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A dystopia of our own making

The short film The Round Lake illuminates the issue of the unresponsiveness to Pakistan's polluted waters

By Khizer Asif |
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PUBLISHED May 08, 2022

As we step into this world, each step is an impact, and our footprints deepen, covering more ground with each one. Climate change is our reality and lives are affected by food scarcity, environmental damage, and pollution depleting the limited freshwater. Where in the film, there is a dualism in water: the commodification of water and the difference between necessity and desire. The symbolism of water is of rejuvenation, wisdom, grace and life, yet with the acceleration of climate change and pollution, water gives a different connotation than the former.

The trio, Hira Yousafzai, Zayan Agha and Taseer Ali, have all graduated from NCA and have recently released their short film The Round Lake through the funding of the Novo Amor 565 Fund. A YouTuber has set up this fund to help small filmmakers in creating movies that involve around the humans and their interaction with the environment. These three and the rest of the crew showcased their skill and creativity, but watching the movie alone doesn't show their effort and hard work, which was what created a film about Pakistan's daunting future.

Characters should reflect

Hira Yousafzai, the producer/writer of the film, has felt that the experience of creating this film was an uplifting yet depressing experience. Hira being one, if not a few, Pushtun women filmmakers, this film had been the first time that Hira took up the role as a producer.

The inspiration for the film was due to following the prompt set by the Novo Amor 565 Fund. Hira and Zayan Agha, her director, had initially pitched an idea about the smog permeated in the air of Lahore but then decided on the idea of water shortage which was what won them the fund. As she further researched for the film, the further she felt about filming this topic. From her research, she found that many Pakistanis weren’t aware of the issue and less were mindful of the dystopic direction of Pakistan. She recounted a moment when she watched a documentary similar to their topic, and it from the comment section where it said that WWI and WWII were wars that seized land, but the next world war will be about seizing water.

Hira found her ideas from what was around her, such as the water scarcity in Karachi. Amongst the approximate 15 million population needs 600 million gallons of water a day but instead receives 435 million gallons.

Through these experiences, Hira finds that depth in her characters, and this especially shows with the relationship between the two sisters that the film follows: Noreen (older sister) and Hafsa (younger sister). To Hira, she puts importance on having the characters drive the story, and it is Hira’s goal to create strong female leads in films, such as the older sister who is the only one left to take of her little where the rest of the family perished. The moment we are introduced to the sisters, it is with Hafsa (played by Sayeda Pakeeza), who is playing with a fish in a bowl of water. This moment delivers the metaphor of the film where the necessity of water is like that fish which serves to represent the greater conflict affecting Pakeeza’s character, who, through her childish naivety, still finds her joy despite her circumstances. After this scene, we are introduced to Noreen, played by Eman Suleman, who doesn't have the liberty to live in ignorance as to her younger sister. Noreen: with dark circles around her eyes, exhausted and weakened, is trying to be the adult in the situation. She counts days in anticipation of the next water shipment, where on the calendar, you can see it has been more than a month since the last shipment.

Not only was there a great deal of skill used in the production of this project, but everyone had a genuine commitment to their roles.

“Each person associated with this project is so talented and accomplished in their fields, and they put the work into this because they believed in this.” Hira believes the success of this film was done through the collective efforts of everyone involved, and the performances by both Eman and Sayeda drive this story where their pain and struggle on screen feel like a mirror of the world’s possible demise.

Trust in your actors


Sometimes things are less than what you expect, and it can be more, possibly overwhelming for others. For Zayan Agha, the film was like a war, and it is understandable as the director, amongst the chaos, they are the one controlling the film’s direction.

A case in which things didn't go as planned is the scene of the water tanker, wherein the movie was late, it just so happens that the water tanker that was supposed to use on set by 12 in the afternoon came at 5 in the evening. Despite the poetic irony, it was not ideal considering how a three-hour scene would now have to be done in an hour as the light was leaving and he had to direct around 30-40 extras, who had very little to no acting experience.

Although there were some happy accidents in the film, in the scene of the water tanker, a crowd of people are panicking about whether they'll have their jugs filled with water. The man in charge of distributing the water clumsily fills their jugs while spilling some of the precious water, and when the water hose drips its last drop, he screams, "THERE IS NO WATER LEFT!" After finding out that the water has run out, we then see the older sister in an ultra-wide shot of the sister overlooking the Ravi River, and a bird is flying over her. This bird wasn't planned, yet it serves as a strong metaphor for the film as a whole. Zayan talks about how seeing this bird flying through reminded him of the myth told by his grandmother.

Zayan says the bird is a tetri, or a red-wattled lapwing, which his grandmother had told him about how this type of bird has a unique call and that it was supposed to be an auspicious sign of rain coming soon. However, we cut to the scene where Noreen collapses onto the ground and could no longer hold on. The bird was like a birds-eye of the issue below, and it was a scene in which it puts the whole film together.

It was a new experience for Zayan as he learned to trust his actors, allowing them to act in the scenes they believed would do justice to the story and its characters. For Zayan, it was important to visualize the script in order to create the world first and then put the characters into that world. With his actors, Zayan did help with giving them the motivation for the characters but let them decide how to conduct it. He was amazed and happy with the performance by Sayeda, who had played her part very well despite her young age. A moment where he trusted the judgment of his actors was in the scene where Noreen is looking at the photo of her dead father, and Eman tells Zayan to give her 5 minutes to get into character. Her performance was like a haunted soul still reeling over the loss of her father, and there was no melodrama but a realistic reaction of someone who would be in that situation.

An image that tells the world


The person behind the camera for this entire project is Taseer Ali, who has worked on several projects with Zayan before and talks about his experience as a cinematographer. Before filmmaking, he found his passion through photography, and it was then he developed his fascination with creating and observing images. Through developing his photography Taseer found his inspiration from other photographers, and as he developed his photography, those skills transferred to his cinematography.

For the film, Taseer had shot on a Red Komodo with compact wide lenses and had decided, with Zayan, to create a natural and realistic film, specifically for a dystopian setting in a South Asian country. In terms of location scouting, he and Zayan went to different parts of Lahore, such as the Ravi River, where Taseer had done previous projects before and had gone around Gawalmandi, located in the central part of Lahore. Within Gawalmandi, he had gone around to scout possible locations to translate script onto the screen. Afterwards, they conducted shot designing, preplanning the shot composition such as where to position and focus the camera.

Lighting takes precedence in his idea of filmmaking, where his style is to choose natural lighting instead of the high contrasted Rembrandt style. Taseer’s goal during production is to shoot every scene once, this is why he makes preplanning of great importance. "You need to figure out the most impactful shot." If you position the camera lower than the character the shot will suggest the character's dominance and if positioned higher then it'll suggest submissiveness. Taseer talks about negative space in cinematography, which produces silhouettes of a subject drawing more focus on the subject.

An example of this is seen with the wide-angle shot at Ravi River, where you see the silhouette of Noreen within a background of the pasty white sky—your eyes automatically draw to the character. Another stylistic choice made by Taseer is the position of the camera peering through metal bars or a window which Taseer explains was to create an objective point of view. Its purpose is to move away from the character’s perspective and instead switch to perspective, be it the audience or another entity.

A great moment of the film is when the little sister is at the auction house watching through a port-hole, watching the elite betting over water and tears roll down her face, hearing how one winner plans to use their water for a pool. This scene uses an objective shot that pushes the audience into the scene feeling the child's emotions, and the port-hole she's looking through is the divider between the perspective of how water should be used: necessity versus desire.

A collective feeling

A lot goes into making a film, yet there’s nothing for these filmmakers to gain from this film financially, for at least these three, this was a passion project. Making this film for these three has been an experience that proves that they can create more impactful films. It is possible for a single person passionate enough can make a good movie, but as this film crew have shown, a collective of passionate people will make a great film.