Tell us a bit about your new feature, My Pure Land…
It’s a modern-day feminist Western set in Pakistan, based on the extraordinary true story of one woman and her family who defended their home and land from 200 bandits. The film was self-funded via friends and family and our last investor was the great supporter of Pakistani cinema - Mr Bill Kenwright.
How did you come across the story?
Back in 2014 I was looking to go out and make a film in Pakistan. I didn’t really have an idea at the time but I was considering remaking Copland, I felt the themes of police corruption and cover-ups were very transferable. I Googled police cases in Pakistan for a bit of background research, at which point I eventually came across an article about a woman called Nazo Dharejo who had defended her home and land from 200 bandits - I straight away thought that’s a much better idea for a film!
I made contact with Nazo herself through the man who wrote the article, and asked if anyone was making a film about her. She said no and was happy for me to do so. She did have some reservations/questions…
Would she be in the film? I said no. Would there be a song and a dance in the film? I said no. So it will be a documentary…? I said no, it will be a song and a dance film without a song and a dance.
“Anything is possible in Pakistan, and everything is impossible.”
How familiar were you with Pakistan before filming?
I think I now know Pakistan a lot better than I did. Previously whenever I had been it was to visit family, and I’d made a short film there in 2008. Now, having lived and worked there for 12 weeks I know it much better. I came back saying, “Anything is possible in Pakistan, and everything is impossible.” There’s chaos to the country that I really enjoy but arguably it’s not the most conducive environment for making a film. Organisational stuff is difficult out there, plus there always seems to be something happening politically. However, it’s where my family come from and I am a proud British Pakistani, and I definitely have an affinity with the country.
Did you consider filming anywhere else?
People did say to me that we should film in Morocco or India due to the security issues in Pakistan, but I was adamant that we shoot in Pakistan because I wanted to make an honest film that came out of that country, and for other Pakistanis and South Asians to be proud of.
I think it might be difficult for Western audiences to comprehend the context, magnitude and importance of our film and the significance of what the real Nazo did. There are still some parts of Pakistan where girls are killed at birth, parts of Pakistan where girls are not allowed to go out of the house alone, or go to school, or choose who they marry, and yet here we have a strong, brave, proud Pakistani woman throwing all those conventions right out of the window. And, despite everything I have said above, the country still continues to produce strong female role models like Nazo, Malala, Abida Parveen, Sanam Marvi and our very own Suhaee Abro who played Nazo in the film.
What problems did you face filming there?
Where do I start! It was an experience and a half filming there. I’m quite a positive person so I would say I really enjoyed the madness. Turning up to find out that one of the actors will be two hours late, the camera is there but not the lenses, that it’s 40 degrees in that given moment but it’s going to rain later on, somebody might have been bitten by a snake, plus we all need to leave in convoy so we don’t get robbed on the way and of course there is every chance we might get shot at…again!
There’s all of that stuff which you don’t need while trying to shoot a film, on top of which you’re not in your natural environment, you’re not really eating or sleeping properly, you and your wife (Caroline Bailey, also the Production Designer) have both been in hospital during the shoot and yet you need to make sure you have the energy and clarity to make the right decisions all day long. But it really concentrates you and I like the blood and thunder of being on set. It challenges your instincts and certainly becomes a case of fight or flight.
We heard what sounded like a firework, but it was actually this extra who had returned with a gun and was firing it towards us
I can still remember the first day of filming back in March 2015, it was probably the toughest and set the tone. We were filming outside in a market from 7am. My wife Caroline headed off to finish the work in the studio, where we had built two jail sets. As she’s a white British woman, we felt it was safer not to have her on the streets while we were filming on the first day. It was a slow day at the market as we all tried to find our rhythm. We didn’t really have enough extras so I managed to convince the hundreds of onlookers gathered behind the camera to join us in front of the camera. They happily did so, but after two takes they hid in the shade because it was so hot! It gets to 4pm and I haven’t had lunch, so I grab an apple. A little later Caroline texts me to say she thinks she might have carbon monoxide poisoning from the petrol generator in the studio?! We wrapped as the sun went down on a painful first day and I quickly returned to our flat and took Caroline to the hospital where they gave her gas and an injection; she did indeed have carbon monoxide poisoning. It was a tough few hours but the doctors were good and she slowly began to feel better; it certainly gave me some perspective and brought us closer together. I couldn’t have made the film without her continued strength and bravery in such a stressful and difficult environment.
I do also recall one incident when we were filming at night with a number of extras during a dream sequence scene. It was a complicated shot with the extras, a wedding band and fireworks going off in the background, all in the dead of night in a village in the badlands of Pakistan, what could go wrong… anyway, one extra was constantly running into people and being a general nuisance so a member of the production crew took him aside and sent him home. Later the same night as we were doing another shot, after I said cut we heard what sounded like a firework, but it was actually this extra who had returned with a gun and was firing it towards us. By this stage of the shoot I was fully consumed by the film and the environment, and while our crew hid behind a wall I stood there doing my best impression of Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, trying to work out what we’ve got left to shoot.
Can you talk me through the casting process for My Pure Land?
Casting was a long process, and I think all in all I auditioned over 300 people. Before we flew out we had got ourselves a fixer in Pakistan - he would email me pictures of possible actors, but they just didn’t have the right look. It appeared as though they were all aspiring to be glossy Bollywood actors and actresses, which is fine but it wasn’t the right look for our film. I really wanted the lead actress to be comfortable in her own skin, I wanted her and the rest of the cast to have a natural look, but this is not what actors are used to in Pakistan.
When we got to Pakistan I made it clear that we needed authentic actors for this subtle film. We approached theatre companies, colleges, universities and had numerous open call sessions. Eventually I was sent a photo of an actress who is also a dancer in Karachi, Suhaee Abro, who I thought looked really interesting. She travelled up for an audition the next day and I knew immediately that she was the one. Same rule applies for all our principle cast actually, as soon as they walked in the room I knew they were the one, it just took a bit of time to find them.
We made this film for nothing in extreme circumstances
Tanveer Bhai, who we cast for the father is actually a teacher and I believe only acts part time - he had just come in to support his friend. Needless to say his friend wasn’t impressed we had given Tanveer Bhai the part! There was also an element of street casting as well. So if I saw someone while we were out on location shooting, who I thought was interesting, I’d bring them into the shot and give them a line. I remember for the scenes in the jail, we had two sets which Caroline had designed and built from scratch in a studio in Pakistan, I decided to cast some of the actual labourers as prisoners because they had the right look. Casting-wise and in terms of performances in the final film, on the whole, I am very happy with the end result.
How has the reception been for the film so far?
It’s been great and a real shock to the system. We made this film for nothing in extreme circumstances, yet this little film of ours premiered at Edinburgh International Film Festival in June, where we were also shortlisted for the Michael Powell award for Best British Feature, it has now been picked up by a flashy (but very nice) Sales Agent (Independent) and been incredibly well received by virtually all the critics. And probably most importantly we recently screened the film for our investors/friends/family, and each and every one of them were incredibly moved by it. That has been without a doubt the highlight, this film would not exist if it wasn’t for a hell of a lot people supporting me over the years, I know I will never be able to thank them all appropriately but I do think I can now hand them this film and let them claim ownership over it and be proud of it.
Has Nazo seen the film?
Not yet. Her and her husband did read the script though and I have kept in touch with them throughout this process. I really want them to catch the film on the big screen; they have been so patient and supportive throughout this journey that I think they deserve to see it in all its glory, hopefully we can get the film distributed and shown in Pakistan soon.
How did Bill Kenwright get involved?
I had the initial idea for the film in 2013, I got married in 2014 and the plan was to make the film in 2015 before we had any cats or kids of our own. By late 2014 I had managed to raise just about enough money to shoot the film through the very kind investment of friends and family. The plan at that time was to shoot the film and come back and raise the rest of the money required to finish off post-production later. It was around this point that my agent set me up with a meeting with Bill Kenwright Films, they were looking for a director for a feature currently on their slate, I successfully talked my way out of the job they were offering and instead pitched my idea for a Pakistani Western. Before I knew it I was in front of Bill Kenwright himself. After a quick Jedi mind trick by me he shook my hand there and then and said, “Let’s do it”.
What are your plans for My Pure Land?
Currently we are self-distributing via Uncle Bill, we begin our small theatrical release in Nottingham as of September 15th, for a week, after which we are hoping to expand to a few more cinemas. It would be great to get the good ol’ Notts folk behind us and get as many bums on seats as we can. Making films aint easy, getting them in the cinema and finding an audience with an appetite to watch them is just as important. We also have some really good news up our sleeves which we are hoping to announce in October, so please do keep an eye out!
Have you got your next project lined up?
Kind of, over the years I’ve learnt you need to have your fingers in a few Halal pies. So I have a feel good underdog sports film I’m currently writing and two more films set in Pakistan bubbling away. I would also like to do more TV work, plus I aint shy of flying the Notts flag in Hollywood, I’m not sure they have my number though…
My Pure Land is screening at Broadway Cinema between Friday September 15th and Thursday September 21st .
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