Filmmakers Unite for Good Cause in Pakistan

By Jennifer Witherspoon

Yasi Mawaz Khan is an artist. She’s always been an artist. She’s been painting and drawing since she was a kid. So when her Iranian mother bought her a camera, she began to get very interested in photography and thought it would be “interesting to put motion to pictures.” She spent her formative years partly in Iran with her mother and partly in Pakistan with her father, until moving to the United States at the age of 17 to study film.

Kiazad Ehya has studied video since high school. His Iranian father is a playwright and actor and his French mother is a painter. Kiazad sees film and video as a “perfect fusion of performance and composition.”

Syed Shabbir Siraj is Pakistani by birth and has roots in India. His parents are from Lucknow, though his ancestors are originally from Iran. Shabbir, as he likes to be called, is a self-described “art lover.” “I have my fingers in a lot of things in the arts,” he said. Painting came naturally to him as a kid and he was always interested in storytelling.

Anna-Lena Isaksson grew up in Sweden. In high school she was drawn to radio and knew that she wanted to be involved with radio at some point. The news and media were always interesting to her. She studied radio and television broadcasting at San Francisco State University and has worked mostly in TV production since graduating in 2004.

What brought this group of diverse and talented editors, filmmakers and photographers together was an ad placed on Craigslist and Facebook by Yasi Mawaz Khan. The 30-year-old filmmaker had recently visited Pakistan for the funeral of her uncle. There she witnessed first hand the destruction brought by the July 2010 flood, the largest Pakistani flood in more than 60 years.

“I just wanted to empower Pakistan to rebuild after the devastating floods and put a spotlight on what relief efforts where happening on the ground,” said Yasi Mawaz Khan. “The government response has been lagging and when people give to relief organizations you don’t know how much of that is actually reaching people. So I thought we could empower the youth and grassroots organizations that are bringing relief directly to the Pakistani people,” she said.

That’s how the Voices of Pakistan project was born. Mawaz Khan went on to advertise on Craigslist and Facebook for video editors to help with the project. In partnership with her fiancé Jason Chinn, Yasi has started a Voices of Pakistan blog. Her intention is to work with the video editors to profile on-the-ground relief efforts in Pakistan and to generate funds that can be contributed directly to those groups.

Kiazad Ehya, a 27-year-old freelance editor and filmmaker, saw the ad on Craigslist even though he was a friend of Mawaz Khan.

“I saw it as an opportunity to contribute to the cause more than anything,” he said.

Ehya is now in charge of editing a segment of a film that the group is working on together. His section highlights the work of “Offroad Pakistan.” This group is primarily a hobby group that is helping people ravaged by the flood by using their hobby towards a good use, according to Ehya.

“The flood in Pakistan came right on the heels of the earthquake in Haiti,” said Ehya. “A lot of times the relief that is sent doesn’t go to the right places. Relief funding turns into a highly-politicized issue. I saw this as a way to contribute directly – to help get the funding to the right places.”

Offroad Pakistan is an “eclectic collection of friends and their families who love the outdoors and, of course, four wheeling,” according to its website. Many of the club members are doctors and dentists who are offering their services to deliver food and medical supplies in their offroad vehicles, according to Ehya.

Syed Shabbir Siraj, a 30-year-old professional photographer and filmmaker, also saw Yasmin’s ad on Craiglist. He showed Yasmin a reel of a production that he is working on about Pakistan and that’s how he got involved in the Voices of Pakistan project.

“What drew me to the project was Pakistan itself,” said Siraj. “I saw it as an opportunity to do something for the mother land. I saw this as a way that my skills could benefit the people of Pakistan and I am thankful to be part of it.”

Siraj is in charge of producing a segment on the Pakistan Youth Alliance, a group that according to its website “yearns to wake the youth of Pakistan from the sleep of apathy and to help evolve a society where youth lead the change instead of following it.”

“I can be at peace knowing that there are young people, especially in a country like Pakistan, that are mobilizing for people in need. The youth are alive and kicking in Pakistan,” said Siraj.

Anna-Lena Isaksson saw Yasmin’s post for video editors on Facebook. She had worked with Yasmin previously at Link TV and on Yasmin’s Ace in the Hole documentary.

“Yasmin’s very passionate,” said Isaksson who is working to edit a segment on Khushaal Pakistan, a group that formed initially to provide food and tents to people following the flood but who aim to “provide proper infrastructure” in the form of schools, roads and houses.

“Winter is coming to Pakistan,” said Mawaz Khan. “Those 20 million people that were initially impacted by the flood in July are still in need. We need to put a spotlight on those people who are bringing relief to Pakistan. If we all work together we can help to rebuild Pakistan in a sustainable and equitable fashion.”

These filmmakers and broadcasters are working together for a good cause. They hope to inspire a new generation of filmmakers and activists working on the ground in Pakistan, and to give them a voice and venue to showcase their good works on www.voicesofpakistan.org

Jennifer Witherspoon is an environmentalist and film producer. Catch up with her latest thoughts at www.twitter.com/jenwitsf