Emotive Flexibility

Sarmad Masud’s directorial feature debut My Pure Land is based on the true story of a rural group of young women who survived a siege on their home by relatives and a militia of 200 bandits in rural Pakistan. The film was met with critical praise when it played at the Edinburgh International Film Festival earlier this year, and follows on from the success of Masud’s long listed BAFTA and Oscar comedy-drama short film Two Dosas (2014). For television, he wrote and directed the Channel 4 commissioned Adha Cup, the first Urdu language drama that he went onto develop as a series with the BBC.

In conversation with ASFF, Masud reflects on accessing the flexibility and universality of an American genre, and the decision to defy a conventional narrative structure. He also discusses the need for an emotional rather than an analytical approach to the film, and the need for a film to live outside of itself through its audience.

ASFF: Mirroring the themes of conflict over land ownership that are prevalent in the American western, My Pure Land identifies both the flexibility and universality of the western film.
SM: There were a couple of aspects for me. I’m not smart enough to think I’m going to do a genre and rehash it – I’m really not that intelligent. I came across this story purely by chance. Originally, I was thinking of doing a remake of Copland in Pakistan because I thought the themes of police corruption and cover ups are transferable – there is a minefield of shit that’s happening over there. As I was Googling police stories, I came across this story of a woman who defended her land from 200 bandits, and I thought that was lot better than Copland.

Reading the article and thinking of Pakistan whenever I had visited, there was a lawlessness to that country, which is completely a western in how the Americans put in those days that it was pretty much anything went – a bad guy comes into town and shit happens. In Pakistan that still happens. You can’t go to the police because they may be corrupt. You can call a gangster, but the gangster is going to go with whoever gives him the most money. It was just so transferable and it was timeless as well. This stuff is still happening right now and our story is based on the true story aspect that happened in the 1990s.

We intentionally filmed it in a certain way so that it’s non-specific in terms of area. I know we have a text at the beginning of the film that says Pakistan has over one million cases pending, but there is no other real reference as to which town we are in, which city, or which country, because this stuff is happening throughout that country, as well as in India and Bangladesh, throughout South Asia. It was important to me to realise the western could be set in Pakistan because of those themes of lawlessness, and the flexibility of a universal story of someone defending their home and land that could be understood by everyone.

ASFF: You go against the convention of a linear narrative that is common in these types of stories. Usually peace is shattered as tension and violence mounts, but here the past interrupts the present as you cut back and forth to reveal the past tranquility and the seeds of the siege.
SM: It’s a really tricky balance, and depending on who watches it they’ll say I either succeeded or I failed. For me the reason I wanted to start full throttle was I felt if I told this story linear, you’d feel sorry for this girl, and I don’t want you to feel sorry for her. When I spoke to her she is triple hard; she’s matter of fact.

The article is what I’m going to start with, but then I’m going to tell you something else – what actually brought her here. I always find that more interesting. If you remove information from your audience then it engages them, and I felt if it was linear and her uncle turns up with these guys, and then they just keep turning up, I’ve nowhere else to go. It’s like the zombies are outside and they’re just going to get in. So I wanted to almost start with them coming in from outside, and I could maintain that tension by just flashing back, and whenever we return, we are still at that same point without having dissipated the tension. I can just keep ramping it up, and so three people come, then twenty and then two hundred, and then it’s going to explode. Within that I can still take you back or bring you forward, and one of the nicer moments in the film is when events overlap.

Unfortunately, it maybe takes a second viewing to realise the film is actually all her memory. She’s piecing these things together throughout the process of that night, which is how memories work. In the old days if you had a catalogue of photographs, you’d have one from when you were eight, maybe one when you graduated and then one when your mum was born. It’s just the way our memories and photos work. Whether it’s the anklet on her ankle that sets off her memory, the gun in her hand or the bullets, I just thought that was interesting. Audiences are smart enough that you can do that and keep them engaged. Maybe we are Trojan horsing because while it’s called a western, the story within that is of a father and daughter.

ASFF: C.G Jung contextualised dreams as a means to help us solve the problems we can’t solve in our waking state. Recalling the idea that there are so many archetypal stories, is one of the reasons because films like dreams serve to help us to understand our world? Hence, are the same stories told again and again in order to help each generation deal with those cyclic themes and questions that confront each generation?
SM: Maybe that’s the reason I’m a filmmaker, but films always stayed with me, and I have an issue right now that I can never finish a film. I want you to think when that film cuts at the end that she still exists, that those people and that world still exists. Growing up my favourite film was The Goonies and it wasn’t until 20 years later that they brought out a DVD with some deleted scenes. I watched those scenes and it scared the shit out of me because I had memorised that film, and I knew exactly who did what.

Then when I watched those deleted scenes there were these people I knew so well doing stuff I had no idea what they were doing. It was a very odd feeling and what I am saying is film is not just about paper, words and the story, you have to put your blood and sweat, tears and soul into it. That’s what the actors do and that’s what you do as a director. You put something into it to give it this life, which then hopefully stays in your mind, your heart and your gut when you walk away from it. The good films are those that stick with you, and that’s the timeless quality you are talking about of the dreamlike that touches people.

ASFF: As we get older we think more about a film, whereas when we are young we more inclined to feel a film. There isn’t that same level of expectation of perfection and we are more forgiving as opposed to the more critical adult. So the beauty of youth is that ability take a film for how it makes us feel.
SM: There are a lot of filmmakers who maybe struggle to switch off their brain. If you switch it off and you sit down, and you let this film just put you in the raft and take you away, then I think it will be rewarding. If you feel, “where’s it going here?” Or if you are too analytical, it might not do it for you. But if you can engage and just let it just wash over you like a dream, then it’s a lovely film in that sense. Dreams are lovely like you said, and I guess what I’m saying is that it would be an incredible compliment for the film to touch someone that they remember it for a few days after they walk out of the cinema.

Paul Risker

My Pure Land is in cinemas 15 September. For more information: www.film.britishcouncil.org

1. Still from Sarmad Masud’s My Pure Land.