Among this year’s shortlisted Oscar contenders for Best International Feature, few of them have attracted as much media attention as Pakistan’s Joyland. This outstanding debut feature from director Saim Sadiq has taken a winding road in its awards campaign, after being banned and then unbanned in Pakistan for its central love triangle involving a trans character. In a recent conversation with Awards Radar, Sadiq discussed the mental toll of that ordeal, as well as the careful process of crafting an authentic representation of his country and its people. Below is an edited version of that discussion.
Shane Slater: What was the inspiration for the story?
Saim Sadiq: I think for everyone, their first film is a little bit about themselves. And I think in my case, it’s not so much the story as the themes. The emotional, investigation of the film was very much for me to find some sort of a catharsis for myself and the people around me that I’d seen. Especially the women in my family growing up, which was a very typical middle class family of decent people. But, you know, there were certain hierarchies, and then hierarchies within hierarchies that were established that never really make sense. And so I think this was my way of sort of making sense of those things for myself. And those binary roles of femininity and masculinity. I think the impulse that gave me the germ of this idea that sort of pulled me through for those seven years was that.
Slater: How did the Biba character come into this story?
Sadiq: So early, I think the first germ of the idea that came to me was to have a story about a man, a woman and a trans woman. All three of them connected via this triangle of sorts, which may seem like a love triangle, but it’s really about the three individual selves, and how they affect each other knowingly and unknowingly. And trans people are such a visible part of life in Pakistan, that it’s not a an anomaly to think of them, at least for me, as a character, you know what I mean? In the same way, of course, that there are older people in the film, you know? I’m not an older person, but I’ve seen all the people I’ve interacted with and they’re equally affected by patriarchy, but in a different way.
So for me, I think, sort of trying to decode what patriarchy does to human beings and human relationships holistically, had to sort of be via the lens of a man versus man versus woman and a trans woman. And that gave me a chance of exploring it holistically. But also, I think she was such a great incitement for the story, because her very existence as a human being is everything that sort of dismantles all that the family stands for. She doesn’t have to do anything, just her very existence is the antithesis of what everybody else believes in the film. So it was a great clash to start off the story with.
Slater: You include a scene in the film, where a group of trans women are discussing how documentary filmmakers can be exploitative. How did you approach being responsible and authentic in telling a trans story.
Sadiq: It was a joke almost, between me and them. I told them that I’ll include something like this. In many of the initial conversations, they were skeptical initially of talking to me. Alina not so much, because she knew me. This is not a film about the trans experience, so the research was anything that they wanted to tell me. Whether it’s about your family, life, your career. Whether it’s just about what do you think about when you go to sleep at night.
So, a lot of them came with this sort of apprehension about not feeling very represented with the way some of the other older documentary filmmakers’ films had portrayed them. And they didn’t understand why would they do this. Why would we put ourselves out there for you? And I first had to explain to them this is not a documentary film, so it’s not like I’m shooting them and putting them out there. It’s just really for my own understanding. I don’t know if I should come out and say that I have done it the right way, you know? Because that’s something that should be asked of them. Of course, I can be like, “This is the right way. I’ve cracked a code.” But I tried my best to make sure that I listen more than I speak.
I think that’s the only way. And to give primarily Alina the chance. The character was pretty much there, but she made it real. And I added so much to it that, for her to have the freedom to say no, at any given stage, or take it into a different direction and for her to be placed in an environment where she is allowed and comfortable enough to actually voice those concerns or ideas, are I think the only way that one can try to be inclusive. Not for the purpose of exploitation.
At the end of the day, of course, even this is exploitative. But it’s not in a bad way. I have a trans character, and it’s there in the story. And I need the story to function in a particular way. But that’s the same as all the other characters. As long as you’re treating them with the same level of dignity and understanding and inquisitiveness as you treat all the other characters, whether male or female. I think that sort of lays the ground for you to be allowed to do it.
Slater: I love how you conveyed this sense of intimacy, not necessarily through sex and physical acts, but through those honest conversations between the three central characters. Was that chemistry natural between them? Or did you do a lot of prep or rehearsal to get it perfect?
Sadiq: It was both. I think there were differences between what needs to be like a more lived-in relationship, like Haider and Mumtaz, for example. There needs to be a certain comfort level in their bedroom, when they’re moving around each other. They don’t necessarily need to look at each other. They know how the other person’s going to move, what they’re going to say. So you do a different kind of workshop, where you build more background with them. You build a level of comfort with them, where very little can surprise one about the other. Which is interesting, because there’s a lot that these two can surprise each other with, emotionally speaking.
And then on the other hand, there’s the romance where it’s more unexpected. You want to workshop with the actors in a certain way where they can constantly surprise each other. With Biba and Haider, there is that sort of unpredictability that you keep alive, and you don’t kill that with just redoing scenes over and over again. So it was a mix of both, you know? Sort of workshopping, but also always changing the scene a little bit. So the final scenes that they actually shot, they got them like a week before the shoot or something. I think 10 days before the shoot. I’ll keep changing the dialogue and I’d be like, “No, now it’s this, now it’s that.” Just so that they don’t get comfortable with the lines. There’s always something to explore.
But they’re so wonderful. I mean, it’s the first film for all three of them. They are such wonderful actors that it was a pleasure. And also, they had such different processes that there was no way that they were going to not surprise each other, and me and the audiences. The two girls are very surprising as actors, because they’re not very method. Ali’s more method. So it was a pleasure to sort of poke them and see what they come up with.
Slater: You’re from Pakistan, but you studied at Columbia. How that perspective shaped your filmmaking sensibilities?
Sadiq: It’s completely shaped my filmmaking sensibilities. I think both in terms of teaching me the rules, and then also sort of enabling me to break them in my own way and sort of helping me realize which rules I have an aversion to and which ones I actually think are good for this particular story.
So I think those those four years as far as filmmaking is concerned, particularly the writing, were very formative for me. I learned a lot. Not just from my teachers, but particularly but also from a very international class of people from like 30 or 40 countries, from Lebanon to Brazil. It was amazing to be in that environment where cinema was not one thing. It was many things, and all of those things were the right things. There was no didactic view of what films can be or should be, which I feared would be the case, going to an American film school, you know? Being taught how to make films in an American way. So we were able to avoid that because of such an international class, which I thought was really amazing.
Slater: Of course, we know all the controversy surrounding the film’s release, and the selection for the Oscars. And throughout all this, I was just wondering what’s going through your mind? To be honest, a lot of other people were surprised that it was even selected in the first place. What was that experience like for you?
Sadiq: So the selection happened, because the committee that selects the film to go to the Oscars is not affiliated with the government. It’s a separate committee, which is actually comprised of filmmakers, artists, musicians, writers. So they are not the problem at all. They’ve been fighting this battle way, way before me.
Honestly, there was no time to think, frankly. There was no time to process in the midst of it all, because we were told that we’re going to be banned six days before the release. So we were like, “Oh, we have six days to put up a fight.” Or we could just say that this is it. But we were like, “No, we’re gonna put a fight.” So in those six days, there was no time to be think about what I’m feeling. It was very strategic. We were trying every way, politically through social media, through whatever contacts we had legally to undo this. And we managed to undo it. There’s a long history of films getting banned in Pakistan. This was the first one that got unbanned.
So, it was unfortunate, because I think the aftermath of it made me realize how sort of mentally fucked I was. [Laughs]. Because I really have no idea what it has done to me or how it will shape me, in whatever I do next. Am I going to be braver? Or am I going to be more scared? I really have no idea. And I sort of keep thinking about that.
The unfortunate thing was, for the longest time, it became not about the film. The conversation was not about the film until they actually released in half the country. Which was, I think, for any filmmaker, the saddest thing. Because you’re like, “My film is really very famous, but it’s not because of the film.” People were like, “Oh, it’s great for the publicity.” And I’m not sure how far this kind of publicity is gonna take me. But as an artist, it’s really heartbreaking to take something that you’ve worked on, and sort of change the meaning of it and change the significance of it completely from whatever you intended.
So that is something. But again, it helped that it actually released because then a lot of people who went to watch it talked about the film. And then were back on track. Whether you like it or not, at least you’re talking about the film after watching it. Before that, there was a whole country talking about the film without having seen it, which is crazy.
Slater: The film is really much broader than just being about a trans narrative. When Pakistani audiences finally saw it, what were their responses? Did it change their preconceived notions of what the film was, or did they also still focus on the trans aspect?
Sadiq: Well, the right-wing bloggers were making videos every two days about banning Joyland and they stopped the day of the release. They completely stopped. They were still commenting and doing little bits here and there. But suddenly the film was out, and apart from the trans romance, there is a lot more perhaps to be offended about by this film! [Laughs].
But I would say that because the film doesn’t sort of hammer the point in an obvious way, there are very few lines that you would be like, “Oh, this is against our culture. Or this is against our religion, or is attacking some particular faction of society.” But it’s felt. You can’t really attack a feeling that you get, as a viewer after watching the film. If there was a big speech about the evils of patriarchy, or letting queer people be etc., then they would have material to actually go further and attack the film.
But I think the film, thankfully, goes about it in a subtler way. And so the reactions helped me heal a little bit, because they were very special, even though the film was censored. Whatever was left was still able resonate with people, and move them and just allow them to see a version of themselves on screen, which was something that excited me the most about releasing the film in Pakistan. There are very few films we make. But out of all the films that we do make, this may not be the best or the worst, but this is perhaps the closest of what people are like in Pakistan. And that was something that caught on, and I’m really thankful for that.
Slater: This is the first time a Pakistani film has been shortlisted for the Oscars, and a lot of us are not familiar with Pakistani cinema. Could you recommend some Pakistani films?
Sadiq: There’s the film that just came out called The Legend of Maula Jatt. It’s as opposite to a film as can be compared to Joyland. Very masculine, testosterone-heavy, grand fantasy movie. But it’s really lovely in the sense that it’s actually entertaining and well produced. It’s very loud, but fun. And then there was another film called Kamli, which I may be biased about because I edited it and one of our producers directed it. But it also came out this year and it’s playing at Rotterdam, actually. It is also a really lovely film about desire and femininity.
Funnily enough, if I even I had to pick two films overall, I would perhaps pick these two films. And it’s funny that they all came in this year along with Joyland. So it’s exciting to see different kinds of movies being made in Pakistan and sort of us reclaiming what it means to to be a Pakistani film.
Slater: Do you sense the industry is really growing at this time?
Sadiq: I do see people getting more involved in film now, for sure. You see new theatres opening, better theaters opening. And it’s always a sign, because you follow the money and you’re like, “Oh, people are putting money into this thing. It’s probably working on some level.” So there is definitely an increased amount of interest. There’s definitely an increased amount of focus, not just from young artists, but also the powers that be. The big news media conglomerates who are big on television, but now are branching back out in a different way post-pandemic and sort of understanding that cinema is cinema. You can’t turn the lights off in your TV room and call it the same experience. It’s different what it does to a human being when you watch it in a big theater on a big screen with people. It’s just a different experience.
So I do see the industry growing. I hope that it grows at a similar pace to this year. There were about 30 to 35 films in total. But they were talked about, they were seen. They were really an inherent part of the pop culture of the country. So I hope that remains and sustains itself.