From Dog Walker to Cannes Director

Writer-director Zarrar Kahn, whose debut feature, In Flames is out in theaters today, on the journey of making his new film.

It’s Christmas in Toronto. I’m putting snow boots (booties?) on the Goldendoodle I walk three times a week. Her name is Molly, and I’m vaguely jealous of her lifestyle. Her apartment is stunning, and she is happier than I have ever been. It’s the season’s first real snowfall and Molly bounds through the snow-covered sidewalks, leaping with wild abandon. I’m a 31-year-old dog walker, wondering how I ended up here.

I’m currently in post-production on my micro-budget debut feature. The post-house is near Molly’s home, and my friend recommended I take up dog-walking as a way to earn some extra income. I’m going to be in the area anyway, and she told me dog-walking helped her battle the winter blues. It’s my first winter in Canada after a decade in Pakistan, and I forgot how depressing winter can be. I could really use the money.

I wipe the snow off Molly’s shaggy coat, and take her leash off. I log her behavior in the mobile app: She peed twice, ate a doggy biscuit and had a normal amount of energy. I get in the elevator, praying I don’t bump into the famous filmmaker who lives in the building. We had an awkward interaction a few weeks ago, when we met in the elevator. They had mentored me during a film lab, and were happy to learn that I lived in the building. I told them I didn’t, that I was working part-time, walking a dog who lives there. Immediate cognitive dissonance. They wished me all the best, and hurried out as the elevator brought us to their floor.

Finally, I’m back in the theater we’ve booked for our sound mix. Our sound supervisor, Bret Kiloran, scrubs through the film, bringing us to the scene that we last worked on. Bret’s agreed to work through the winter holidays, because the post-house is giving us reduced rates. He plays the scene where my protagonist escapes the city, riding on a motorcycle to the beach. The sound of wind whipping through her hair. The ocean waves, rhythmically lapping against the shore. I’m transported home – Karachi, Pakistan. The Arabian Sea, the feeling of crunchy sand curled under your toes. Fleeting joy.

For the majority of the film’s 97-minute runtime, the soundscape submerges you into an urban hell. The sound of cavernous metal clangs from the neighborhood security guard are a constant reminder that safety is not guaranteed. The film’s visual and auditory language echo the experience of being a woman in a deeply patriarchal society, haunted by figures both real and phantasmal. Yet, at the heart of the film is a blazing resistance – a roaring defiance – and so I chose to name it In Flames.

When I Google the title, as we design the film’s credits, I snigger when I see a Swedish death metal band pop up. That tracks.

The artistic director of Cannes Directors’ Fortnight wants to talk. His email is burning a hole in my pocket. He asks, very practically, if we think Directors’ Fortnight would be the right place for the film. He’s kind, very French and left me very confused. My immediate reaction is, YES, YES, MY GOD, YES. I tell him we will think about and get back to him shortly.

A few months later, my producer, Anam Abbas, and I are reunited in Cannes.

Cannes is a whirlwind. We spent the months prior applying for grant funds to support our trip. We want to make sure as many as possible of our Pakistani and Canadian talent can attend – and holyyyy shit, Cannes is expensive. For much of our Pakistani cast and crew, it is their first time flying out of the country. With great difficulty, visas are arranged. Making the film felt like a miracle, and now … celebrating it is an uphill battle. I am adamant about having a big afterparty. It seems frivolous, but I know I’m never going to have a debut film at Cannes again. My sales agent (XYZ Films), Canadian E.P. (Fae Pictures) and French distributor (the Jokers Films) agree to foot the bill. We book the Quinzaine Beach, a massive seaside tent that is the principal networking venue for Directors’ Fortnight. 300 people.

The day of our premiere is fueled by champagne and espresso. Our cast and crew made it – we’re a team of 18 people, from Pakistan, Kazakhstan and Canada – and it is the first time my collaborators from across the world are meeting. It’s surreal. We walk down the Croisette, a photographer capturing our journey. Directors’ Fortnight premieres happen in the J.W Marriott Cinema, a massive space with a capacity of 900. We walk in.

Photography by Delphine Pincet, used here with permission.

The rest of the day, I remember in fragments. The cinema lights coming back up after the screening. Applause. Returning to the beach. More champagne. Playing Pakistani contemporary pop music at our afterparty, and more than 300 people dancing with wild abandon. Deciding now is the time to bust out my high school breakdancing moves.

Photo by Aigul Nurbulotova.

A few days later, we’re having (more) champagne on the balcony of the Palais. Palm trees sway in the distance as I meet other debut filmmakers from across the world. One works as an elementary school teacher, another is a gaffer. I’m now working full time at a film training non-profit, taking my PTO to attend the festival. We talk about the economy of filmmaking, our shared very expensive hobby. We all hope to one day be full-time creatives, that maybe being here – at Cannes – could be the start of it all.

Filmmakers at Cannes, on the Palais balcony. (Photo courtesy Hamza Bangash.)

The school teacher’s debut film is about teenage girls turning into monsters, the gaffer’s film is set in a working-class neighborhood. Our personal lives spill into our stories, finding power in our communities. I lend one of the filmmakers an extra bow-tie; he forgot to bring his and we are about to walk the red carpet. We’re in this together.

In the months after Cannes, life echoes art – In Flames is described as a slow burn, and slowly my life is transforming. We win Best Picture at the Red Sea International Film Festival, as well as International Newcomer at Mannheim-Heidelberg – two prizes that change what is possible. I land an agent and a manager, and now I have a team that is keen to champion my work. Pakistan nominates In Flames under the Best International Picture category for the Academy Awards.

Almost a year after our Cannes premiere, I’m a full-time filmmaker again.

In a few days, I’ll be embarking on a North American tour of In Flames, with the goal of supporting the theatrical release of the film. I’ll be traveling with my lead cast, Ramesha Nawal and Bakhtawar Mazhar, starting in New York and ending in Los Angeles. Next month, we’ll be heading to the U.K. to do the same.

In Flames was our debut film, for all three of us. Our lives have changed more than I could have fathomed.

I’m at a park in Toronto, on a rare sunny day. I bump into Molly, out for a stroll with her new dog-walker.

She recognizes me, and jumps into my arms, giving me a big, slobbery kiss.

I’m grateful for it all.


Featured image by Aigul Nurbulatova, showing Zarrar Khan at Cannes, is used here courtesy Zarrar Khan.

Zarrar Kahn is an award-winning Pakistani-Canadian filmmaker whose debut feature, In Flames, premiered at the 76th Cannes Film Festival as part of the Director’s Fortnight and is in theaters now. His works have been screened and awarded in over 100+ film festivals, including TIFF, Locarno, and BFI London. In Flames, his feature directorial debut, has garnered critical acclaim and prizes worldwide, including the Golden Yusr for Best Picture at Red Sea International Film Festival and the Grand Prize – International Newcomer Award at Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival. Born in Karachi, and currently based out of Toronto, Kahn is committed to telling stories that amplify historically marginalized communities.(Photo by Norman Wong.)