Capturing Stories of Quiet Heroism in Pakistan

By: Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, Director LOOK BUT WITH LOVE

LOOK BUT WITH LOVE, a WITHIN Original series produced by Here Be Dragons and SOC Films, is now available on WITHIN. Learn about its creators’ stories, production process, and inspiration below.

Pakistan is a deeply misunderstood place. LOOK BUT WITH LOVE introduces you to five people across the country who are transforming their communities: from a dance teacher in rural Pakistan, to a musician who is trying to save old sounds and instruments, to desert wells in Thar to which a man is fighting to bring clean water, to the slums of Karachi where a doctor is battling to save the lives of some of its youngest patients, to a band of women who are part of Pakistan’s anti-terrorism squad.

The goal is to shatter stereotypes about the country. It will make you think about the men and women who risk their lives every day for a better tomorrow.

As a filmmaker, people always ask me what it feels like to live and work in Pakistan. I wanted to put audiences right there on the front line, so that you’re immersed in an emergency ward, you are dancing with the dancers. Hopefully, you walk away with a newfound ability to understand the complexities of Pakistan.

Experiencing the Real Pakistan

In the world we live in today, there is a lot of Us versus Them.

LOOK BUT WITH LOVE aims to strip away all of the labels and preconceived notions that audiences in the West may have about a country like Pakistan. You strip away “Muslim,” you strip away “Terrorist,” you strip away “Failed state.” What you see are strong women, strong men, strong children. What you see are the goals they share: to further humanity, to advance medicine, to nurture arts and culture, and to fight against terrorism.

What you see are the citizens of a country ensuring that there is a better tomorrow for the next generation.

Learning to Shoot Virtual Reality

The shoot was challenging because we had never shot virtual reality. When you’re filming 2D, you’re generally engaging with your subjects, but in virtual reality the interviewer has to melt away in the background — so in some ways you have to work much harder with your subjects. You have to rehearse. In most documentary films there are no rehearsals, and I don’t normally use them, but we had to do a few so the subjects could become familiar with the cameras and how the cameras were affecting everything around them. We were also working with a rural community that had never seen technology like that and were immensely fascinated, which ultimately made the process lengthier.

Working in the desert in harsh conditions was difficult — VR cameras can tend to easily heat up, causing production to stop so that they can cool down, and it’s already very hot in Pakistan. We basically could not film after 8 AM, so we had to wake up at 2 AM, travel to remote destinations, film around sunrise, and then film again around sunset.

It was hard to bring a lot of equipment, so we had to brainstorm how to get the camera movement we wanted. We used everything from wires, to pipes with wheels, to dollies we built in our office in Karachi. We ran experiments on tiny toy cars with cameras attached to them. For example, while filming Beena Jawad in “A Story of Dance,” we had to finish by 6 PM because the light was fading — and at 5:15 we finally got a mechanism working that created the movement we needed.

Staying Open to Spontaneity

Some of my favorite moments in the five episodes are organic moments. All of the stories were discovered on the ground; as any filmmaker would tell you, you can plan as much as you want, but it is the surprises you come across that make a film. When we first saw the musicians in Jamshoro perform, the way they performed was very different from what we had anticipated. In “A Story of Water,” which was filmed in the Thar Desert, we found an old woman who told us the story of how contaminated water destroyed her bones. Those were unplanned.

The Here Be Dragons team was a little nervous about our travel. After my crew and I finished our fourth film, several bomb blasts took place in Pakistan; we filmed a group of women who were part of an elite squad — the Women’s Task Force, featured in “A Story of Women.” At the last minute, we decided that that was one of the films we wanted to make. There is something about seeing these brave Pakistani women suit up in bomb-disposal-squad suits and go out looking for bombs, walking shoulder to shoulder with the men who are also part of the squad.

In the divided world that we live in today, it is very important to open up your heart and look at others as simply human like yourself. LOOK BUT WITH LOVE is a phrase written on the back of buses in Pakistan — a very famous slogan. I want you to look at all of these characters, these Pakistanis, with love.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is a two time Academy Award and Emmy Award winning documentary filmmaker. In the past 16 years, she has made a dozen multi-award winning films in over 10 countries around the world. Her films include Girl in the River, Song of Lahore, Saving Face, PeaceKeepers, Transgenders: Pakistan’s Open Secret and Pakistan’s Taliban Generation.

In 2012, Time Magazine included Sharmeen in their annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. In 2013, the Canadian government awarded her a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for her work in the field of documentary films and the World Economic Forum honoured her with a Crystal Award.