“Dukhtar” Director on Breaking the Silence around Child Marriage

November 17, 2015

Afia Nathaniel, a computer scientist turned filmmaker, is making waves with her moving film about a mother fleeing Pakistan to protect her daughter from child marriage. 2003–04 AAUW International Fellow Nathaniel, originally from Pakistan, spoke with us about the release of her critically acclaimed film Dukhtar and what inspired it.

You started out in a very different field, computer science. How did you end up in film?

An image of Afia Nathaniel on a black background

Afia Nathaniel, image via Facebook

I experienced my aha moment sitting in one of my computer programming classes. I looked around. There were guys around me. I was the only girl in that lab, and they were completely passionate about what they were doing. I asked myself, Is this what I want to do? I feel nothing when I code; I’m doing it just as an assignment but not because I love it. I always wanted to be a storyteller.

Once I finished my computer science degree, I got a job in advertising. That’s the nearest thing to filmmaking in Pakistan since we don’t really have a film industry or proper film schools. I worked for two years in advertising, and then I moved to Switzerland to work for an international women’s nonprofit. I absolutely loved working in an all-women’s environment. While working there, I heard the story that refused to let go of me, and it was the story that eventually became Dukhtar. I heard a mother’s story of how she ran away from the tribal areas in Pakistan with her two daughters, and I knew immediately after listening to this story that I had to do something about it.

I was not a trained filmmaker, but I knew I had to shift gears in my life again. I trained myself to write screenplays, I took up photography as a hobby, and I applied to film schools. I was offered a dean’s fellowship to pursue a master’s in film directing at Columbia University. I said goodbye to everyone, bought a one-way ticket to New York, and ended up in a five-year master’s program, which was the most beautiful thing that ever happened to me. I finally ended up in a field that I loved and thrived in, and AAUW became a part of that journey in the second year that I was at school.

Has the issue of child marriage become a discussion point in Pakistan because of this film?

I think we’ve already made a significant impact in Pakistan for sure. Child marriage was a buried issue in the country, and now the silence has been broken in a very big way. The film, surprisingly, ran for four weeks straight in our local theaters in Pakistan. There was a huge yearning to see a story like this. I feel like at least I did the first part of my job as a filmmaker, which was to break the silence on the issue of child marriage. The first step is to create the awareness, and through the audience you pass this responsibility on to them. I always say that audiences are not passive recipients. They are active catalysts of change, in any society.

We were able to create an awareness campaign in Pakistan called I Support Dukhtar, which featured a lot of well known Pakistani stars who supported the message of standing up against child marriage.

Now there’s a big movement within the country that is being headed by various women’s nonprofits on the issue of legislating certain aspects of child marriage to make the punishment stronger and to bridge the gap that exists between the law that exists on paper and its actual implementation.

How can AAUW members and supporters get more involved with this film and its message?

The next step is to be able to bring this film to a lot of other countries. That is a challenge for us, and it is where nonprofits can really help us. They can help support the film, talk about the film, and promote our screenings when we are in their cities. [Find out how your branch can request a screening.]

Has the film industry changed much in Pakistan since you began your film career?

In some ways it has, and in other ways it hasn’t. Our commercial cinema borrows very heavily from the Bollywood tradition, where there’s an obligatory beautiful woman who will take her clothes off and dance seductively on the screen. The films cater to a very male fantasy, and that’s not changing anytime soon.

However, what is interesting is that parallel to all of that there is a new generation of filmmakers who are challenging the status quo and wanting to create films that don’t subscribe to the formulaic approach. Dukhtar is one of those films that is not part of the mainstream cinema but still very much part of it from a parallel perspective. I think it’s a very exciting time in Pakistan where there’s new voices and there’s a willingness to take a risk to tell new kinds of stories. That’s always good, in any culture. You want to have the freedom and liberty to make all kinds of stories.

What are you planning to work on next?

At the moment I’m open to something really compelling. Something to turn me inside out. But there’s one story that I am working on that is very different from this film. It’s a fantasy sci-fi film that I’m working on. So I do go back to my science roots in some way.

No education is ever lost. It’s only recycled! I’m a storyteller, and I go where my stories take me. That’s what I do.

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Former AAUW Fellowships and Grants Program Assistant Lauren Byrnes contributed to this post.


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