“What I wanted to explore was the idea of parental sacrifice, how a parent agrees to sacrifice a huge part of himself and submit to the permanent emotional agony that comes with the sacrifice, all for the benefit of their child”
In his own words, parental sacrifice was the underpinning idea of Meelad Moaphi’s heart-wrenching story “Worth”. For those who are yet to see it, the short film revolves around a father, who is caught in an untoward situation, where he has to choose between two of his own children.
The portrayal of parental sacrifice is a subject which would resonate with people irrespective of their racial or religious backgrounds. When we had the chance to speak to the award-winning filmmaker, my first question was about the power of film in general and Worth specifically in bringing people together.
“Certainly, and I think much of that comes from placing the focus on the human quality of the story as opposed to politicizing the message. The premise of Worth could have easily been turned into a political statement of some sort, but that wasn’t my intention at any point. I was only interested in the human condition and therefore put all the emphasis on the moral choice the protagonist is confronted with as a father. If your stories are about human struggles, they can be timeless and understood globally, and speak to whoever, wherever, regardless of their gender, religion or political stance. The purpose of storytelling is to create bridges, not destroy them,” Moaphi emphasized.
So far, “Worth” has bagged the Best Short Film, Best Director, and Best Cinematography award in the Canadian category of the Vancouver Film Festival, and at Toronto Reel Asian the Air Canada Short Film prize. It is safe to say that the film is having the desired impact on its audiences.
So, what was the writing process for the film, I inquired.
“Worth was distilled from a feature screenplay I wrote a little earlier. I had started my Master’s studies at York University’s film production program, and as my thesis short, I decided to produce a proof-of-concept of the feature screenplay that could simultaneously serve as a standalone short film. What I wanted to explore was the idea of parental sacrifice. Almost only in the parent-child dynamic do we see someone willingly inflict such intense emotional pain onto themselves for the benefit of another? Within immigrant families — due to the countless hurdles endured in order to reach the desired status — the frequency and intensity of these sacrifices and dilemmas are even higher. So I decided to create a narrative that follows a parent precisely at the moment in which he’s faced with having to undertake a heavy decision,” he responded.
Having been an immigrant, perhaps also helps. Moaphi was born in Iran but he moved to Japan aged six. Later he immigrated to Canada. Even if the ordeal wasn’t as severe, there is a better understanding of the agony one has to face when leaving their home and family behind. So, the film comes across as heartfelt and genuine.
Given that this Worth initially was a feature film screenplay, I wondered how hard was it to redo the script. Every word you write is the fruit of your mental labour. Was letting-go a big mental hurdle?
“Adapting downwards from a feature to a short script was as challenging as it was rewarding. The intention was never to cram an entire feature into a short, but rather to strategically select one segment from the feature, which could convey the narrative and thematic essence of the source material, and rework that into an independent short story with its own beginning, middle and end. After exploring several possibilities, I concluded that roughly the first 20 pages of the feature script — the setup and inciting incident — could do just that. One of the great achievements of Worth is its compact and highly pinpointed storyline, which allows it to convey so much in such a short timespan without it feeling overwhelming or rushed, and I think much of that has to do with just using the source material to clearly identify the theme and then stripping down the plotline to whatever corresponded directly to it,” Moaphi reflected introspectively on his writing (or rewriting) process.
To his credit, at no point does the film looks as if it is being rushed. The next question obviously was why Pakistan?
“In the very early stages, I did strongly consider shooting the script in Canada but it soon became very apparent that the result would be too artificial and unconvincing unless it were filmed on location. The Canadian landscape and architecture is very unlike the world in which the narrative is set. The original script had nothing to do with Pakistan — it was set between Afghanistan and Iran. Due to various practical issues, however, I wasn’t able to conduct the shoot either in Iran or in Afghanistan, so that’s when a friend and colleague, Shehrezade Mian — who eventually came on board as an Executive Producer — suggested I adapt it for Pakistan. After much discussion and investigation, we concluded that the narrative could very well be applied to Pakistan, while still making sense and maintaining the spirit of the story. Minor details were finessed and the dialogue was switched over to Urdu. Pakistan was a country I had never been to and had no direct relationship with, but by that point, it was between that or scrapping the project entirely, so I decided to take the leap — knowing that I’d be running a massive risk,” added the Canadian-Iranian filmmaker.
So we have Shehrezade Mian to thank for this beautiful film. However, making the film in Urdu which isn’t one of the three languages (English, Farsi and Spanish) that Moaphi speaks, must have been tricky.
“I had no previous knowledge of Urdu, so naturally one of my biggest concerns was directing actors in it. Speaking and having gone through the process of learning other languages facilitated the process for me since I already have an ear for it. I relied a lot on personal impulse, plus the assistance of my cast and crew. Though not understanding the language of the dialogue is certainly a handicap, I quickly learned during rehearsals — and later during filming — that it doesn’t prevent a director from evaluating the acting and judging a take. What’s most important for the director is to have a firm grasp of what the scene is about and what each character is fighting for, which in turn facilitates one’s ability to assess the performances almost purely based on physical movements and tonalities of dialogue. It’s also important to at least familiarize oneself with the tonalities of the language in question and the common physical gestures of the culture through observation and human interactions. I had two weeks in Pakistan to do that. Behind the tonal and physical linguistics reside the emotions, which are universal and a reflection of our human condition. One can feel whether a scene or snippet of acting is or is not genuine,” Moaphi explained.
If they had any difficulties during shooting, it certainly doesn’t reflect on the screen. Nonetheless, usually, Pakistani filmmakers go abroad to shoot films as well as for post-production work because of lack of technical expertise.
How did Worth’s team manage?
He director mentions Shehrezade Mian, Ali Sattar (cinematographer), Ibrahim Khan (Line Producer and Casting Director) and the Bling Media as pillars of support in executing a demanding shoot.
“My experience in Pakistan with the people, the cast and crew, was incredibly positive and memorable. Everybody brought a massive deal of enthusiasm to the endeavour, which facilitated the work despite the countless hurdles we had to overcome. In Pakistan, audio is still not traditionally recorded on location, and in a film like Worth, it was critical that we grab quality audio live, so that’s why we had to bring in a location sound recordist from Canada — the only other non-Pakistani crew, aside from myself. Besides, we were lucky to find people who were invested in the project, including the actors,” he added.
We see four actors in the short film, Dania Jamil, Komal Jamil, Babar Khan and Waqas Shahzad. Given the storyline, the actors especially father (Waqas Shehzad) needs to display deep anguish. At the same time, given the tonality of the film, it couldn’t be melodramatic. Luckily, Waqas gets the balance just right.
People in Islamabad can watch this terrific performance, at the upcoming screening by Asian Study Group. The film was also screened at the Asia Peace Film Festival earlier this month. Further screenings are likely in 2020 in Pakistan and elsewhere. Also, those travelling via Air Canada can watch Worth on the in-flight entertainment system.
After getting recognition at the Vancouver Asian Film Festival 2019, the bar is now higher for the director. He is already working on a bunch of varied projects including a feature film as an actor.
“This past summer I was asked by a fellow Canadian director to make my acting debut in his feature film that’s slated for completion in 2020. I am also in post-production on my latest short film — much smaller in scope and lighter in subject matter than Worth — but hopefully, it can also have a successful life of its own. I’m also Associate Producing a Canadian feature scheduled to go to camera in the summer of 2020. Otherwise, I’ll be transitioning towards directing my first feature. Whether it’s the feature version of Worth or another that I’ve been working on depends on several factors, but hopefully it comes to life in the near future.”
With tensions between Pakistan and India at an all-time high, Indian content is unlikely to come back to our screens anytime soon, it is perhaps time for Pakistani cinemas and audiences to look elsewhere. Meelad Moaphi’s Worth speaks a language people understand. Despite not understanding fully the culture or the language of the land, when you see the film, you can relate to it on many levels.
And this is why diversity and representation are essential not just for their social value but also for the quality of storytelling.