IN FLAMES Interview: A Conversation With Director Zarrar Khan

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IN FLAMES Interview: A Conversation With Director Zarrar Khan
Earlier today we sat down with Zarrar Khan, director of the Pakistani Canadian drama horror In Flames. Opening tomorrow in cinemas on April 12th In Flames was Pakistan's submission in the previous Acadamy Awards, is a double nominee for the upcoming Canadian Screen Awards and a stellar entry into the drama horror genre. 
We talk about the film's origins, it's reception back in Pakistan, horror influences on the elements in his film and some other surprises along the way. 
Let's just talk about how In Flames came about. Because a very bold thing to do on your debut feature film is to take on the patriarchy.
In 2018, I made a short film called Dia. It was set in Karachi and explored similar themes of life, grief, and loss, and this feeling of suffocation. And that film ended up really changing my career. It played out Locarno Film Festival, and won an award there, and it allowed me to start navigating through the international independent cinema world, and learn about and learn from incredible storytellers and filmmakers. 
Some of those include Mouly Surya, who's like the Tarantino of Indonesia, she made this movie called Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, and I also got to learn with the editor of Parasite. I never went to film school, so these labs and international festivals were my learning about cinema but also learning about the kind of cinema I'm interested in telling and the tools of how to tell it. We're seeing this thing right now where genre is being repurposed by filmmakers who would have found themselves on the fringe and using those genre tools to speak to thematic issues that are deeply rooted in their society. I think In Flames is a part of that. 
Another film I recently saw that speaks about that is The Settlers which is a cowboy movie, but it's a cowboy movie that speaks to the indigenous massacre in Argentina. And it's not Cowboys versus Indians. It's what Cowboys did to Indians, but within the framework of the cowboy spaghetti film. I think it's really exciting for me to use genre conventions to speak to the horror of the oppressed, which I think in its own way is our storytelling of what has been done historically. You know, it (horror) started out very clear coded, very female protagonist and continues to be that but at some point in that journey, the lens really changed.
Dudes came in and took over and they also became very masculine and very aggressive.
Yeah, you know, it became sexploitation. And now it feels like it's making its way back. But for me, as a filmmaker who's traveled both in Pakistan and Canada, genre also allowed us to clear censor boards in Pakistan to release in Pakistan because genre is always put to the side as “Oh, they're not really speaking about things that affect our society. Oh, it's just a ghost story”. And it's a Trojan horse. It allowed us to play in cities across Pakistan and connect with audiences over there. But also connect with audiences across the world who appreciate a good genre film, but also were looking for something more.
That's very interesting. I didn't know if it played over there and how it played. So how did you do it? Going over there under the guise as a horror film, but something that's very topical.
I personally love where - Asia loves horror - one of my favorite cinematic experiences was an Urdu dubbed version of The Nun 2 and recently Indonesian horror is doing really well in Pakistan. Indonesia’s just having a fun moment of their own right now with their cinemas are exploding. And so I knew that versus if we were to go through the approach of straight drama. For one thing, I struggle with drama. I always feel like it's a bit campy in the way that people are so earnest with their emotions. That's not the kind of cinema that I am, you know, pushing towards for myself as an audience member. But, this is one genre… you open yourself to a different audience and an audience that is wildly excited and shouldn't be because it's been, for the longest time, ghettoized in the film community. 
How was it accepted? 
It played really well with younger audiences. We weren't able to find a distributor in Pakistan. so me and my producer Anam Abbas became distributors. We started in one cinema in Karachi, which is where the movie was shot, and where my career is largely. Then we expanded to five cinemas, like in Lahore, the other major city. 
It was divisive, but we knew it would be; we were poking the bear when we made this film. But it was also really refreshing to see people championing the film, a film that we knew would be divisive. Some of the critic pieces that have come out of Pakistan are so deeply reflective of what the film was trying to say. So it's really exciting to be a part of an industry that in many ways is new, is in its infancy. People are already starting to find their film communities and their own voices.
Sounds very generational. A new school versus old school.
Yeah, well, there is the old guard and I understand that you don't want to come in and see your jobs replaced, your livelihood replaced, and I'm of the school of thought that there's enough space for all of us. There's enough space for all of us to grow and you know, I'm not making a musical. So that's an audience that will never be watching my movies. Yeah. But never say never.
Was there any concern going ahead with it and speaking for the women of Pakistan? Was there any concern being a male speaking for women?
For me, a lot of my favorite cinema comes from the outsider perspective. I think of films like Beau Travail (from Calire Denis - Zarrar was drawing a blank during our time). She's an incredible French filmmaker who made a film about toxic masculinity, about the French military. She was able to have her lens as a filmmaker, identified as female. 
So I've always found cinema to be a great place to learn about communities, or stories, or lives, or perspectives that you haven't experienced yourself. But simultaneously, I'm aware as someone who identifies as a male that you know, I'm not giving voice to community that we haven't heard for. The women in Pakistan have been fighting long and hard for their own agency for their own rights. 
As a filmmaker, all I'm doing is amplifying, and we strove to ensure that the film was diverse both in front of the camera as well as behind. My producer and my boss - my line producer Carol Ann - and my cinematographer, Aigul Nurbulatova. It was all of you know, ensuring that it was a space that felt like it was safe to explore these themes. I also feel as the director, I am really responsible for the performances but the lens into the world needed to be a lens that saw the world as a woman and could bring in that perspective as well. So, you know, we were cognizant of the story that we were telling, and of what my strengths were, and of building out a team that could create a film that spoke authentically to this from every perspective.
I respond strongly to visuals and images. And we'll talk about the horror images in a moment because we are horror adjacent but windows seem to come up a lot. An early scene is very exhilarating and very horrifying at the same time, smashing through a window. It (the movie) ends with a window being smashed as well. Mariam is always looking out of the windows. Is that on purpose? Don't tell me it's accidental, because I like to think that it's purposeful. There's a lot of gazing out of windows or smashing through windows.
I mean, for me, film is too expensive a medium for anything to be accidental. Everything is with intent and we wanted to use windows as it's a false home, it's a separation between yourself and the outside world. But in this film, the outside world is always breaking its way in both literally and figuratively. In the ending shot of Mariam, we're angled up at her for the first time and we see her in a position of power almost like you would see a king looking down in his subjects. You know, so it was using the window using that theme of looking out for escape after your spaces being encroached, but now there's power in that gaze. So it was how can we use these thematic visuals that we've established, but also let them reflect the transformation that our character has had?
Right, like the beach scene. There's the shed, and you're looking out from the darkness of the shed into the light of the beach, which is signaling a transition. It's like further - I don't want to say growth, it doesn’t seem to be the right word for it - but for Mariam it seems to be getting into a moment of freedom or moving towards freedom. But unfortunately, as things happen (in the story), we start going down that dark path again. Shelagh talked about it in her review, horror begins to manifest itself because of fear. And no matter where Miriam turns after that moment, there's no one there for her, there's no man for her to confide in. 
I would argue there's no one for her to turn to atall. We're seeing her completely isolated from everyone in her life. She doesn't feel like she can share it with her mother. She doesn't feel like she can share it with her best friend. We're seeing her turn inwards. Yeah, and feeling like this whole society is structured for her to feel isolated. 
Right, because her mother did that thing Mariam told her not to do. And so she no longer feels that she can go to her because she didn't listen to her in the first place. 
Yeah, and also showing that what systems of oppression do is they want communities who are marginalized, to feel isolated, to feel that they are alone in the trauma and the violence that they're experiencing. I hope that the film that audiences walk away from is the realization that it's only through the power of community that you can make space for yourself to navigate this world with some level of peace or hope. 
Let’s talk about the horror elements. You talked about how popular Indonesian films are. So that would suggest then that a lot of the influence was Indonesian and Thai.
I think East Asian cinema lately has been doing really exciting things with genre. Yeah, they started off doing more experimental drama. I'm thinking of, you know, I can never pronounce his name (Apichatpong Weerasethakul). They were also doing it. I call that genre cinema. Yeah, you know, it's it's experimental, it's fantastical. 
And this film, you know, we do have a few jumpscares they are there. But really, what we were looking to genre for is creating that atmosphere of this constant dread, of this constant kind of not knowing where what to be fearful of, and where that fear is coming from. Because it's stemming from just existing in this society, in this very hard city. That requires you to be a hard person. 
Yeah, films that inspire me, I love what a lot of contemporary genre filmmakers are doing. People like Julia Ducournau. Filmmakers like Mattie Do, Jordan Peele, where they're combining elements of genre. Yeah, I call In Flames genre-bending because you know, we have a rom-com music montage, but we're also a movie that is deeply visceral, deeply violent. 
I remember I saw the film Nope after I made Iin Flames. I would’ve seen it before because he's such a genius at blending a sibling road movie with a cowboy movie with an alien movie. And that's why I think genre is the place where filmmakers can come to experiment, can come to be bold, can come to be brave. And that the audiences will be excited by that. I feel like how cinema will sustain and survive is by taking these big bold swings, because, you know, we've been watching movies for over 100 years. 
And I feel like in some ways, they were braver at the beginning of cinema than they have been like the last 10 years, you know. Now on the other side of COVID, the films that are breaking through are the ones that are swinging for the fences. And I think that's what genre is deeply exciting to me because it does that and it has a history of doing that. 
Cool. I didn’t know Mattie Do was an influence. She’s amazing. I love Mattie. I've known her for a very long time now. 
Oh my god, how? Mattie was the mentor for this movie.
Oh shit, right?
Yeah. She saw early content. give me feedback. The Long Walk is an incredible film and how it blends time traveling and drama. Mattie is one of my mentors. That was another big touchpoint for this film. 
Fantastic. We’ve known her since the beginning of her career.
As I said, I respond to things visually. So when you're doing your horror elements, I saw J horror with the hair. I saw. what I would have assumed first was Thai with the ghosts, because the design is very reminiscent of films like Phobia and Alone. I'm sure there are a lot of new ones since that heyday of Thai cinema, but how you present your specter, it's when horror fans will gain extra out of your film by recognizing those cues, because it just kind of winks to those films. 
Yeah, and a shout-out to Dario Argento. 
Yeah. His use of color is incredible. He used pink, orange, and green and that's a color palette that we localized. I remember watching Suspiria for the first time and thinking that the way he shot this film, these colors are the colors of Karachi. You know, we just need to rub them with dirt. So for me, watching a film like that and seeing how visceral it felt, just taking what I can to make it this Karachi movie, you know, but loving his usage of color when you talk about visuals. We talk about those movies that were driven by visuals and with our film, you know, there was a burden of responsibility of portraying Karachi correctly, but also portraying Karachi in this world that is horrifying and leaning on horror that has come before to find that language.
I didn’t pick up on that, I feel great shame. So is there anything else that specifically you want to talk about your film that we haven't touched? 
Oh. the score, please? Yeah, this score was done by Kalaisan Kalaichelvan and the sound design was done by Bret Killoran. So much of the horror that comes through the sound of this film comes through the way that sounds creep up on you, comes through this constant barrage of sound. When our character finally escaped the city, for a fleeting moment, you hear the sound of the waves washing over you, and you have that brief reprieve before we're sucked back into this world where you can never know where the next act of violence is coming from. 
So I learned so heavily on sound design and I'm crafting a sound design that really stays in your mind and creates the specter of violence that is overwhelming. Kalaisan has a background as a performer and he's toured through South Asia, so he's experienced different sounds in that capacity, how to evoke what haunting feels like for these characters. And Brett, who's never been to South Asia, he was able to pull out those sound designs so they always felt like they were tied to the perspectives of the characters. When these horrifying big moments happen we're not hearing a barrage of sound, we kind of take a step back and we're just in the psychology of this young woman, as incredible acts of violence are coming her way. And that was all through the work of these incredible craftsmen.
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Zarrar KahnRamesha NawalOmar JavaidBakhtawar MazharDramaHorror

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