Saba Ahmed
meets London-based filmmaker Numra Siddiqui

Numra Siddiqui has an infectiously giggly laugh. The 26-year-old London-based filmmaker was in Lahore for three days, and I grabbed the first opportunity to meet her. Numra has worked on films for the BBC, as well as on documentaries around Europe and Asia. Perhaps most impressively, she has filmed in the streets of Lahore and Karachi, unafraid of the muck and grit of urban Pakistan. She recounts lying face-up on the sidewalk trying desperately to get the perfect shot when she felt something brushing her leg. It was a donkey on the side of the road sniffing her.

‘The Pakistani audience found it interesting that I managed to make a film about wall-chalking as they didn’t think it was a film-worthy subject!’

As a teenager, Numra knew she wanted to make films. “I knew that I wanted to work in documentary. When I come to Pakistan, the country continues to reveal itself in new and unusual ways.” She recounts the experience of making her first film, The Talking Walls of Lahore, an up-close exploration of graffiti and street art in Lahore and Punjab: “I wanted to make a film about moving through the city, like a journey. Everyone from a street artist to a trader has marked his territory. In a country where freedom of expression is shrinking, the walls of cities become alternative sites of expression.” The Talking Walls of Lahore has been screened at the East End Film Festival 2011, London Indian Film Festival 2011, London International Documentary Film Festival 2012 and Whirlgig Cinema’s Spotlight. The documentary came second place at the prestigious Satyajit Ray Film Competition in 2011.




On Numra’s first job working at a visual effects company, she told me of the hardwork and constant multi-tasking involved when she was starting out: “One minute I was the producer, the next minute they sent me out to Morocco for a project. I was 23 years old and they just sent me out there with a cameraman, director, and sound. I was thrown in the deep end but it was one of the best learning experiences.” The experience helped Numra later when she worked at Serendip Productions in Islamabad where she made short films for UN agencies and other developmental organizations. “We travelled to places like Waziristan, FATA, getting shots from helicopters,” she says. “It was surreal.” Numra worked on a film about the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Police, and specifically, one of its stations. The station, she says, has since been blown up.

After Islamabad, Numra was back in London working at BBC Factual. She worked with top BBC chef Nigel Slater, and the English farmer and television presenter Adam Henson. Suddenly she found herself in the world of British food and picked up bizarre factoids, such as: smoked salmon does not, in fact, come from Scotland. “Who knew I felt so passionately about how smoked salmon came to the UK?” she laughs. “Apparently I do! It doesn’t come from Scotland as many believe but came with the Jewish settlers in East London.” But Numra was already restless and itching to be more independent. “I realized I want to make my own films. I wanted to make films that veered from the popular imagination.”

Numra’s documentary came second place at the prestigious Satyajit Ray Film Competition 2011

The international media’s perception of Pakistan as “The Most Dangerous Place on Earth” is the kind of subject that Numra wants to move away from. Instead she wants to more intimate stories that shed light on local cultures and habits. “It’s important to bring to light what is overshadowed by the subjects that take the front seat when it comes to any talk about Pakistan — terrorism, war, bombs.” she told me.



It was no surprise, then, that Numra ended up documenting the tremendously inspiring work of Abdul Sattar Edhi. Numra was in Pakistan investigating the jhoolas outside the Edhi centers, where unwanted babies get dropped off. Edhi sahab’s wife, Bilquis, took over his husband’s charity project of “jhoolas” in 1952. These are swing bassinets placed outside each Edhi center with a message in both English and Urdu saying, “Do not kill, leave the baby in the cradle.” It is an attempt to discourage people from leaving behind disabled or unwanted children in rubbish heaps and other dark places. “Nine out of ten of the babies in the baskets are girls”, says Numra. “What happens to those little girls that get left there?” The issue touches on the grinding cycles of poverty as well as the stigma attached to having a female child. When she started her project, Numra says she had a very specific image in mind, of making “a film called jhoola.”  As Numra delved more into the subject, the idea of the jhoola receded; the bright and encouraging futures of the children themselves took center stage. She visited training centers and schools and decided to focus not just on the girls left behind in the jhoolas but others too — women lost or abandoned throughout the city of Karachi.

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Numra becomes emotional when relating her experience with the Edhi foundation. She had the wonderful privilege of meeting Edhi sahab himself. “I was so humbled to meet him,” she says. “I grew up thinking that Edhi is one of the best people in the world. He’s the most respected person in Pakistan. And now I’ve seen and met him for myself.”

Numra will continue to work on her film about the lost women of Karachi from London, where she lives and works. But it is clear to me that this young filmmaker feels more inspired in Pakistan than in the UK. “I like the realist format. I like grit.”

Good Times


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