–With Dust to Dust (2017), Mahnoor Zaidi aims to discuss cemetery ‘taboo’ by filming regular life of graveyard worker
Dust to Dust, a 2017 Student Academy Awards semi-finalist documentary, traces the thought process of a gravedigger as he comes to terms with his own mortality and “transcends it”.
The documentary, initially a thesis project for York University, has been screened in Toronto, Seattle, Singapore and Pakistan. Aggrieved by the death of her own grandparents, Mahnoor Zaidi, a 24-year-old, chose to conduct a character study of a gravedigger and later produced a film on it.
“My motive with this documentary was to make people understand that death doesn’t necessarily have to be a taboo subject. Even my professor thought I wouldn’t be able to go along with it. He said it was a psychological study of a character, which would be difficult to translate into film,” she said. “Although the concept is not easily digestible, it has been received very positively.”
Zaidi was the youngest attending filmmaker at the Tasveer South Asian Festival 2018, and won the Best Documentary award at the York in 2017.
After experiencing intimate deaths, the young filmmaker found herself wondering how someone who dealt with it on a daily basis would feel.
Some of the questions that she tries to answer are, do they become desensitised? Does death eventually lose its emotional capital?
Mohammad Ashraf is her subject. He has worked in the grave digging business for many years. Now, he believes no job is beyond him. He goes about his work even if a loved one dies because, for him, it is “just a regular day at work”.
Zaidi hails from Lahore, a socially diverse metropolitan city, and went to pursue her formal film studies in Canada. As a filmmaker, she is an observer who digs into social realities. This is why she argues that there is a difference in how the Western and the Eastern societies look upon the “biggest reality”, that of death.
She opined, “In the West, people seem to be running away from death. There’s a one-day funeral and then they forget that someone who used to be a part of their lives, has died. No one comes in to pay respects after the funeral.”
However, she believes that the South Asian societies seem to follow the opposite approach. There is a huge religious emphasis on the afterlife in Pakistan, which is an ideological state. However, the grieving process easily turns into an exaggerated affair.
“The majority believes that their emotional volatility is proof of their dedication and love for the one who has passed away. I think grief should be a celebration of the life that was. It is a loss that can be embraced, rather than suffered,” she said while talking about her observation.
Graveyards as ‘Safe Spaces’:
Zaidi thinks that people want to deny death and transfer their fear of it onto physical spaces.
After her grandparents’ deaths, the graveyard became a “safe space” for her.
She said, “In Pakistan, the people are scared of going to graveyards because of their perceptions of jins (demons) and bad omen. It is said that they should not be frequented late at night.”
“I have to admit, I used to be afraid of graveyards. But when we were shooting the film, three of us, Ashraf, the cinematographer Shahnawaz Zali and I had to stay there as late as 2 am which felt perfectly safe.”
Citing one of the questions that she had to face in her city when she told people she was filming a gravedigger, she chuckled: “They’d ask me if it was about cannibalism. You know the gravediggers that unearth and consume dead bodies.”
A parallel in Pakistan:
When filming Dust to Dust, Zaidi was aware that her documentary may not find a target audience in her own country.
“We don’t have an audience for this niche, especially for documentaries. People only go to cinemas to relax, as a reprieve from household troubles,” she said, and stressed upon the need to cultivate a “serious audience” and wants to change the narrative for future filmmakers in the country.
She added, “We have some pretty good filmmakers; however most of them ‘cave in’ to the mainstream practices eventually. Like Shoaib Mansoor, well he used to be a great filmmaker and then he made Verna. I’d rather avoid commenting on that.”
Zaidi said she likes to have a complete control over the subject while producing a documentary and directing its story.
“Once I know my subject, I can develop the story in any direction I want. That’s a powerful feeling. You can change the narrative during the shoot, and then, during the post-processing.”
She adds that the type of questions asked during an interview and how they are curated can alter the narrative as well. However, she doesn’t have any fixed principles that she follows when directing or shooting but figures it out “along the way”.
“However, what is important is that your narrative should have an emotional impact. If something has an impact on me, it will also resonate with my audience.”
Answering a question pertaining to the post-processing of a shoot, she revealed: “I also give a lot of allowance to my editors. In this documentary, however, I was more involved during the editing.”
She believes that an artist has a certain social responsibility, and is a proponent of the school art for life’s sake.