By Katie Chambers
Since premiering and winning the Jury Prize in the 2022 Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival (the first to do so from the Indian subcontinent), Joyland has moved audiences worldwide with its human portrayal of the limits of love in the face of patriarchy. The film follows the youngest son in a traditional Pakistani family as he takes a job as a backup dancer in a Bollywood-style burlesque, and quickly becomes infatuated with the strong-willed trans woman who runs the show. The film is both a loving portrait of the people of Lahore, Pakistan, and a painful depiction of how rigid traditional gender roles and repressed sexuality can have a ripple effect that harms the whole community.
Emmy-nominated filmmaker NYWIFT member Katharina Otto-Bernstein produced the film after meeting writer/director Saim Sadiq and creative producer Apoorva Guru Charan through a mentorship program at Columbia University, where she is chair of the Dean’s Council of the School of the Arts. Joyland marks Sadiq’s feature directorial debut, and is a nuanced, complex, warm yet critical portrayal of his home country of Pakistan. It became Pakistan’s official entry to the Academy Awards.
Otto-Bernstein is known for the acclaimed HBO documentaries The Price of Everything (Sundance – Emmy Nominated), Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures (Sundance, Berlinale – Two Emmy Nominations), Beautopia (Director, Sundance -Winner Chicago Film Festival) and Absolute Wilson (Director, Berlinale – Winner Basel Art Film of the Year). She also produced the German narrative feature Sea Glow (2021) and co-produced of the German Amazon Prime series Für Umme. Currently in pre-production are Heisenberg (directed by Uli Edel) and The Galapagos Affair (directed by Marc Rothemund Otto-Bernstein directed When Night falls over Moscow (ARD), The Need for Speed (Discovery, BBC), Coming Home (NDR), The Second Greatest Story Ever Told starring Malcolm McDowell and Mira Sorvino (Co-director, BBC). She is the author of Absolute Wilson, about theatre director Robert Wilson, and has worked as a dramaturge in theater and dance.
Bernstein spoke to us about discovering new artists through mentorship, political pushback on Joyland, and how Malala Yousafzai helped the film finally reach Pakistani audiences.
Congratulations on your Sundance 2023 screening! What does inclusion in Sundance mean to you?
Sundance! It is always such an honor to be invited and I have a fond relationship with Sundance as many of my films have played here.
In the past we always began our festival run in Sundance, this time it was the finale. Joyland had premiered in Cannes 2022, winning the Jury award and the Queer Palm, and went on to playing in Toronto, London and AFI, among other festivals. To show Joyland in the Spotlight division at Sundance was the icing on the cake, and the seal of approval by the independent film community for this wonderful film.
How did you get involved in Joyland, and what excited you about it when it first came your way?
I have been excited about the great talents of director Saim Sadiq and creative producer Apoorva Guru Charan for a few years already. We are all alumni of the MFA film program of Columbia University, where I currently serve as chair of the Dean’s Council of the School of the Arts.
About ten years ago, my colleagues and I decided to start a thesis mentorship program for Columbia thesis projects, which would be run through my production company [Film Manufacturers Inc.]. We supported both Apoorva’s thesis film Street Stamp and Saim’s Darling, the precursor to Joyland, which ended up winning the short competition at the Venice Film Festival.
When Apoorva and Saim sent us the extraordinary script of Joyland, it didn’t take us long to come on board. It was one of the best scripts I had ever read, and we already knew what Saim and Apoorva were capable of.
The film tackles some very heavy topics – gender politics in Pakistan, transphobia, sexual exploration, family dynamics, patriarchy, and motherhood, to name only a few – all with a complex, nuanced touch. I personally found it incredibly moving, compelling, and fascinating to watch. Congratulations to you and the whole team. I’m curious what the process was like, working with a mostly Pakistani team tackling many hot-button and even taboo issues?
The script was developed and written during the time of Saim’s film studies at Columbia. He is an incredible writer; much of the complexity and nuance come from Saim and his understanding of Pakistani society, whereby his co-writer Maggie Briggs is an extraordinary dramaturg. His advisors included Rahmin Bahrani, who is an executive producer on the project.
In terms of the team – the entire Joyland team is like the United Nations, comprised of people from Pakistan, India, Lebanon, United States, Denmark, Russia, and Germany. I am sure I forgot a few countries, but let it be said that I’ve never worked on a more harmonious production. The interesting thing is that the hot buttons only appeared after the film premiered.
What was your favorite moment with Joyland? And biggest challenge?
The entire experience of Joyland was full of joy, pun intended.
The biggest challenge came after Joyland was shortlisted as best international film for the Academy Awards. It was Pakistan’s official entry, but suddenly, under pressure from a few extremist political factions, it was banned. Saim and some cast members received threats, and we were all worried about their safety. Even after the ban was overturned, some exhibitors who had committed to releasing the film were receiving threats. Those were certainly two unsettling weeks. But the support of the international film community and of Pakistani activist and Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai helped greatly to convince the authorities to release the film in Pakistan.
You were actually on the ground (or I should say, on the mountain) in Park City this year. It’s so great to see major industry events returning in-person. Tell us about your Sundance experience! How did it go? Did you have a favorite moment, event, or film?
It was lovely! So many familiar and new faces, great moving films. We tried to see as many as possible.
The highlight was our first screening at the romantic Sundance resort, where we met up with the whole team once again. Saim flew in from Pakistan. Joyland in so many positive ways exemplified that filmmaking is a team effort, and working such a diverse, young team has been a highlight. Compliments again to Saim and Apoorva, for keeping everyone together, happy, and motivated!
Even though you are based in New York, much of your work is international, including this film. What do you foresee in the international production landscape post-COVID, and what advice to you have for New Yorkers looking to shoot internationally?
My advice is – go for it! Especially if your script lends itself to shooting abroad. Take advantage of the tax incentives offered by different countries, it can often reduce the budget while keeping production values high, since the facilities and professionalism of international companies and crews are of the highest standard.
How have audiences internationally and in the US responded to the film? What do you hope they take away from this story?
The response has been amazing all over the world and it’s only the beginning, since most territories will be releasing the film this year.
There’s much to take away from Joyland: it is that nuanced in its portrayal of individual yearnings, private desires, and family obligations.
You wear many hats in your career – film director, dramaturge for theater and dance, and more. How does your vast array of experience impact your work as a producer?
I love to tell stories, in whichever way possible, and I like to challenge myself as a writer, director, or producer. Having worn many hats allows me to consider projects from different angles – the creative, the logistical and the financial – all of which plays into my decision-making. I try never to say no, unless I really, really have to, and I am a little obsessive, which drives my husband and my two boys crazy. What can you do.
What is next for you?
Well, in a perfect world I would go to a spa for a month, lose 20 pounds and have lots of mani-pedis, or go on a cruise (alone, with my dog), or sojourn in a Trappist monastery and enjoy the silence.
But no such luck! We currently we have an ongoing series in Germany, are slated to shoot a feature film in the Fall, have two documentaries in the editing room, and a bunch of things in development. There we are!
Connect with Katharina Otto-Bernstein on her production company Film Manufacturers Inc. website, www.filminc.com.
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