Seemab Gul Ecstatic As Short Directorial Sandstorm In Running For Oscars

Seemab Gul Ecstatic As Short Directorial Sandstorm In Running For Oscars
Seemab Gul and Abid Aziz Merchant have done it again. Just this May, they represented Pakistan at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, where they got to dazzle French producers and cinephiles with their screenplay for Haven of Hope, which was one of the ten screenplays chosen by La Fabrique Cinéma de l’Institut français, as well as the winner of the Rotterdam’s Hubert Bals Fund Script and Project Development Support. Now, a short film that the duo worked on has qualified for the Oscars. Sandstorm (Mulaqat) is a film written and directed by Seemab Gul, and produced by Abid Aziz Merchant of the Sanat Initiative.

Sandstorm follows the story of a young girl named Zara, who is blackmailed into meeting her virtual boyfriend in person after she sends him a sensual video of her dancing. In many ways, this is a story so familiar to most Pakistani women. We all either know a Zara, or have been Zara at some point in life. Perhaps this is why it resonated with so many people: Sandstorm was also officially selected for the Venice Film Festival in 2021, and Sundance in 2022. Seemab Gul seems to feel that way too; she tells The Friday Times "What makes Sandstorm special is that it resonated with not just young people, but entire audiences worldwide, which is an honor and privilege for me."

The film qualified for the Oscars after it won top awards at two Oscar-qualifying festivals last week, namely the HollyShorts Film Festival and the Flickers’ Rhode Island International Film Festival. Winning the top three awards at these festivals automatically puts the film in the Oscars race. Sandstorm won the best live-action short category at the two festivals. Despite winning two top awards, Seemab clarifies that there's still a long way to go. "The next step is Oscar short-list in which only ten films are selected in end of January and then in February only five are actually nominated," she says, adding that she's a bit nervous, as the competition is going to terribly fierce. "There is a bit of luck involved, as well as talent and zeitgeist, you know, whatever is in fashion and style at the time," she says, adding, "It is a bit of a lottery, but I'm excited and nervous."

Nevertheless, it's a thing to celebrate, and Seemab knows it. She says it’s been a quite a journey since she left film school over a decade ago. Since then, she has made many short films and has adorned many a hat, taking up the role of producer, director, writer, camera woman and DP on various documentaries and fiction shorts. "It's a very very competitive industry, so yes it does feel great that Sandstorm has now been to nearly 50 film festivals worldwide," she says, adding that it's a proud moment to hear Urdu on the big screen.

Sandstorm was filmed in September 2020 during lockdown, which Seemab admits was a bit of a risk, but they had no choice as their DP was coming in from abroad and they only had five days to film. She describes the filming as 'organized chaos': with trucks filled with sand to create artificial sandstorms, and a cast and crew of about a hundred people, Sandstorm was a challenging short film to make. Seemab says the film poses a question to everyone, really, about how the internet can become a tool of coercion and manipulation, especially if you're not that internet-savvy. She tells TFT she was happy to see audiences in seemingly-progressive countries like France and USA take to the film as well, because ultimately, as she says, "It's not about what you reveal, or about flesh, it's about control over your own image, and how you lose that control once you pass it onto someone online."

Khadija Muzaffar is the culture editor at The Friday Times. Previously a Fulbright scholar at NYU, she enjoys writing about society, culture, music and food. She tweets at @khadijamuzaffar, but is far more interesting on Instagram.