Award-winning Pakistani filmmaker hails Saudi Arabia for revolutionizing cinema

The picture taken on May 9, 2023, shows Pakistani filmmaker Ahsan Minhas (right) at the 9th Saudi Film Festival in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Photo courtesy: Ahsan Minhas)
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Updated 04 June 2023

Award-winning Pakistani filmmaker hails Saudi Arabia for revolutionizing cinema

  • Ahsan Minhas's Arabic short-film 'Sukoon: Addiction of Silence' was screened at the Saudi Film Festival last month
  • Pakistani filmmakers can pitch ideas as Saudi film industry is accepting people experimenting with films, he says

ISLAMABAD: For many aspiring filmmakers like Pakistan’s Ahsan Minhas, Saudi Arabia’s expansion into cinema was a distant thought until a few years ago. But in 2018, he witnessed the renaissance begin in the Kingdom with the screening of Hollywood flick ‘Black Panther,’ a first in over 35 years that relaunched the local market for films.  

The move to reopen cinemas in the Kingdom was part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030, an ambitious plan to diversify the Saudi economy, outside of its core business of oil production, for economic growth and national development through more entertainment options.  

Minhas, whose Arabic short film ‘Sukoon: Addiction of Silence’ was screened at the Saudi Film Festival last month, says he is a witness to the “revolution” in the Kingdom.  

“I have seen this country (Saudi Arabia) being more closed in to now suddenly opening up to such scale as per its Vision 2030 which is the pride of this country,” he told Arab News over the phone this week.  

“They have not been just investing in foreign projects, but they are taking themselves to a whole new level.” 

Minhas has been living in the Kingdom with his family since he was eight years old. The 29-year-old, New York Film Academy qualified, wrote, produced and co-directed Sukoon with a Syrian filmmaker, Marwan Bakri.  

The 32-minute fiction-drama, backed by a Riyadh-based production house Manthour Productions, revolves around a couple that experiences “all the doubts and heartbreak that exist, bringing in a violent, tragic and imaginary incident,” according to the synopsis of the short-film.  

The film has won several awards for its story and screenplay at the Independent Short Awards and the Anatolian Awards in the United States and Turkiye, respectively. The short-film is also an official selection of the Hollywood Boulevard Film Festival in Los Angeles, slated for November this year.  

Bakri, who co-directed Sukoon, shared that he focused on Hollywood-style filming to give the audience the change they were looking for.  

“This film opened our eyes in the industry, how it works and what the future is about,” he told Arab News.  

The Syrian filmmaker said working with people from different backgrounds added “creative depth” to the film and their collaboration with Minhas encouraged them to look forward to talent from Pakistan.  

Asked about his plans for the screening of Sukoon in Pakistan, Minhas said he was “dreaming” of a platform where he could show his work to his home audience and hoping for the Pakistani film industry to be more “adaptive” toward the filmmakers’ vision.  

“The art of filmmaking is not clearly accessible [in Pakistan],” he lamented. “I want to be able to know about the kind of a platform [like Red Sea and Ithra] where film festivals happen in Pakistan but it’s a dream right now.”  

Minhas is currently working on a dark comedy both in English and Urdu languages, and intends to submit it for the Red Sea International Film Festival this year. His upcoming venture narrates the story of a Pakistani girl in Riyadh who goes through a midlife crisis.  

“I’m planning a short film right now which is my passion project and will be submitting for Red Sea 2023,” he maintained. “Though the film is still on my laptop and I’m working on the music sequences now.”  

About finding his way into the Saudi film industry being a non-native, the award-winning director said the industry was “accepting people who like to experiment with films,” with support from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and its Neom initiative.  

The Neom project offers funding to attract filmmakers to promote the domestic movie industry in the Kingdom. Its latest offerings included Johnny Depp’s ‘Jeanne du Barry’ and five other movies that made it to the latest edition of the Cannes Film Festival.  

“The Saudi film industry is inching toward a balanced mix which is bringing people together, creating a diverse and inclusive space,” Minhas said.  

He said Pakistani filmmakers could come up with ideas and pitch them under the Red Sea Labs program, which aims to help filmmakers, writers and industry professionals realize their vision and projects from “inception to production.” 

Designated banks in Pakistan to receive Hajj applications on Saturday, Sunday

Updated 09 December 2023

Designated banks in Pakistan to receive Hajj applications on Saturday, Sunday

  • Pakistan has invited Hajj 2024 applications under the government’s scheme till December 12 
  • The South Asian country has a quota of 89,605 individuals for the Hajj pilgrimage next year 

ISLAMABAD: Designated bank branches in Pakistan will remain open on Saturday and Sunday as Pakistan continues to receive applications for next year’s Hajj, Pakistani state media reported on Saturday. 

The Pakistani religious affairs ministry invited Hajj 2024 applications under the government’s scheme from November 27 and the process will continue till December 12. 

The quota for Pakistanis performing the pilgrimage under the government’s scheme next year is 89,605, with the pilgrimage expected to cost Rs1,075,000 [$3,769] per person. 

“The designated banks will remain open on Saturday and Sunday for the receipt of Hajj applications,” the state-run Radio Pakistani broadcaster reported, quoting a religious affairs ministry spokesperson. 

Hajj, an annual Islamic pilgrimage in practice for over 1,400 years, is one of the five pillars of Islam, and requires every adult Muslim to undertake a journey to the holy Islamic sites in Makkah at least once in their lifetime (if they are financially and physically able). 

This year, Saudi Arabia has also included Karachi in its Makkah Route Initiative, following successful operations in Islamabad. The initiative allows pilgrims performing Hajj under the government scheme the convenience of undergoing all immigration requirements to enter Saudi Arabia from their home countries’ airports. 

Applicants for next year’s Hajj would also not be required to submit COVID-19 immunization certificates as the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the disease no longer a public health emergency. 

Pakistan military exercise with special forces contingents from Bahrain, Iraq and Kuwait concludes

Updated 09 December 2023

Pakistan military exercise with special forces contingents from Bahrain, Iraq and Kuwait concludes

  • The two-week exercise commenced on Nov. 27 at the National Counter Terrorism Center in northwest Pakistan 
  • The exercise, attended by contingents from Bahrain, Iraq and Kuwait, helped nurture joint employment concepts 

ISLAMABAD: Fajar Al Sharq-V, a multinational joint special forces exercise, concluded on Saturday at the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) in northwest Pakistan, the Pakistani military said, with participation from multiple Arab countries. 

The two-week exercise commenced on November 27 at the NCTC in Pabbi in Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, according to the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the military’s media wing. 

The exercise was attended by special forces contingents from Bahrain, Iraq and Kuwait. 

“The exercise was aimed at further harnessing the historic military to military relations among brotherly countries and helped nurture joint employment concepts against counter terrorism, besides identifying areas of mutual interest for future military collaborations,” the ISPR said in a statement. 

Besides the participating troops, officers from the brotherly nations also witnessed the closing ceremony on the final day of the exercise. 

Pakistan, which has proven its mettle in the field of counter-terrorism, routinely holds joint military exercises with friendly states to foster joint employment concepts. 

These exercises help the participating nations enhance their combat capabilities to thwart any threats and ensure peace in the region. 

Minister acknowledges threats to politicians ahead of Pakistan national elections

Updated 09 December 2023

Minister acknowledges threats to politicians ahead of Pakistan national elections

  • The statement comes amid surge in militant attacks across in Pakistan’s western regions bordering Afghanistan 
  • Pakistan is scheduled to go to hold national elections on February 8 after months of delay and political uncertainty 

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s Caretaker Interior Minister Sarfaraz Bugti on Friday acknowledged that there were threats to political leadership in Pakistan as they gear up for national elections, scheduled to be held on February 8. 

The development comes amid a surge in militant attacks across in Pakistan’s western regions bordering Afghanistan ever since a fragile truce between Islamabad and the Pakistani Taliban broke down in November 2022. 

Recently, the Jamiat Ulama-e-Islam Pakistan (JUI-F), a prominent religious party, urged the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) last month to delay polls till the security situation in the country improves and the cold in Pakistan’s northern areas dissipates. 

The interior minister agreed there was a “general threat” to public rallies in the country, but no specific threat to a political leader, except for the JUI-F chief. 

“Definitely, there are threats to the political leadership,” he said. “There is definitely a general threat to public rallies.” 

Bugti said the caretaker government had the “capacity and will” for the conduct of a peaceful election. 

Bugti’s statement came a day after the head of Pakistan’s election regulator said it would issue a schedule for the upcoming national elections “in few days.” 

A senior official of the ECP this week requested the government for the deployment of armed forces and other law enforcement agencies personnel at polling stations during the February 8 polls. 

“Whatever requirement the election commission would have with regard to paramilitary forces, we will provide that,” Bugti said at the press conference. 

“We will try providing maximum security.” 

He, however, said the deployment of army was a domain of the country’s defense ministry. 

Documented Afghan migrants in Karachi say suffering fallout of Pakistan’s deportation drive

Updated 09 December 2023

Documented Afghan migrants in Karachi say suffering fallout of Pakistan’s deportation drive

  • Government says registered refugees can stay but many complain of losing jobs and homes, police intimidation
  • Top officials have openly said Afghans were behind terror attacks in Pakistan and a drain on the economy

KARACHI: Rubina Hidayatullah has seen it all since she moved to Pakistan from neighboring Afghanistan with her three-year-old son to seek medical treatment for her ailing husband in 2005.

She has lived the difficult life of a refugee in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi. Her husband passed away just a few years after she moved to Pakistan. She raised her three children, two of them born in Pakistan, alone. And she worked long hours as a housemaid to make ends meet.

But nothing could have prepared her for the challenge that came two months ago. 

Just as her two sons both got jobs and she hoped she would get a chance at some respite in life, the Pakistan government on Oct. 3 announced a deportation drive against “illegal immigrants,” calling on them to leave voluntarily by Nov. 1 or face forcible expulsion. Although the government says the policy is targeted at all undocumented foreigners, it has disproportionately hit Afghans, who form the largest number of migrants to Pakistan. Since the announcement of the expulsion drive, over 370,000 have returned to their country or been deported.

Many of those who have left have told Arab News they had documents but were fleeing out of fear of arrest and persecution. Many Afghans who have stayed behind have gone underground. Reports of police harassment and arrests have been widespread, while many Afghans say they have been sacked from their jobs or asked by landlords to leave their homes.

“I had one boy working in a restaurant, and the other, at the age of nine, became an apprentice at a workshop,” Hidayatullah, 50, a registered refugee, told Arab News, at her tiny apartment in Karachi. “Since the Afghan [deportation] issue began, both of them have been laid off from their jobs.”

Many Afghans have also lost their homes.

Maulana Ikramullah Khan, another registered refugee, said he had lived in the city’s Ancholi neighborhood for nearly a decade before losing his home and moving to the Sohrab Goth slum.

“The landlord came and asked for my identity card,” Khan said. “When I showed him my [refugee] card, he said, ‘You are an Afghan, and we will not rent the house to Afghans.’ So, he told me that the month was almost ending, and I should vacate the house.”

“It is very distressing for a person to live in one place for 31 years, where you get married, have children, and then, after 31 years, you face a situation where you’re treated in a manner where [you’re told], ‘Leave from here, we will not give you a house, or evacuate our house’.”

The already precarious state of education for refugee children has also been hit.

“Our school has been impacted, we had 300 students enrolled, and now the number has dwindled to less than a hundred,” Syed Mustafa, principal of the Jamal Uddin Afghani School in Karachi, said. “Most landlords are not renting to Afghans now.”

The difficulties come against the background of various government officials, including the prime minister and the army chief, openly saying Afghans were behind terror attacks in Pakistan and a drain on the economy. The interior minister has accused Afghan nationals of being involved in organized crime and responsible for 14 out of 24 suicide attacks in Pakistan this year. Last month Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar said the move to expel hundreds of thousands of undocumented Afghans was a response to the unwillingness of the Taliban-led administration in Kabul to act against militants using Afghanistan to carry out attacks in Pakistan.

Hajji Abdullah, the chairman of the refugee council in Karachi, confirmed Afghan nationals were losing jobs and facing midnight raids due to the government’s new policy. 

“Afghan refugees who were legal and used to work in companies, those companies have now sacked them, saying that the government has urged [Pakistanis] not to employ Afghans,” he told Arab News. 

“Unemployed, they are now sitting at home hungry … They should be allowed to resume their work and earn for their children.”

The Sindh home ministry could not be reached for comment despite multiple attempts. A spokesperson for Karachi Police, Abrar Hussain Baloch, said the state was only fulfilling its responsibility to “act against Illegal immigrants.”

He denied “any sort of action which may cause harm or affect the lives of legal refugees.”

In the meantime, refugees like Hidayatullah continue to live in uncertainty and fear. 

“I have neither gone to Afghanistan, nor can I go there,” she said when asked if she would be leaving for Afghanistan because of the difficulties created by the expulsion drive.

“I don’t have anyone whom I would visit … I have no brothers in Afghanistan and no father.”

Storm cuts short Pakistan warm-up ahead of Australia Tests 

Updated 09 December 2023

Storm cuts short Pakistan warm-up ahead of Australia Tests 

  • The Prime Minister’s XI trailed the tourists by 24 runs at 367-4 on day three of the four-day fixture 
  • The storm blew covers off the Manuka Oval pitch, exposing it to rain, with umpires abandoning clash 

SYDNEY: Pakistan’s only warm-up match ahead of their three-Test series against Australia was cut short Saturday after a freak storm prevented further play. 

The Prime Minister’s XI trailed the tourists by 24 runs at 367-4 on day three of the four-day fixture when an electrical storm lashed Canberra late Friday. 

It blew the covers off the Manuka Oval pitch, exposing it to rain, with the umpires abandoning the clash as a draw without any further action on Saturday. 

The decision denied Australia’s Matt Renshaw the chance to build on his unbeaten 136 in the race to replace opener David Warner when he quits Test cricket. 

Pakistan had declared at 391-9 on the back of skipper Shan Masood’s 201 not out. 

The first Test starts in Perth on Thursday before moving to Melbourne and then Sydney, where 37-year-old Warner has indicated he plans to draw the curtain on his long Test career.