Oscar-Winning Doc Maker Orlando von Einsiedel Unveils First Scripted Film ‘Into Dust’ (Exclusive)

Indu Sharma as Perween Rahman in 'Into Dust'
Richard Jephcote

Indu Sharma as Perween Rahman in 'Into Dust'

Set against the backdrop of the global water crisis, the short follows the story of murdered Pakistani activist Perween Rahman and her sister Aquila Ismail. 

Orlando von Einsiedel, the British filmmaker who won the best documentary short Oscar in 2016 for The White Helmets and was executive producer on last year’s winner Learning to Skateboard in Warzone (if you’re a girl) via his prolific Grain Media production company, has lifted the lid on his secretive debut scripted project.

Examining the same geopolitical themes as many of his documentaries, the 40-minute short Into Dust — which The Hollywood Reporter also has an exclusive first-look still from — tells the real-life story of Pakistani activist Perween Rahman, who was murdered in 2013 after discovering that vast quantities of Karachi’s public water supply was being illegally stolen by the local mafia and sold to the city’s richer inhabitants, leaving poorer communities without. After her death, it’s Rahman’s elder sister Aquila Ismail who returns to the city to fight for justice and pick up the social activism baton left by her sibling, which she still does to this day.

"When we first learned about this story, we were really shocked at how little coverage there had been about this extraordinary woman and her work," von Einsiedel tells THR. "What it also really spoke of was how, when water starts to run out and become scarce, it doesn’t just mean the taps are going dry. It actually means the potential breakdown of law and order, the collapse of governments and the increase of corruption."

Like many of his previous films, Into Dust taps into a much larger concern, this time about water shortages around the world, a growing global crisis fueled by climate change, rising populations and criminality (Goldman Sachs has called water ‘the oil of the next century,’ while the UN predicts that over 5 billion people could be affected by water scarcity in just 10 years). At next month’s SXSW, von Einsiedel will be hosting a panel discussion on the issue with Ismail, Soumya Balasubramanya of the International Water Management Institute, and Poul Due Jensen of the Danish Grundfos Foundation, which also funded Into Dust.

"It's a story that really, really spoke to me," he says. "And and so we thought, how can we shine a light on Perween and make a film that sparks a conversation about this global water crisis?"

Realising that a “great” documentary on Rahman — Rebel Optimist by Pakistani filmmaker Mahera Omar — had already been made, von Einsiedel decided to take his first narrative steps, teaming with writer Charlotte Wolf who penned the script.

Filmed before the pandemic, Into Dust was shot partially in Karachi, but predominantly in north west India due to safety concerns relating to the subject matter in Pakistan.

“Unlike a documentary, where you can sort of nip in and run away again, with a drama you’re in locations for significant amount of time and you have to plan to in those places, so you’re more vulnerable,” says von Einsiedel, who claims that even where they shot in India he was told that a similar "water mafia" existed.

Although he admits that making his first narrative film was “terrifying,” particular getting used to the machine of a drama production, the time pressure and dealing with so many people, von Einsiedel says he had a "wonderful" time putting together Into Dust.

"I loved it. We had a brilliant, brilliant crew. Almost all the heads of production were from India and I felt very supported," he says. "As somebody going into this for the first time, it was a fantastic experience."