Film southasia

"Festival of southasian documentries"

THE MAKING OF PERWEEN REHMAN: THE REBEL OPTIMIST

16.11.2017 BY Mahera Omar

I ran into Perween Rahman at the Karachi Literature Festival in 2013. She met me so warmly that afternoon that it is forever etched in my memory. We spoke briefly about the feature length documentary I wanted to make with her about Karachiʼs sewage system. She was glowing, and since several people around her were vying for her attention, I told her I would visit her at her office in Orangi to discuss the documentary in detail.

That was the last time I saw her. On the evening of March 13th, 2013, she was shot dead on her way home from work. Perween was a much-loved architect and urban planner in Karachi, Pakistan. She was the director of the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP), a non-governmental organisation based in Orangi town, a low income neighbourhood of 2.4 million people in the northwestern part of the city. OPP had led community-based improvement of sanitation in Orangi since the 1980s. These efforts were based on extensive mapping of the townʼs drainage channels under the leadership of Perween.

The mapping team went on to document the entire sewage system of Karachi in the 1990s. They discovered that the
untreated sewage of the city was flowing into its natural drains all the way to the Arabian Sea. This led to an explosive situation with the cityʼs municipal authorities whose claims of functioning sewage treatment plants were now laid to waste. OPP’s sewage disposal plan for Karachi was later accepted by the authorities.

The inner workings of Karachiʼs haphazard sewage disposal and its effect on the urban environment has always held astrange fascination for me. This is what I wanted to make a documentary about. I wanted to film it like an adventure though, as a discovery of the city. And I wanted to film it with Perween. I had pitched the idea to her and she got it.

She said she would help with the fundraising efforts. Little did I know that I would end up making a documentary
about her life and work instead. But who would fund such a documentary? In the absence of grant providing institutions for documentary films in Pakistan, one option is to look for international funds. There
are opportunities for us to apply for grants from institutions like the IDFA Bertha Fund, Filmmakers Without Borders, Sundance, Tribeca and the International Documentary Association. Applying for a grant is highly competitive, so an increasingly popular option for filmmakers is to use crowdfunding platforms like IndieGoGo, GoFundMe or Kickstarter.

If you are really passionate about a project, you can also pitch to interested individuals, corporate bodies, NGOs or TV channels in Pakistan. That worked for me in the case of my documentary City by the Sea: The Future of Karachiʼs Coastline, which was funded by a private company as part of their corporate social responsibility. Adventures in Hingol was funded by family and friends. Sea Turtles of Pakistan was produced by Geo Television. Perween Rahman: The Rebel Optimist was funded by the NGO ‘Asian Coalition for Housing Rights’.

Finding funds is not the only challenge of making a documentary film in Pakistan. Safety concerns are something to consider in choosing a topic to film as the country struggles with domestic terrorism. I have known of people being picked up and questioned by the powers that be when they have been filming ‘sensitiveʼ topics.
While filming for the Perween Rahman documentary, we almost got beaten up at an illegal water hydrant in Karachi
when we lingered on way too long. We also had someone pull a gun on us on the outskirts of the city, well known to be a hotspot of the Taliban at that time.

However, that is a choice for the filmmaker to make about the kind of situation they are putting themselves in. Luckily, I only have to worry about not being picked up while filming hermit crabs and migratory birds on the polluted city beaches!

As for being female while filming, it has only been convenient for me as it tends to let one have greater access to subjects, especially women. And one can always don a burka when travelling to restricted areas in the middle of the night! In some cases I have been lucky to have talked my way out of sticky situations, saving my male colleagues in the process.

The options are wide open. You can make it happen. The bottom line is, keep telling stories.

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