When Fazeelat Aslam was 15 years old, she would hang out at an orphanage near her grandparents’ place in Pakistan and spend time with the kids there. “It was a really incredible experience, and I realized that social work was something that was very fulfilling to me,” she says. “And that was really the start of my career.” That career, as an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker and journalist, has brought Aslam around the world, telling stories of often disenfranchised and suffering people who otherwise might not have a voice. “I always saw documentaries as a vehicle for personal activism,” says Aslam, who left her native Pakistan when she was five and is now based in Brooklyn, New York.
Aslam studied media and gender studies at Wellesley College, but it wasn’t until she moved to New York that she realized that documentaries could also count as artistic expressions. Her 2012 film Saving Face, which she co-produced, is a heartbreaking and at times lyrical look at the lives of Pakistani women who are disfigured by acid attacks and the Pakistani surgeon who returns home to try and help them and won her an Oscar for Best Documentary Short. Aslam, who has had her work shown on PBS Frontline, Channel 4 UK, and Al Jazeera, is also a correspondent for VICE on HBO, where she most recently did a segment on bonded laborers in Pakistan. We spoke to Aslam from her Brooklyn apartment about how her identity as a Muslim woman affects her work, the haunting effect these stories have on her, and advice she might have for other young women looking to follow in her footsteps.
Do you identify yourself more as filmmaker or journalist or both?
I consider myself both because my experience has been in both TV and film. I haven't done that much writing, but I feel like the stuff that I've done for television has been far more seriously invested in journalism, and documentary.
When you were in school, did you have a vision of what you wanted to do with your life?
I was always pretty outspoken and pretty frustrated with the way things were, so I always knew that I wanted to do something that would make a difference. When I'd go back to Pakistan, from London or America, depending on whose house I was staying in, sometimes the electricity would go out, and we'd just be in the dark sweating and bumping into each other. I always used to ask my parents, "Why don't we have the same things in Pakistan that we do in London or in Connecticut?" I was always acutely aware of the disparity between nations, and I was always very frustrated by it. From a very young age, I was always trying to understand why all these places that I lived in were so different, but I was also trying to build bridges between the two places. I would never say that I was a politically active child, but it was from a really fundamental and basic place that I want to be a part of the global community.
How does your identity as a Muslim woman manifest itself in the stories you tell? They seem to be inextricably linked.
Yes, absolutely. When I was at university, I didn't really know what I wanted to do, and I started to take film classes because they were in the evening, and I could not get up in the morning. Wellesley College is a women's college, so a lot of them were based around women's roles in film and women's representation in film, and that's when I realized that I was really interested in gender studies. As I began to pursue my major in gender studies, I realized that there are these social hierarchical structures that really suppress women, and if we could just get people to deconstruct those and see those clearly, then the world would be a better place. That's why I felt it really important to deal with issues around women; and also being a Muslim woman, I felt the importance to do that more than ever. One of my biggest issues in feminist academia is so much of is the white, western feminist who's trying to impose her ideals in a completely different country and context.
Are you astounded by the disparities between the lives of people who grow up, say, in Pakistan, to those in the west?
It's one of the things I struggle with the most. Last year I did a piece on climate change in Karachi, Pakistan, where we followed a family getting water twice a month. To this day, every time I turn on my tap, I feel both gratitude and guilt for what I have. The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed. I was raised with a set of parents who, if they had not had a certain amount of luck, perhaps I would have been one of the subjects that I cover so often in my work.
Do you find that there are advantages to being Muslim when you are reporting your stories?
Because I work predominantly in Pakistan, there's a huge advantage to being able to have common ground with people. I'm not a very religious person, and some of my subjects aren't very religious either, but living in New York, people talk a lot about being culturally Jewish. I think you can totally be culturally Muslim as well. The traditions in our religion are celebrated differently by every culture, and some of them are celebrated similarly by every culture, like Ramadan. Those are things that you can share with someone. I have worked a lot during Ramadan, and to be able to respect each other's religious boundaries and practices without having to explain that to each other is a huge advantage. It builds trust between people. Whatever situation I go into, I really try my best to be as objective as possible when it comes to things that are such big parts of our identities like religion. As a Muslim, I think not only do I understand other Muslims well as a reporter but other people who might be in a similar place; when I'm working in America and I speak to American Muslims, who tend to be predominantly African-American, there’s common ground there, too.
Working with VICE, you’re on camera as a correspondent. Do you enjoy that aspect of your work?
There are parts of it that I really enjoy. I really enjoy being able to take people into a world, into a story, into a moment, and reacting as truthfully as I can. In terms of being able to express the work, express what I'm getting from other people, I think being on camera is wonderful. That being said, I think personally there are also a lot of downsides to it. It opens you up to a lot of scrutiny. People think that because you're on camera, it's open call for whatever criticism that they want to throw at you. Also, it obviously makes you more public, and I think the kind of work that I do, the more quiet and unknown you can be, the better you can do your work. Being on camera is not something I always gravitate toward, let's put it that way.
You won an Oscar for your documentary Saving Face. Was that a surreal experience?
It was maybe the most surreal experience of my life. You have to understand that my team was not huge. My role in the documentary was to be with the subjects of the documentary every single time we were filming. It's what I love doing, and that's what I do the best, which is why those are the opportunities that have always been thrown at me. When this whole Oscar thing was happening, I was doing three stories. One was actually on brick stone workers, which is probably the biggest story I've ever worked on. I was doing a story on people who were still living in complete squalor after an earthquake that had happened five years ago, and I was doing a story on trafficked children addicted to heroin. Right in the middle of this, I'm getting calls saying like, "By the way, we've been nominated for an Oscar." I'm like, "Great, that doesn't really help me do the work that I'm doing." Then I have to go to the Oscars, so I had someone make me a dress in three days. I didn't have time to do any of the things that I'm sure actual famous people do. So I remember getting there and being totally jet-lagged. I was actually suffering from legitimate malnutrition at the time, which all the people who were trying to dress me at the time were like, "You're so thin." I'm like, "My hair is falling out, this is not a good look." I got there, and it was a complete whirlwind, and we won, which was utter madness.
How did winning the award affect your work, if at all?
I had so much hope when we won, and I was like, "We're really going to make a difference." I had spent day and night with these women who had been survivors of acid attacks, and I was like, "These women's voices deserve to be heard." The night after we won the Oscar, I was on a flight back to Pakistan and I went straight to Kashmir, to do do that story about the people living in squalor after the earthquake. The part of town we were in was very conservative, and women didn't want to appear on camera, and usually you have to spend a lot of time and build trust with people. I remember I just looked at this woman and I was like, “Listen, I totally understand where you're coming from. I don't want to force you into anything. I just think your voice is so important. You're an educated, articulate, expressive woman who can talk about these issues.” I realized that she didn't know who I was. I was this random person. Yes I was Pakistani, yes I was Muslim, yes we were both women, but we came from such different backgrounds in terms of economics. So I was like, "Do you read the newspaper?" And she was like, "Yes." I was like, "Did you read the news about Pakistan getting its first Oscar?" She was like, "Absolutely." I was like, "Well, I produced that, and I want you to know that it's really important to me that your voice is heard, and that's why I do the job that I do—so that voices like yours can be heard." And she gave us the interview, and that to me was what the award really meant.
Do you remain haunted by some of the things that you’ve seen and reported on?
I am absolutely haunted, and I try and practice self-care as much as I can. That's one of the reasons I left Pakistan. I had definitely worn myself down to the point where I wasn't taking care of myself, and I needed to separate myself from the work, which was very difficult while I was living in the country. Also, one of the reasons that I left was because I wanted to represent what it meant to be a Pakistani Muslim woman in places like America, where we have the power to make the kind of impact and change that affects not just the country that you live in, but the whole world.
What advice would you give to young women who see what you do and want to do the same thing?
I'm very grateful to have the perspective that I have. It's one that allows me a lot of compassion. It has really allowed me to grow mentally as a person. But with all of the good and the growth, there's also a toll that it takes from you, and I grew up really quickly seeing the things that I did. It's hard. Anyone who wants to do anything like the work that I've done, I would really encourage them to have an awareness of what they're taking on because, at the end of the day, the Oscar doesn't help me sleep at night. In fact, sometimes it keeps me up at night. No award, no accolade is ever going to make you feel safe or healthy.
I actually gave my high school commencement speech last year about my work, and how at a young age, I was always surrounded by such high-achieving friends. I thought that winning awards and feeling like an award-winning journalist would make me feel substantial and feel credible as a person. What I realize is that it's a very difficult job, and while I take great pride in the work that I've done, there are a lot of people who do this work for the wrong reason. This documentary filmmaker or journalist label that we're given is a double-edged sword, and you have to be very careful. So really, what I would tell anyone going into the business field is be very prepared to take on a lot emotionally, physically, [and] psychologically. In terms of professionally, I think this work is something you should do if you are interested in doing it with an integrity and well respect to the people that you're covering. Because remember if you come in with your own biases, your own perspectives, there's no such thing as the truth.