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Q&A with Hamza Bangash, dir. Stray Dogs Come Out At Night - Clermont 2020
Tuesday 18 February 2020, by
Karachi, Pakistan. Iqbal, a migrant sex worker, cannot come to terms with his illness. He convinces his uncle to take a day trip to the beach, desperate for respite. The Arabian sea beckons.
An original film about an oft-ignored demographic. Hamza handles the subject matter with sensitivity and respect, painting a complex, human portrait of a character that is too often faceless.
Can you explain the title? What is the symbol or role of the dog?
In the late of night, the streets of Karachi are run by stray dogs. They come out from their corners, sit in the middle of the road, are happy and carefree. We do not have a culture that cares for animals. Many feel that dogs are against Islam in Pakistan (but this is our cultural feeling- it is not so in other Islamic cultures where animals are well cared for). So, for the last few years, there has been an extermination campaign by the authorities. They spray poison on the roads, so if a dog eats a piece of discarded food- be it a stray or someone’s pet- it dies. The bodies are picked up in the morning.
Amongs the dogs, the only other people you will see late at night are the ’Maalishwala’s’ (young roadside masseurs / sex workers). They sit by the side of the road, clinking their oil bottles, waiting to be picked up. The title came from my observations. The dog and the young men, both discarded by society- both routinely abused. Stray dogs - they only have the night.
Do you know someone who shares Iqbal, the protagonist’s, experience? What sort of research did you do?
The experience I share with my protagonist is that of being a migrant in Karachi. It can be a brutal, unforgiving city- a vast, unrelenting urban sprawl. Like a documentary, much of the story came from research. I collaborated with a male sexual health charitable organization, that is run entirely by ex- sex workers. I interviewed them, I went on assignment with them - to the popular places. It is very taboo - what they do - as this aspect of sexuality is expressly forbidden in Pakistani society- and considered to be the worst of the worst. However, to them it was just a job- a way to make a living. I found it interesting how they approached their faith with their profession- as many were very religious. It was truly just that- a job- a way to make a living, in a poor country. A way to take care of their families back in their villages. The hidden costs, infection, disease, psychological trauma- those simmer under the surface.
Can you tell us a bit more about the filming location? How familiar are you with that part of Pakistan?
Very familiar. I was born in Karachi, and the beach we shot at is 5 minutes away from my family home. The apartment we shot in is even closer. I had shot a documentary at the beach market prior- and after that shoot, was keen to return. The beach market is in walking distance to the biggest high-end shopping mall in the city - but very much - a world apart. It is a strange juxtaposition of the strict class divide. In many of the shots in Stray Dogs Come Out at Night, the mall looms in the background. For people from Karachi it is a structural icon. I find it both funny and strange.
What would you like the audience to take from it?
To feel empathy. I believe that the essence of the human experience is the same. Waves of uncertainty, doubt, loneliness- desperation - are universal. Hopefully, by watching Stray Dogs Come Out at Night, by living with a community that is marginalized, the audience is brought into the fold- and see the characters as not so different from themselves.
What is your background as a filmmaker?
I started in theatre in Karachi, writing and directing amateur plays. I pursued an undergraduate degree in theatre studies in Canada, and returned to Karachi after graduating. I continued in theatre, but after a few years pivoted to film. In the last year, my films have begun to travel internationally and I have been able to learn from international film training initiatives such as Busan International Film Festival’s Asian Film Academy, and Locarno Filmmakers Academy- as well as their Open Doors initiative. They were incredible experiences, and my practice has benefited immensely. Later this month, I will be traveling to Berlinale as part of their Talent Project Market, where my feature film in development Mariam (inspired by my 2018 short film, Dia), has been selected. I hope to raise funds to make my feature, as we have no money for independent cinema in Pakistan - nor any sort of national film initiative. Filmmaking in Pakistan is a desperate thing, ignited and sustained by passion.
Are there any works of art or films that have inspired you?
All of Almodovar’s and Asghar Farhadi’s films. The African and Indian new wave. The short films that I was exposed to at Locarno 2018 and 2019. Recently, I discovered Haneke. My film education is poor, but thanks to streaming platforms - I now get to watch many more. The plays of Arthur Miller and Oscar Wilde. Karachi. The city is a work of art.
Would you say that the short film format has given you any particular freedom?
It allows me to do more with less. I am able to tell stories that would otherwise not be told - considered to be too risky or not profitable enough. Short films are purer - they do not have much to do with commerce. This allows a certain kind of freedom. I am free from financial obligation- so I can tell the stories I believe must be told.