Dukhtar may be the first feature helmed by a Pakistani director with a cast and crew from that country to be honoured with a world premiere at a major international film festival, but this film is also path-breaking in the context of the subject it focuses upon and the challenges the filmmakers had to overcome in a conflict-ridden country to actually get it made.
It’s also the first feature to be shot in Gilgit-Baltistan, part of the disputed Pakistan Occupied Kashmir region, thereby making for a unique viewing experience.
The film, directed by New York-based Afia Nathaniel, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday, marking a high point of a journey that she undertook nearly a decade back.
But even with funding not forthcoming till 2012, Nathaniel persisted, as she said, “It’s hard to shake off that story once it grabs you.”
That story is one of a 10-year-old girl promised in marriage to an elderly tribal chieftain to resolve a blood feud. The mother, meanwhile, is agonised by the fate that awaits her daughter and decides to flee with her.
The film tracks their path as, aided by a former mujahid turned truck driver, they attempt to escape becoming victims of honour killings. Since the film features a Pashtun family, Nathaniel had originally planned filming in the Khyber-Pakhtunwa region.
But the violence there made that impossible.
“The war is happening right now, we couldn’t physically shoot in the tribal regions. That is one of the reasons we had to change the backstory and shoot in the Northern Areas. We couldn’t go there and film, not with a story like this.”
That alteration meant that the Pashtun family was a migrant brood living in the Gilgit-Baltistan area. That mountainous terrain is a character of its own in the film, adding visual splendour.
Shooting at the substitute location wasn’t without its hurdles either, as Nathaniel and the two main actresses playing the mother and daughter, were the only females on the remote sets.
Even there, even with security provided by local authorities, filming once had to be postponed on one location as a maulvi threatened the crew with a fatwa.
It’s a story Nathaniel hoped finds greater resonance among filmgoers. Its theatrical release in Pakistan is on September 18.
And the director is hopeful of clinching a distribution deal in India for its release there before this year is out.