Oscars: Director of Pakistani Contender 'Circus of Life' on Facing Death Threats and Censorship

'Circus of Life'
Sarmad Sultan Khoosat

'Circus of Life'

Sarmad Sultan Khoosat became the target of right-wing religious fanatics for his film, Pakistan's official entry for the best international feature Academy Award.

For most directors, having your film picked to represent your country at the Oscars is a career-high. But for Sarmad Sultan Khoosat, whose drama Circus of Life is Pakistan's contender for Best International Film at the 2021 Academy Awards, the experience is bittersweet.

The drama, about a devout Muslim man whose life is upended when a video of him dancing goes viral on social media, will be screening for Academy voters but not for locals. A combination of state censorship, the coronavirus pandemic, and a concerted hate campaign by far-right extremists have meant the only people who have been able to see Circus of Life have been those outside Pakistan.

"It is wonderful that people around the world can see the film, that it has a universal appeal, but this is a local story and I chose to make it in Punjabi to connect to the local audience," says Khoosat. "That no one in Pakistan can see this movie is a big loss. For me, it's a tragedy."

It all started so well. Circus of Life premiered in South Korea, at the Busan International Film Festival in 2019, where it won the Window on Asian Cinema honor, the Kim Ji Seok Award. The movie had quickly cleared Pakistan's various censor boards—"they asked me to bleep a few swear words, that was it" says Khoosat— and its local theatrical release was set: Jan. 24, 2020. In October 2019, Khoosat put the first trailer of the film online.

Then his world blew up.

The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a far-right Islamic party, seized on the video, claiming the trailer, and by extension, the film, was blasphemous and anti-Muslim. Their fury centered around images of a devout Pakistani man — the lead, played by Arif Hassan —dancing with abandon to a song from a 1974s Lollywood movie (Pakistan's mainstream film equivalent to Bollywood).

"Pakistan is not like Iran, this is a society where people are cool with dancing and singing, we've always had that in our cinema," says Khoosat. "But it is still a very patriarchal society, with very strict, binary gender roles. People aren't used to seeing a bearded man, someone they would assume is religious, dancing and singing like this."

In response to the protest, the Pakistan government ordered a review of its censorship approval for Circus of Life.

"They looked at the film again and cleared it again," says Khoosat. "But by then it was too late."

Just days before, the director had been doxed: supporters of the TLP has published his personal information online. Khoosat's face—overlayed with a sniper's target—  was plastered on social media posts and on posters across the country. Far-right Imams started calling him out at Friday prayers.

"It was really, really crazy. These people have a lot of power on the streets here, and a lot of power on social media," he says.

Spooked, the federal government, on Jan. 21, just three days before the film's official release, Circus of Life was pulled. In an unprecedented move, the government sent the movie for review to the Council of Islamic Ideology, a body that gives legal advice on Islamic issues to the government and the Parliament.

Then came COVID-19.

With nation-wide lockdowns, cinemas shut and the whole question of a theatrical release became moot. Circus of Life was selected as Pakistan's official Oscar entry and got a qualifying run via an online Vimeo release geo-blocked to Pakistan. Khoosat says he has "given up" on the idea of a cinema rollout for Circus of Life and is currently trying to secure a digital bow in Pakistan.

"I didn't want to make a controversial film. I was super careful, in what I showed but also in the overall tone of the movie, not to be judgemental, to be very decorous and respectful of who we are as a society here," says Khoosat. "But maybe this shows what the film shows: that as a society, we are very confused."

Khoosat says he's moved on from his "crazy, terrible year." While he still avoids social media —"I don't need to wake up to hate every morning"—he's hopeful his Oscar campaign will raise the profile of Circus of Life. And maybe encourage younger filmmakers in Pakistan.

"Internationally, I am hopeful because what happened with the film was a big disappointment for younger Pakistani filmmakers. This was as independent a film as you can get. And what happened with Circus of Life shows how very compromised the independence of the artist is in Pakistan."