EDA Awards @ IDFA 2015 Filmmaker Interview: Miriam Chandy Menacherry and Maheen Zia on LYARI NOTES

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lyari notes directorsLyari Notes, one of ten films nominated for the AWFJ EDA Award for Best Female-Directed Documentary at IDFA 2015, is an inspiring girl-centric film about female empowerment in through music. The film is the result of a remarkable collaboration between veteran Indian filmmaker Miriam Chandy Menacherry and first time Pakistani filmmaker Maheen Zia. In their collaboration, the filmmakers bravely confronted and overcame cultural bias towards women and ethnicity. IDFA’s catalog description of the film is copied below. Here’s what the filmmakers have to say about their experience:

AWFJ: How and why did you encounter and commit to the subject/theme of your film and the main characters in it?

MIRIAM CHANDY MENACHERRY: I live in India and was following some of the fabulous music coming out from independent artists in Pakistan. It seemed to be a huge underground movement where the music videos were often political sattires shared on youtube that were going viral (this was of course before youtube got banned in Pakistan). When I read the comments below the videos they were often by Indians. It struck me that where political diplomacy was failing between India and Pakistan, music was able to strike a chord and spark a more engaging discussion. I began reading about underground artists and music schools and discovered Hamza and his music school. I pitched the idea to IDFA-Bertha fund and they gave me a seed grant. I then pitched the idea to Maheen who is based in Karachi and with whom I had collaborated with on a previous film.

MAHEEN ZIA: Miriam you actually asked me if I would like to work on the idea right after your premiere at IDFA with Rat Race, and we pitched to IDFA Bertha after. So, that makes this film four years in the making!

MCM: Maheen agreed and it is because she lives in Karachi and had unique access that we have been able to film so intensely. She really discovered the Lyari project and suggested we focus on this tough neighbourhood and how music would transform the lives of four young girls from here.

MZ: I became interested when Miriam described the idea, and also because it would allow me to explore a vital undercurrent in my home country, through a meeting point between youth, resistance and social commentary.

AWFJ: What did you learn about the subject/theme from making the film?

lyari notes girlsMCM: We had a beginning and end for the film. We had decided to film a group of young girls from the volatile suburb of Lyari as they enrolled for music classes at Hamza’s music school right up to when they would stage a grand performance. The four friends we would focus the narrative on were discovered by simply an observational style of filming over extended periods of time. Maheen filmed a lot of material and I would keep editing the material and share the parts that were working with her. Over 3 years we have more than 20 edits…and we discovered Aqsa, Mehroz, Javeria and Mehroz because they had a small clique of their own. They were neighbours, best buddies and had a very natural engaging style of interacting with each other. Each girl had a very distinct background and personality which made the story telling unpredictable in the way `coming of age films’ really are.

MZ: I have new respect for this young generation of musicians in Pakistan; their vibrancy, tenacity, creativity, irreverence and sense of humour.

AWFJ: What did you learn about filmmaking from making the film?

MCM: We had a well known camera man who was male but Maheen insisted after the first few shoots that she should film herself. That was a very good call because of the complex filming conditions in Lyari and because there is a natural charm and intimacy which emerges with a smaller crew. We were missing this in the first few shoot schedules even though we had pretty shots.

MZ: I take a lot of space for myself, and give others a lot of space. I had a faint idea this kind of filming required that I park myself right into people’s lives, in their homes and work spaces, resolutely and indefinitely. Needless to say, I had to evolve.

AWFJ: What were your biggest challenges? Gaining trust? Filming conditions? Making a coherent story or creating impact through edited juxtapositions?

MCM: Filming in Lyari is a huge challenge in itself. Maheen will share details of this.

MZ: Honestly, all of those elements were challenging. Not just gaining trust but maintaining it. With so many people. Over such a long time. And hoping that our filming did not create any problems for them. There was also a moment, three years into the film, when the girls pulled out of the program just two months before the final performance that we had thought would provide a nice conclusion and suddenly we had an anticlimax to close the film with instead! Thankfully, they returned and the film gained a dramatic turn.

MCM: In terms of story telling there were so many elements to the narrative. We wanted the music and music videos as a narrative device . We wanted Hamza and his background as an underground rockstar setting up the school as the context to understand the politics of circumventing censorship. And then there was a central plot of these four girl friends who have their very first brush with music and what this weekly music class means to them as the violence escalates around them…

Each of these threads has its own unique flavour, the videos were raw and edgy and so was Hamza’s story whereas the story of the girls was soft and subtle. I think we really struggled with finding a form that would carry these elements. It was something we arrived by trial and error,a delicate balancing act that we hope creates a layered narrative that allows the audience to derive their own interpretations .

AWFJ: Do you think that being female gave you a distinct perspective and/or way of handling the filmmaking process? If so, how? If not, what are your thoughts about this question?

MCM: This strength of this film is in it’s quiet subtlety. I think Maheen’s filming has a very strong feminine sensibility and restrain, she does not sensationalize. I believe Lyari Notes is hard hitting because of these very qualities. We have tried to represent the voice of the silent majority in Pakistan who are equally targets of extremist attacks and political upheavals and who rarely have a voice because the mainstream media seems more focused on the perpetrators of violence than the average citizen trying to negotiate the business of living.

AWFJ: What are your plans for the future? Do you have specific career goals? A ten year plan? What sorts of “ideal world” opportunities would make it possible for you to succeed?

MCM: I always work on multiple projects so although I told myself this will be my last documentary for a while I know I have one more idea that is waiting to be explored. I shelved a feature film to focus on this documentary so I plan to revive that project as well.

I also want to curate viewing spaces in Mumbai that engage with film, art and workshop formats. I really want to ensure these are self sustaining spaces in my part of the city.

AWFJ: Who are the Filmmakers whose work has inspired/influenced your own?

MCM: I am thrilled that Errol Morris is being showcased at IDFA, Thin Blue Line really shook my world and made me question what is a documentary, what is fiction and how does one arrive at truth?
I also like the work of Ashim Ahluwalia.

The person whose film making I admire most is Mira Nair. I have seen her documentaries and her fiction and there is a core of honest subtlety as well as a sparkly sense of humour that make the narratives humane and real.

AWFJ: What advice do you have for other female Filmmakers who are trying to make their way through a still male-dominated industry?

MCM: I think mainstream narratives have reached a saturation point of violence and heightened sensationalism. The world over audience are looking for more quiet, healing narratives that reveal the subtleties of the human condition . I believe more women film makers will find a voice. Even here in India where we churn out the most films in the world, we are seeing a strong trend of female led narratives which are both refreshing as well as doing very well at the box office.

Don’t think about the industry, just focus on your art. If you are not invested in what you do, discouragement will be justified by anything from lack of resources to gender bias.

Also, when a good producer approaches you with an idea that appeals – say yes!

IDFA Notes on Lyari Notes: Lyari is a neighborhood in Karachi, Pakistan. It’s the most violent part of the city, terrorized by gangs engaged in armed conflict with the police. Each week, 11-year-old Aqsa and her three friends get a ride from here to the Music, Art and Dance School in another part of town. The school was founded by the famous Pakistani rock musician Hamza Jafri and his wife Nida Butt, whose mission is to use music as a creative means of expression and a tool for communication in a country under constant attack by extremist forces. For the children from Lyari these lessons are free, but first their parents have to be convinced; after all, music is sinful according to Islamic law. In Lyari Notes, the school is preparing for a performance while various external threats become increasingly worrisome. A sound check for a music festival gets interrupted because of security concerns, and everyone is taken aback when the Taliban attack a school in Peshawar, killing 135. Nevertheless, the kids go to music lessons every week. It’s an act of rebellion and a clear ray of hope in their dire circumstances.

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