By Sonya Rehman
Pakistani documentary filmmaker, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, known for her big Oscar win in 2012 for Saving Face (a documentary about acid attack survivors in Pakistan), has once again brought a spellbinding story to the fore – Song of Lahore.
Highlighting eight incredible Pakistani classical musicians, who go by the name of Sachal Jazz Ensemble, the group is fast gaining global recognition. This week, the talented filmmaker speaks about her latest offering…
What made you decide to bring Sachal Studios’ story to a bigger audience?
As a filmmaker, my work has been focused on creating awareness about overlooked circumstances, and providing a voice to forgotten individuals. I have worked on 16 films in 10 countries, all the while striving to highlight the conditions of marginalized communities, and accrediting its courageous and resilient members. Song of Lahore also brings the world’s attention to a marginalized community: the classical musicians of my country who had been forced to forget their talent due to the Islamization of Pakistan. It applauds their efforts to revive the art that they cherish and restore it to Pakistani culture.
Islamization, ethnic divisions, war and corruption have torn apart the cultural fabric of Pakistan. As violence escalates and Pakistani society is fractured along ethnic and religious lines, I fear that the continued survival of these cultural traditions is being threatened, and my country faces a possible future as homogenous, fundamentalist society. Song of Lahore moves beyond headlines and stereotypes, and shows that a vast majority of Pakistanis are not perpetrators of religious violence; instead they are victims of it. The beautiful cultural heritage of the region belies its image in the West as monolithically religious, intolerant, and violent. For a Pakistani audience, I feel it’s important to demonstrate the beautiful cultural heritage of the region, its historical support from the Muslim community, and advocate for its protection.
In your opinion, why has the music industry suffered in Pakistan?
I grew up in the city of Karachi, the most diverse city in Pakistan with a population of 20 million people. As a child, I remember being able to see the multitude of identities and religions in the city. Our religious and ethnic identities were secondary to our firm belief in being Pakistanis first. Today, this is not the case. Fundamentalist religious values have trumped the traditional Islamic embrace of the arts, and today being a musician brings shame and danger, rather than respect. Furthermore, public concerts are virtually impossible in the midst of endless terrorist attacks on large gatherings.
What was your most memorable moment during the filming of this documentary?
Once the musicians were invited by Wynton Marsalis to perform at the Jazz at Lincoln Center, Andy (my co-director) and I, successfully negotiated a rare agreement with Jazz at Lincoln Center, allowing us unfettered access to the rehearsals and performances. There are anxious, and at times, comedic moments in rehearsal as the two orchestras try to bridge the musical gap between them. For me, the most memorable moment was when the curtains went up and two groups of musicians who didn’t share a language, who understood music very differently, played together harmoniously reminding the world that music is a universal language.
What were the musicians like to work with?
It was a privilege for me to work with the talented musicians of Sachal and I feel very grateful that they welcomed me into their world.
Do you think this documentary will open up new avenues for them?
I feel happy that these eight talented musicians bourn out of Pakistan are receiving the attention and admiration that they deserve globally. They recently performed at the Marciac Jazz festival in France with Wynton and his musicians and the response was phenomenal. They have also gained recognition in Pakistan and are slowly but surely reclaiming and reinvigorating an art that had lost its space in Pakistan’s narrowing cultural sphere. Sachal orchestra held its first-ever public performance at the Lahore Literary festival in February 2014 which was completely sold out – there were people standing and sitting on the floor of the auditorium because there wasn’t a single free space!
What has the response been like?
Andy and I are very humbled by the response that Song of Lahore has received. The fact that Song of Lahore was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival was very exciting for us! It will also be opening in theaters in New York and Los Angeles with a broader release set for early next year.