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Award-Winning Documentary Filmmaker Haya Fatima Iqbal and the Art of Invisibility

Academy and Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Haya Fatima Iqbal is using her camera to highlight untold stories and unseen perspectives.

For someone who has won global acclaim as an Academy and two-time Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, Haya Fatima Iqbal has in fact perfected the art of invisibility.

Her documentaries, sometimes shot in Pakistan’s most backward areas or most conservative communities, require her to blend into her surroundings physically and psychologically.

She does this by earning the subjects’ trust, sharing their lives, understanding their challenges and their motivations, and by being respectful of their culture. She may also do this in a more symbolic way: by wearing a dupatta over her head.

“Coming from Karachi, armed with a camera, I appear like a big-city girl to them, a ‘madam’ coming from a position of privilege,” says the 34-year-old co-founder of Documentary Association of Pakistan (DAP), “so the dupatta signifies that I’m from a similar value system, and that I’m not an outsider.”

It also has other advantages: as most shoots are done in the blazing daylight, it shields Haya from the sun. “And since I keep my hair short, it lets people know I’m a woman,” she laughs.

Engaging conversation, empathy and humour come naturally to Haya, who was born in Saudi Arabia and raised in Karachi after the age of eight. Her engineer father and homemaker mother encouraged her and her two siblings to explore the career of their choice, no matter how unconventional.

Socially aware and curious by nature, Haya did her Bachelor’s in mass communication at University of Karachi, which exposed her to a very diverse student community.

“You have all kinds of people there, from Marxist to fundamentalist, different ethnic groups, the haves and have-nots. If you don’t go to a public university in Pakistan, you only end up living in bubble,” she says.

Having earned a Fulbright scholarship to do her Master’s in news and documentary from New York University, Haya made her first student film on the Pakistani community in New York.

“They were following the same systems and traditions they had migrated to America with decades earlier, while we in Karachi had moved on so much; it was an eye-opener for me,” she narrates.

Though, as Haya says, “New York was a more organised, less chaotic and less violent version of Karachi,” and though both her older siblings live in the US, she chose to move back home.

“I’m the one who gets all the attention and all the tension of being a single woman living with parents,” she jokes. She feels lucky that – unlike other Pakistani moms – her mom doesn’t remind her every month to get married. “It’s more like a six-monthly hint.”

Working as a producer with multiple-award-wining Pakistani-Canadian journalist and filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy set the bar high for Haya. “Sharmeen is crazy about work and she hires people who have a similar work ethic. That habit doesn’t leave you – to be paagal (crazy) about your projects,” says Haya.

Her job also led to global recognition when Sharmeen’s documentary A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness (2015), which was co-produced by Haya, won an Oscar award for Best Documentary Short. A stark look at honour killings in Pakistan, the film also triggered Haya to take up more such meaningful subjects that could impact the way people think.

“Maybe it was someone you hated and, after seeing my film, you don’t hate them anymore,” she explains, citing another of her films on the transgender community I Am a Creation of God (2019).

Creating empathy also works both ways for Haya – not just in terms of humanising those that society casts as ‘the other’ but also those that are seen as infallible symbols of state. Her Emmy Award-winning documentary Armed with Faith (2017) follows the life of a member of Pakistan’s bomb-defusal squad and was four years in the making.

For the past five years, Haya has also been teaching communication and design at Habib University in Karachi. “You can’t work on passion projects alone, you have to make a living as well,” she reasons, adding, “If you’re good at something, the money comes.”

Passionate about travelling and giving a voice to the voiceless, she is unafraid of engaging with those with extreme views, even those that go against her as a woman or as a city-bred professional with streaks of red in her cropped hair.

“I am interested in understanding why they think that way,” says the Acumen fellow, who also works with global filmmakers and helps produce their projects from the grassroots in Pakistan.

One such project was with Brandon Stanton, the photographer, author and storyteller behind ‘Humans of New York’, a blog with close to 30 million followers across social media. The duo travelled from Lahore to Karachi and Hunza, interviewing 30 to 35 persons per day.

It was a hugely enriching experience for Haya, who is quite an expert on the culture of cities, such as the differences between Lahore (“patriarchal, traditional, homogenous”) and Karachi (“diverse, tactful, heterogenous”).

Haya Fatima Iqbal was on the cinema panel at eShe’s Indo-Pak Peace Summit Led by Women

She has no special hobbies outside of her work as an educator and a documentary filmmaker. “I listen to music and I want to take up singing classes,” she shares when prodded.

Other than that, she enjoys people-watching. “I’m a creep like that,” she grins. But one could argue that reading the room is part of her work, as is being an expert on human behaviour and psychology.

These days, Haya is training emerging documentary filmmakers as part of her voluntary work with DAP. “We set it up in 2017 to make our lives more difficult,” she quips, adding on a more sober note, “It’s really rewarding to build this community of a really committed bunch of people. It’s slow-paced, intense work but you can see how the seeds are being sown.”

It certainly takes up many hours of Haya’s week, but the vision that keeps her going is compelling and humbling: “It’s about passing on the craft to others and enabling them to be better than you.”

No doubt Haya has mastered the art of invisibility, making a whole world of people visible in her wake.

First published in eShe’s March 2021 issue

Syndicated to Money Control

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