Hellhole (Pakistan | 2016, 10 min)

Directed by: Mobeen Ansari

Hellhole is a short silent film based on the life of conservancy workers, better known as gutter cleaners as seen through the life and oft forgotten humanity of one such worker.


An Interview with Mobeen Ansar, Director of "Hellhole" with Caleb Dawdy

CD: A beautifully shot and well told story, can you speak to how you came across this man and how this piece was born?

MA: 5 years back I was working on my photography book "Dharkan," which is based on iconic people and unsung heroes of Pakistan. While walking in a street I saw water coming out of a manhole. As I came closer I saw that there was a man inside unclogging the gutter manually. As he came out to take a cigarette break I asked him some questions. His name was Akram Masih and his answers shook me to the core, particularly about what this dangerous job entailed and how little he and his colleagues were appreciated or compensated. He went back inside and I took his picture, which became the first in my book. It was an image that stayed with me forever.

As an artist I have worked with different mediums, most of all with photography and sculpture. I wanted to try my hand at filmmaking and decided to make a film on this subject matter. Coincidentally I was visiting Karachi (I live in Islamabad) when I decided to do this and a friend of mine had at that very moment gotten some work done by a gutter cleaner called Pervez. She connected me to him and he agreed to be filmed. He actually turned out to be Akram’s uncle!

CD: Were there any city, professional, cultural or otherwise controversies in filming this man for your story, and if so, could you describe them?

MA: There were no controversies, rather some reluctance, as this subject is never spoken about. This profession and the people in it are practically invisible and when I would shoot at any spot with this work going on it would attract a small crowd. It was as much an eye opener for them as it was for me.

CD: Once you had decided to tell this story, describe what went into the decision process of telling this story on the screen...what did you want to show most of all?

MA: This was a film which wrote itself over a period of six months. Since this was a subject which has never really been explored beyond the hazards of it I wanted to focus on the humanity of it by focusing on a singular character.

My co-producer and film composer Edel Griffith and I would review footage and shot sequence together and see what else was needed to build the narrative. One moment which really changed it all was when I got a call from Pervez telling me he had just broken his hand in an accident at work and could not work, making it hard for him to feed his family. That is one of the harshest realities that comes with his job and I went there to document it.

CD: The cinematography was very beautifully rendered in Black and White. Why did you decide this format for the story with the brief color moments as juxtaposition?

MA: When I first took the photo of Pervez’s nephew 5 years ago, it was also black and white. It was gritty and left much to the viewer’s imagination about the contents of the gutter. It became a famous photo partly due to it being black and white. I was also partly inspired to do that by the film "Raging Bull" which is also black and white. The blood was made from chocolate and black and white made it even more realistic and graphic. While everything in the film is real, I wanted to make it grittier for the audience to comprehend the harsh reality of the profession the film focuses on.

The color segments are of the city, functioning at its best. The black and white segments are of the character, pushing his limits to do his job. Basically, he is draining his own color to give color to the city.

CD: What was the largest issue you faced during the shooting process?

MA: There were many challenges, but the biggest was giving the film a conclusion. Since this was a largely unexplored subject matter, it was challenging to determine what note to end the film on.

CD: What are some of your influences in the realm of filmmaking that you reached back to to tell this story?

MA: This was my first film so I had a lot of inspirations I could take influence from. My main source of imagery was my photo of Akram Masih and the cinematography in "American History X" as that also used both black and white and color sequences to tell its story.

CD: What sort of projects are you and your team working on currently that we can look forward to?

MA: Currently we are working on a film which explores a shared urban habitat of blackbirds and owls. It is a combination of documentary and art film.

Besides that I am currently working on my second photo book which is based on the lives and festivities of religious minorities in Pakistan. It is called "White in the Flag."