Westminster-raised Nausheen Dadabhoy on Becoming an Internationally Known Cinematographer

The 35-year-old has worked on films worldwide, including in her family’s home country of Pakistan, where she is, to her knowledge, the only working female cinematographer. Dadabhoy also shot the short film, “La Femme et le TGV,”
which was nominated for an Oscar this year.

After receiving a master’s degree in cinematography from the American Film Institute, Dadabhoy worked on any project she could find. For the first three years of her career, only women would hire her.

“A professor had warned me it was a boys’ club. There are still very few female directors, and even fewer female cinematographers. But I was drawn to the camera and lighting and crafting the visuals of a film.”

One of her early passion projects was “The Ground Beneath Their Feet,” which she shot and directed over a period of nine years. The documentary follows two Pakistani women paralyzed by an earthquake and examines their roles in a Muslim society. Dadabhoy worked with a local nonprofit to gain access to the areas devastated by the quake.

“They set up huge tents for everyone, but since I was the only woman, they didn’t want to set up a whole tent for me, so they had me stay in a building. But there were reports of kidnappings so they had to lock the building, and it only locked from the outside. So I was trapped overnight in this building with a huge crack in the wall, worried about aftershocks. I didn’t sleep. I took a lot of risks like that over the years.
I wasn’t brave. Just young and stupid.”

Working on other projects in Pakistan, Dadabhoy had a few run-ins with political extremists. Once, she spent the day shooting in a tribal agency bordering Afghanistan. While known to be a dangerous area associated with the Taliban and other groups, the agency was declared temporarily safe to enter.

“It was a lovely day, people were out having picnics, and we got some beautiful shots of the mountains. After we got back in the city, we received text alerts that in the area we’d been in, the military had skirmished with terrorists crossing the border. And we hadn’t noticed anything! I never told my parents about that.”

A major step in Dadabhoy’s career was working on the Swiss film, “La Femme et le TGV,” about a lonely widow (played by Jane Birkin) who waves at the high-speed train that passes her home every day.

“We never thought we’d be nominated for an Oscar. They finagled a ticket for me so I could go to the ceremony. The crew’s Swiss, so they’re always on time. We were on the red carpet so early, no one else was there yet.”

On growing up in O.C. …
I went to Ocean View High School in Huntington Beach, and I was a terrible student. I had social anxiety, and my oldest sister, who is 10 years older than me, was getting proposals for an arranged marriage. I figured, if that’s what I have to look forward to, why bother going to college. But then I discovered that I wanted to make films, so that gave me the drive to do better in school. I went from getting Ds and Fs to getting straight As in my junior year of high school. And it’s funny, I have three older sisters, and none of us ended up in arranged marriages. My sisters are all very successful in their careers.

On dealing with sexism in the industry …
“In Pakistan, they’re fine with women directing, but cinematography is seen as a technical and physical job. Men don’t like me telling them what to do. It was tough because I was really fighting the patriarchy every single day there and I just got tired of it. Men wouldn’t listen to me, and they’d ask who I was working for. But I get that in the U.S. too. I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve been hired by white men. Which is why I network with other women of color. I’d rather aim for things that are winnable rather than knocking on a door that’s not going to open for me—that is, until I’m ready to kick it down.”

On dangerous working conditions …
“One of my jobs in Pakistan, this Sunni political leader was killed, and there was a curfew set. Well, we were supposed to be doing a night shoot and they told me it was still on. It was at a cafe owned by a Shiite man. While we were filming, this guy came in and said, ’This is shameful. If you don’t stop filming, I’m going to burn down this cafe.’ I stared grabbing gear and everyone was like, ‘What are you doing?’ I was like, ‘We are wrapping!’ And we heard gunshots as we were leaving.”

On being a Muslim American in the U.S. …
“I was a freshman in college during 9/11. I had always experienced racism growing up, but after 9/11 it got worse. When I was 9, my sister and I would sometimes wear traditional clothing to school. And a boy threw rocks at us and called us Saddam Hussein’s children. So when I got into filmmaking, I realized I had to tell the stories of Muslim Americans.”

On filming “La Femme et le TGV” …
“It was a seven-day shoot with four weeks of prep. Jane Birkin was in her late 60s at the time and had back issues. In the film, she has to ride a bike a lot, but she couldn’t because of her back. So we found a body double in my second camera assistant! Everybody came together to solve every little problem. It was a big family atmosphere.”

On international travel …
“I’ve worked in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Scotland, Germany, France, Haiti, Malawi, Poland, and Switzerland. I never get tired of going to new places. I love just packing my bags and going. I don’t have any responsibilities at home. I don’t even have plants.”

On her current project …
“I’m working on another documentary—shooting and directing it—about Muslim-American civil rights activists dealing with the travel ban. They’re being directly targeted by this administration. I felt it was time to be proactive.”

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