Kara Film Festival

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Kara Film Festival

The Kara calling

By Uzma Mazhar


KaraFilm Festival.
KaraFilm Festival.

Hasan Zaidi’s name has been synonymous with the KaraFilm Festival and with the sixth event only a few months away, Images caught up with the festival director with a string of questions on the most sought after annual event in Karachi.

The first person I come across is his eight-month-old daughter, Maya. Inevitably, our conversation begins not with Kara but fatherhood. With a sheepish smile, Hasan says that he and wife, Tahera, have decided that they will not let Maya change their lives, and will go along as they have always done. “I don’t think we have given up on anything that we really want to do. Maya has been going to work with Tahera since she was four days old. They come back around 6pm and I only have a couple of hours to spend with her before she goes off to bed. If I’m out, I try and get back for that time with my daughter. It’s a different experience altogether; it is fascinating watching how her personality takes shape,” he says.

KaraFilm Festival.

From personal to professional life, Hasan says he wanted to be a theoretical nuclear scientist and was heavily into physics and mathematics, but ended up taking computer engineering in college. Upon his father’s insistence, he completed a computer science major. He says that he was also on the wait list at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but did not end up studying there which he terms as “lucky because I was able to go to a college where I did a lot of other things. I got interested in subjects like politics, sociology, even photography and films and ended up doing film production as well.”

After working in the development sector (in Zimbabwe and then Pakistan) and going on to becoming a journalist, he realised that he wanted to make films. Once he got into the field, films became a major part of his life. Today, Hasan is one of the main forces behind the only festival for films held in Karachi on a large scale, the KaraFilm Festival. He reflects on his true passion: “Making films is my first love. Initially I started off doing music videos, documentaries and made a feature film Raat Chali Hai Jhoom Kay six years ago.” He has also made a couple of short films, which, according to Hasan “side-tracked” him; but he still finds Kara an “important thing that needs to be done. Now I really need to make another film because I am itching to do so. As a matter of fact, an idea has been in my mind for the last two years and now finally it’s coming round.”

Delving into the details of his latest production, Hasan confirms that it is going to be an international co-production and is going to be released in Pakistan and abroad. He hopes to use some experts from abroad and attach them with the local crew so that they can learn about new procedures. He is quick to mention that a foreign crew doesn’t necessarily mean only from India, “though it will be better as there will be no language barrier and it will also be much cheaper than other options.”

According to Hasan, the story of the film which is set in Karachi is complete and the screenplay is in its final stages. Excited about the project, he says that it will be something new. “It will hopefully raise the bar for production quality in Pakistani films as well,” he adds refusing to divulge any more details about his pet project.

‘Mahesh and Pooja Bhatt don’t come here as film-makers, they come here as supporters of Kara. They have actually gone out of their way to actively solicit film-makers to attend it. You need people like these to support you. The Bhatts act as our eyes and ears in Mumbai. Everyone is looking forward to participation from India because frankly no other country brings as much excitement as India does in Pakistan,’ says Hasan Zaidi

Will it be a commercial or art film? “I do not believe in this distinction at all. A film is a film whether good or bad — it depends on your point of view. ‘Art film’ in Pakistan is interpreted as boring and long, and I think there is nothing worse than a boring film. When so much money is being invested in a project, every film needs to make money so in a way, every film has to be commercial. So my answer to your question is yes, it is going to be a commercial film but certainly not a formula film. I have nothing against song and dance if it fits the storyline and works. We’ll have it too and if it doesn’t fit in, we may not have it at all. It eventually depends on how it all works out, but it will certainly have music. All I know is that working on this film is the most exciting thing for me right now,” he says.

Moving back to Kara, Hasan jokingly admits that the idea for the festival evolved out of whining and moaning. On a serious note, he says that it came about as fellow film-makers Mehreen Jabbar, Maheen Zia, Jami and others always lamented that even if one is brave enough to make an out-of-the-ordinary film, the fact remains that there is no avenue to exhibit it. Most such films do not fit into the preconceived notions of the dwindling cinema circuit or even television. “The number of television channels has certainly increased since Kara was conceived but unfortunately, I think the diversity of programming has actually shrunk in some ways. All they want are soaps, sitcoms and chat shows. The culture of mediocrity is fast expanding.”

Hence, six years ago, when the opportunity to hold a film festival presented itself, they pounced on it. Initially Hasan and co. organized Kara under the banner of The Small Independent Film Forum. After being formalised into the KaraFilm Society, it became a platform for film-makers to exhibit their work. There has been no looking back since. According to reliable sources, last year the festival showcased more than 150 films from over 30 countries, and saw an attendance in excess of 50,000 people. With its sixth year in the running, what does the KaraFilm Festival mean to Hasan and his team? “Kara in its sixth year in itself is an achievement given the kind of odds and adverse circumstances we have been battling against, both in terms of our social and physical environment. In terms of the latter, we still don’t have any proper auditoriums in Karachi. With regard to cinemas, one doesn’t only require a screen to showcase the film but spaces where people can gather, sit down and talk after watching a film. With the marginalisation of a film as a whole, we are trying to show that film is a creative medium in which good people can be involved while simultaneously trying to bring people back into watching films as a collective thing. It is a difficult task as we are dealing within a culture where the tendency has been to go towards cocooning oneself in small class-based enclaves. Then piracy is another troublesome issue with the easy availability of films on DVDs. This means that people have watched some of the films much before they are screened at Kara, something that we have to keep in mind while programming. To a certain extent, I think Kara has succeeded in reversing the dismal situation for cinema in Pakistan. In short, what Kara actually means to us is that we have managed to sustain it for six years which, given Pakistan’s history in these matters, is not a small thing and having done it regularly every year can surely be considered an achievement. It also means we would like to see it grow beyond certain barriers that require a lot more resources, input and support.”

Last year, the government showed support for the KaraFilm Festival with the presence of President Musharraf at the closing ceremony, who declared that the same would be strong and unequivocal from now on. Has this declaration made the journey for Kara a smooth one? “On the one hand the government has been very helpful in the last couple of years especially last year, and yet there is a difference between verbal support and sometimes also behind-the-scenes support and practical support.

“What we would like to see is some sort of institutionalisation. We keep talking about the fact that suppose if tomorrow some of us are not here this festival is something which should continue. That is only possible if there is some sort of institutionalisation of the entire process. There are all sorts of hurdles that one cannot even begin to imagine. I remember in the second year, we had a Merchant-Ivory film which was blocked by some appraiser at customs who claimed that he couldn’t let it go because it might be Al Qaeda material, even though it clearly stated what it was and from where it was coming. It was obviously an attempt to extort money out of us. In the end the film got stuck in customs and we couldn’t get it in time to screen it, in turn also upsetting Ismail Merchant. We had to pay $500 just for transportation. Whatever good intentions the government has, they need to make sure that these sort of small hassles don’t come up along the way,” he says.

With KaraFilm becoming a name to reckon with, it is a common belief that films are now especially being made for the festival. However, dismissing the notion, Hasan is of the opinion that a festival is not something that one makes a film for. “I always had a problem with this concept. A film made just for a festival doesn’t make any sense simply because film is an expensive medium, it involves many people and costs money, and it is not a solo activity. Kara is only there to promote a film to a wider audience, especially the films that may not get the kind of exposure that big blockbusters get. But it certainly is not the end all of film distribution. The hope is always there in a festival that when people see it by getting good reviews, etc, other people would want to see it. Through the festival, one is either able to hand it over to a distributor or sell the film on home video or television. A festival only serves as a platform and that’s about it.”

With the sixth Kara Film Festival approaching, it is expected that the father-daughter duo of Mahesh and Pooja Bhatt will again be present as patrons, even though there are some question as to why have they become Kara constants. “I hope they do come. Mahesh and Pooja don’t come here as film-makers they come here as supporters of Kara. What they have been able to do for us nobody else has done it in India or abroad. They have actually gone out of their way to actively solicit film-makers to attend Kara, which is a difficult thing for a small festival as people don’t generally think of festivals like Kara. Instead, they think of Cannes or other major festivals. You need people like these to support you. As a matter of fact, the Bhatts act as our eyes and ears in Mumbai. Everyone is looking forward to participation from India because frankly no other country brings as much excitement as India does in Pakistan,” says Hasan.

And what about Lollywood and parallel films? Will this year’s commercial hit Majajan by Syed Noor and films made by Shoaib Mansoor and Saqib Malik feature in Kara? “I had spoken to Syed Noor and he said he wanted to send a short film this year so let’s see. But Majajan is definitely an option. I personally haven’t still seen it but whoever has is praising it. The only thing is that you have to balance the fact that these films are run quite a while before Kara and everyone has seen it. So the question is will people come around to see it? With Majajan, however, the case could be different because the audiences that watch Kara usually don’t go to watch local cinema anymore. As far as the other two films are concerned, we have asked Shoaib Mansoor for his film but we are not sure if it will be completed in time for the festival. As for Saqib’s film, it will certainly not be showcased as the shooting has been delayed which doesn’t start until next year,” he confirms.

Kara has become bigger and better, and it is indeed a great feat by Hasan Zaidi and his team members to carry it on despite all the hassles involved. How do they purpose to expand and sustain the festival through the years to come? “We certainly try our best to keep the public posted about Kara throughout the year via our mailing list. We have planned a film club and a membership drive that we will start soon. The reason we hadn’t begun the membership drive for Kara up till now, despite the huge demand, was because we didn’t want to start and then not be prepared to supply what we promised. But now things are starting to fall in place. We also plan to set up a KaraAcademy though obviously we don’t have the resources to set up an educational institute with a diploma degree. But what we can do is conduct courses in the form of workshops in sound, script writing and acting for people who are already in the field or are about to enter it.

“Then we would also like to do Kara Distribution as once the films shown in Kara are later not available for screening. Plus we would like to give more exposure to the new wave of Pakistani cinema abroad. What we are asking people now is whoever wants to distribute films once shown at the festival, they can take Kara as a distribution point for festivals as well as other markets. On a different note, what we would eventually like to have is a festival which is spread all over Karachi using cinemas houses and other spaces. But sadly we don’t have a choice when it comes to venues and neither the human resource to man so many venues. We are also talking to partners in other cities to expand the select festival screenings in Lahore, Islamabad and Peshawar.

“But talking about venues I must say that I wish we could have during the festival an open air free screening every night in FrereGardens. I think it would be a great experience for the people of Karachi. But, of course, we have not been able to do this so far because of a certain building across the road that prevents the citizens of their country from using their own park. Hopefully that too will change if we all work towards it,” says Hasan on a dreamy note.

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