As 6:00 PM drew nearer, the number of people trickling into Screen 3 of Lahore’s Cue Cinema increased significantly. In walked families, young girls, women in saaris, matriarchs with silver hair and with their octogenarian husbands in tow, clutching either popcorn, walking canes, their cell phones, or each other’s hands. As they filled out the seats in the chilled halls of the theater, the lights began to dim, and a voice boomed out. “After great pain, a foreign feeling comes.” This sentence seems to encapsulate the ethos of Umar Riaz’s show, ‘Parallel Stream‘ that the audience had come out to watch on Saturday.
Described as an ‘exploration of memory, loss and the passage of time’, ‘Parallel Stream’ is the result of ten years of filmmaking by director Umar Riaz. The 90 minute show features 13 of his short works made over the last ten years, from 2012 to 2022, filmed across Lahore and New York. The collection is diverse: short films, music videos and commercial content come together to create an emotionally charged show that has you feeling empowered one minute, and then weepy and teary eyed the next. It’s a mosaic of textures and stories told from the heart.
The show starts off with a short film ‘Last Remarks’, which earned Umar a Student Oscar nomination, and became the first Pakistani short film to premiere at the prestigious Locarno Film Festival. The film follows the final moments of Arastu Jan, a troubled native servant to a British master in colonial India, and is based off of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story ‘The Tell Tale Heart’.
We then get a music video for musician duo Zeb and Haniya’s song ‘Dadra’, which is a song about finding hope in the fact that a new day will dawn tomorrow and there will be sunshine. The juxtaposing video features moody nighttime shots of city traffic, which is apt, because in Pakistan, traffic jams are where hope comes in most handy sometimes. Umar told The Friday Times (TFT) that he didn’t personally know Zeb and Haniya personally, but when they were looking for someone to film their music video, he was recommended on the basis of his past work.
He said that while it may sound like a cliche, it’s very true that you have to suffer for your art. “You just have to play the long innings,” he stated, adding that his professor at NYU’s film school, Spike Lee, advised them to forget about overnight success, which he says is especially true for the Pakistani film industry.
Umar has also made music videos for acclaimed singer Ali Sethi, and the two have collaborated frequently to make videos for six of his songs. Throughout the years, Umar has worn many hats, sometimes playing many roles at once. He is the writer, editor, cameraperson, director and sometimes even the composer of the scores of his projects. These aren’t hats that are absolutely essential for every filmmaker to have in their figurative wardrobe, but they certainly do help.
“To be the best director you could possibly be, you need to have at least a working understanding of every component that goes into film,” he says, explaining that having even a beginners knowledge of the different aspects makes it easier to communicate with people who are experts in them, making the entire filmmaking process not only more effective, but also less costly.
In addition to music videos and short films, ‘Parallel Stream‘ also showcased selected branded content that Umar has partaken in. From short, empowering videos for clothing brand Generation, to moving music videos for social welfare organizations like the Kashf foundation, his work covers a wide range of formats and themes, but they all have one thing in common: they demand you to feel. Having gone through personal loss himself, Umar says he channels it into his work, and is only interested in making things that come straight from the heart.
In fact, this is the best advice he has for anyone wanting to start out in the film industry. It’s easy to get a corporate sponsorship in exchange for some product placement and some very awkward sounding dialogue. “But working on lower budgets forces creativity,” he said during a Q&A after the screening of ‘Parallel Stream‘. “I think you need to be a little restricted as it helps you think out of the box on whatever little resources you have.”
Perhaps this is why he isn’t too dismal about the lack of resources in Pakistan for independent filmmakers who don’t want to fall into the mainstream, and instead prefer their own parallel streams instead. “Right now is an exciting time,” he told TFT. “I’m not going to say it’s a revival, because thats been said over and over again in the past, so it’s not a revival, but it’s how it’s supposed to happen: slowly.” He cites filmmakers Saim Sadiq, Seemab Gul, Hamza Bangash and Sarmad Khoosat, who bring a singular vision to cinema, as opposed to a singular theme that gets repeated again and again.
For his part, Umar will continue wading the stream that flows side by side the mainstream, focusing on more long form projects this time. He has two film projects in the works, one that is set to release in the fall, which he says is based on a very special story. The other will come out sometime early next year.
Khadija Muzaffar is the culture editor at The Friday Times. Previously a Fulbright scholar at NYU, she enjoys writing about society, culture, music and food. She tweets at @khadijamuzaffar, but is far more interesting on Instagram.