Interview with Sabiha Sumar

Silent Waters (2003)
Silent Waters (2003)

NEW YORK, April 8, 2005 - Sabiha Sumar was born in Karachi in 1961. She studied filmmaking and political science at Sarah Lawrence College, New York, and International Relations at the University of Cambridge. Her first documentary, Who Will Cast the First Stone?, was about protests by working-class women against the imposition of Islamic law in Pakistan in 1979. Khamosh Pani (Silent Waters) is her first feature film and has won tremendous critical acclaim at film festivals around the world.

Khamosh Pani was screened at the Asia Society on April 8, 2005, as part of the Third Annual South Asia Human Rights Film Festival.

How did you become interested in documentary filmmaking?

I am not sure specifically but when I was quite young, I know that I wanted to say something and share it with a wide section of society. I was thinking of how to say it so that people in Pakistan, for example, could access it. I knew that writing wouldn't be the right vehicle because so many people can't read. I became more and more attracted to films and I thought film would be a great way to tell stories that were important, to bring out issues that people need to talk about and think about. Films can find a way to touch very sensitive things about people's lives that are very hard to unveil. So I found film to be a very expressive medium.

What prompted the transition from documentary films to feature films? Khamosh Pani (Silent Waters) is your first feature film.

That's right. Originally Khamosh Pani was supposed to be a documentary. When I first started researching the story, it was supposed to be a story about violence against women during Partition. I came across a reference to abducted women on both sides of the border, and also a reference to the Recovery Act which India and Pakistan signed in 1948. So I started looking at what this Recovery Act was and what this story about abducted women was all about. I looked at police records, I talked to people all along the border of Punjab, and traveled extensively in Pakistan, in Punjab. I went to India as well but my travel was of course limited by the fact that my visa was only for Delhi [Pakistani citizens receive city-specific visas for India, and vice versa]. I did some research there, and I met wonderful people who had already done research on the subject. I then decided that I didn't want to do this as a documentary at all because it would mean scratching people's wounds. These women had been through the most awful violence one can imagine and a lot of women were now languishing in ashrams in India because their families had refused to accept them.

So I decided that I didn't want to do this as a documentary. I also thought it was very important that I somehow connect this violence with present-day violence, so that it's not as if it becomes a historical film that suggests that violence occurred and then it ended, but rather that it is a continuous process. I wanted to show the continuation of the violence against Ayesha.

One of the most devastating legacies of the Zia regime as you explore in the film is the transformation of the tradition of a diverse, pluralistic, popular Islam into a narrow, state-sponsored orthodox religion. Could you elaborate on this?

It was very important for me to show the process of change in Pakistan, to show that we were once a liberal, secular society that underwent a completely insidious process of change. Pakistan did not have an Islamic revolution like Iran did, for example. The fact that we didn't have an Islamic revolution in a way made it more difficult for us to fight what was actually happening in the country because we didn't know what to reject, we didn't know who our enemy was. This process of change was very necessary for me to document. How did we change? Now when people see this film they are struck by a certain kind of recognition; for instance, that yes, the walls used to be lower in girls' schools, and then at some point, they were raised. Or that women used to stand around at bus stops, and at some point that too stopped. And women used to wear short sleeves, and now you only see long sleeves. Women in villages didn't have to cover themselves in chadors to go out, they just went out as a matter of fact. A duputta [long scarf] was just a part of your dress, it was not used to cover you from head to toe.

It was very important for me because I lived that process in 1979, when the world started changing, I became a young adult, and I saw this happen. So that I could look back at it and wonder what happened in these 20 years, how did we change from a liberal, secular society to a more conservative, religious people?

Do you see any parallels between your film, Silent Waters, and Bangladeshi director Tareque Masud's The Clay Bird, released last year?

It is a wonderful film, The Clay Bird, but I don't know if there are any parallels except it is also about a changing society, Bangladesh, and a changing Islam. It is a lovely film, but the treatment is quite different. Although there are connections that can be made between the two films.

Did you have a particular audience in mind when you made the film?

For me the audience is always my own people first, I make them for Pakistan first. But I want to be able to make films in such a way that everybody should be able to connect with them and understand them. I think that's important because you can't restrict a film to one country but of course it is my great desire that my work is seen in Pakistan, and that it's understood, debated, and critiqued among people there.

Where has the film shown in Pakistan, and do you expect it to have wider release?

It showed at the Kara Film Festival but we also made a traveling cinema and traveled with the film across 41 villages and towns in Pakistan and had very lengthy discussions with people about the film, and what it meant to them. We didn't go to big cities because people there would have access to the film through other means.

What kinds of reactions did you get? Were you surprised by any particular response from your audiences?

I think it was the most rewarding part of doing this film really. There were a few interesting questions that came up. One question asked by a young man was about why Ayesha was afraid of Saleem's friends. He said the boys were very nice, that they were only teaching him to read Islam and to understand it. So I thought that this is a question that is very important for us to answer today in Pakistan, which is that what Ayesha is afraid of is the politicization of religion. Therefore she's afraid that the liberal Islam that she knows and that she grew up with is changing. The problem for her is that she can see that this is a political use of Islam which is going to grow and she is going to lose her son in this storm. The other question which came up which is also very interesting had to do with how Saleem's character enjoys playing the flute, and why it is that he didn't become a great musician instead. And this is a good question, why didn't he? Because at that time, Pakistan completely wiped out the possibility of the arts and culture. And what did it give its youth apart from the possibility of becoming extremists? So there were no options at that time.

What about your future projects? Do you intend to continue with feature films or return to documentaries?

I think I'll do both because I think both have a different place in the world of films. There are some things you can say better in a documentary, and some things that you can say better in a fiction film, so I will make sure that I continue to do both.

Is there a particular project you are working on now?

Yes, I'm working on a feature film project called Rafeena, about a 20-year-old woman living in Karachi, who comes from a lower middle class background and wants to join the fashion industry. So it is about her struggle to be part of this new, emerging, modern Pakistan.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of Asia Society