The world through the powerful lens of a woman: Afia Nathaniel


Author: Diego De La Rosa

Director, producer and writer Afia Nathaniel, born in Quetta, Pakistan, is one of the few female filmmakers in the country. Her acclaimed movie Duhktar, released in 2014, tells the story of a mother and her ten-year-old daughter fleeing their home in the mountains of Pakistan to escape the girl's marriage to a tribal leader. The film was recently presented at the first Bangkok International Film Festival on Ending Violence Against Women. UN Women Asia Pacific talked to Nathaniel to get her impressions as a female – and feminist – film director from Pakistan.

Film director Afia Nathaniel. Photo: Courtesy of Dukhtar Productions LLC

Child marriage in Pakistan is usually tied to cultural practices; did you face any trouble to produce this movie?

I was the only female among 40 crewmembers. We went to very challenging places to film. However, I had complete freedom to make the film in Pakistan. This was not surprising to us as a local team, but is surprising to those in the west.The forces of modernity, tradition and fundamentalism exist simultaneously in Pakistan. Our media is very free and often features hard-hitting social issues on television talk shows and dramas. Audiences are used to content that challenges the status quo on issues in society, although it is relatively new to bring social issues to the cinema. With Dukhtar, it wasn’t the issue which was the challenge: it was that in our cinema industry, stories of women are not considered to be financially viable.

Our cinema portrays women as sexual objects; not as real and complex individuals. So when I was pitching the idea of the film, people thought I was making a documentary and not a feature film, because it didn’t have a woman gyrating in skimpy clothes on the screen with suggestive lyrics catering to a male fantasy. You would think that obscenity would be closely censored in Pakistan but apparently not. Scenes that cater to the Pakistani male fantasy are allowed to thrive.

How did local audiences receive the film in Pakistan? With the international attention the film has received, do you see any potential for positive change?

Dukhtar has been very well received in Pakistan: it ran in local theatres for four weeks straight, competing with major Hollywood and Bollywood releases. We saw a new kind of audience flock to the theatres: one which was progressive and hungry for realism in cinema. For example, local schoolteachers brought their students to watch the film, as they wanted them to talk about the issue.

I like to think that audiences are not passive recipients but catalysts of change. So when they watch a film like Dukhtar, the subliminal message stays with them, with a call to action to stand up for what is right. In Punjab recently, a wedding hall owner discovered that the bride was under 18 years old, so he had the marriage stalled and guests had to return home. It was the groom himself who alerted the marriage hall owners. So in Pakistan, the power for change resides in everyone, and if he or she decides to act, then moral justice prevails.

How do you think arts/films can promote gender equality and women’s human rights?

There aren’t enough stories about women. But the answer is simple. Our children need to grow up watching cinema that features strong role models for all genders. When you have a female writer-director, the chances are that she will create a complex female protagonist; not one created for the sake of servicing the journey of the male character! I grew up watching Star Wars. I wanted to be Luke Skywalker. There weren’t any interesting role models in films for girls growing, other than some princess character who needed a prince to wake her up. The entertainment industry plays a major role in how society perceives masculinity and femininity, and we want to see the gender gap eliminated on screen.

One of the main characters in the film is a man who tries to protect the protagonist. How do you see the role of men on the quest for gender equality?

The role of men is crucial in any struggle for equality. In a film like this, fiction has to reflect the reality. Here I have to mention my husband. He empowered and enabled me 100 percent. My producing partner, Khalid Ali, is the first producer in the country at the helm of a powerful feminist film. So both on- and off-camera, our story is one where men and women are equally important for its creation.

Dukhtar has been labeled by the media as a ‘feminist film’. How do you feel about it?

I embrace it with strength and with qualms. In Pakistan, feminism is a dirty word, so it will be perceived negatively. However, in the larger context Dukhtar is a world shown through the powerful lens of a woman and one that will have its place in cinema. For that I am truly grateful to my entire team who worked tirelessly and passionately to tell a story which has a heart and soul.

Dukhtar Trailer (North America Edition). >> Click here << for more details about the movies and EVAWG Film Festival.

For more information about the Film Festival, please contact:

Alejandro Hita Fernández
Advocacy Officer, Ending Violence against Women
UN Women Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific
Tel: +66 2 288 2387