter cleaner. As he took a cigarette break I sat down with him and asked him a few questions. I learned that he earns a salary of just Rs. 5000 ($50) per month and when I asked him why he was in such a dangerous and thankless profession he answered that he did it firstly to feed his family, but also for his country.

Akram’s photo is the first photo in my book. This image and experience will stay with me for a long time because it taught me a lot personally. Like Akram many people in this profession are practically invisible and the world at large does not acknowledge them, whether it is because many take the drainage and sanitation system for granted, or because of discomfort.  I researched his profession and got to know that many years ago in the city of Karachi, all the gutter cleaners went on strike due to non-payment and unfair treatment. Very soon the people of Karachi found out what happens without sanitation workers like Akram. The gutters clogged up, manhole caps blew off, streets flooded and the city found much of itself at a standstill. Eventually things were sorted out (I am not sure what exactly happened but I was told that the gutter cleaners were paid their due wages) and life resumed. This story made me realize that the people in this profession are truly the pulse that keep the city going, in spite of all the hardships they go through and I felt the need to recognize them.

As Pakistan’s cinema revival was underway, many of my friends and colleagues pushed me to also join and make a film, including the very successful and talented actress Sania Saeed. In fact it was she who suggested I could possibly film Akram’s story and that’s when the bulb lit!

My desire to make a film and the need to highlight these unsung heroes connected and so I began work on Hellhole. My friend Edel Griffith, who is the soundtrack composer for the film, was my sounding board and encouraged me to work on this subject matter. 

Why did you choose to make a short doc over a longer documentary?
(At the INPUT festival we give a workshop on producing short docs, it might be interesting to know what your experiences are with producing a short film)

I did not want to be overly ambitious by making my first film a full feature and risk it not being impactful. In fact I had originally planned to make this only 2 minutes long but as I filmed it over a period of 6 months the story grew and eventually it became a 10 minute film.
I also wanted to make a silent film and I felt that a short doc could sustain that more easily than a feature.

Why should people see Hellhole? Do you have a specific target audience?

Sanitation workers are invisible to everyone. That leads to all the problems they face which are all interconnected. Because they are not known to the world at large (and because most cannot afford it) they do not have any safety equipment. Their life expectancy is just 45 years. I think the first step to helping them is recognizing them and the fatalities of this profession.

I have tried to make the film in such a way that it could be universally understood rather than having a target audience. On a literal level, the film means to highlight dangers and difficulties of people in this profession. On a philosophical level, the film aims to inspire people to work harder through their difficulties and challenges, and to be thankful.

How was your contact with the key players (gutter cleaners) during the production of Hellhole?

Initially I wanted my character to be Akram Masih (the sanitation worker I mentioned before) but I could not find him after two years of looking for him. It was by chance that a friend of mine had hired another sanitation worker, a much senior man at the very same time I was looking for Akram. She knew I wanted to make a film on this subject so she connected me to the person- his name is Pervez Masih. He turned out to be Akram’s uncle and had been in this profession for over 20 years.

I met Pervez and told him that I wanted to make a film on the lives of gutter cleaners, as seen through one. He immediately agreed and I filmed him over 6 months. He was very patient and very kind to have let me capture his many moments- dangerous, happy, sad and personal.

Do you still have any contact with them?

Every now and then I speak to Pervez over the phone but I have not met him since the film production wrapped up.

How do we recognize Hellhole as your production?

Being a hearing impaired individual I have a better understanding of things in silence. The basic idea behind Hellhole was to make a film which had no dialogue and could be universally understood, even in countries where this profession does not exist.

The use of black and white and color sequences are symbolic. All of Pervez’s scenes are in black and white while the city shots are in color- which mean to say that Pervez (like all his counterparts) drains his color to give color to the city- to keep it running. 

What characterizes you as a documentary maker (or as a photographer, painter, etc.)? What is your personal style?

I like to believe that different mediums I work with show different facets of mine. In my photography you will see an explorer and an optimist. As a painter I am very pessimistic and very political. So far Hellhole is my first work as a documentary or filmmaker so I’m not sure yet what my personal style will be. Possibly a realist!

Your debut film got selected by several film festivals, how does this affect you as a filmmaker? Are you going to focus more on film making instead of your other activities?

I was pleasantly surprised and humbled to see that Hellhole was selected by some amazing film festivals around the world, and even more surprised to be approached by some to submit my film! I did not expect this since it was not only my first film, but it was made with almost no planning, absolutely no script or storyboard.

It is very encouraging and I will definitely be working on more films.

What can we expect from you in the near future?Are you working on any new projects at the moment?

My book ‘White in the Flag’  will be my next release. The book is based on lives and festivities of religious minorities of Pakistan. I hope to publish this book by end of this year as it has been in works for 7 years! Simultaneously I’ve been working on my third book which is sequel to my first book ‘Dharkan’, which follows the same theme, but with a different set of people.

I will be doing a lot of travel photography in Northern Pakistan (something I do few times a year) if all goes according to plan and will be sharing the photos on my social media. I’m also working on a collaborative India-Pakistan peace project with Arpana Gvalani which involves portraits of Indian actors who have familial, ancestral or professional connection to Pakistan.

Last year I worked with Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as a photographer on their polio eradication campaign in Pakistan. We traveled all over the country for almost 6 months capturing vaccinators, health workers and officials. I’m hoping for them to also reveal those photos on their social media or exhibitions soon!

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