The movie about Pakistani burlesque you may never get to see

Filmmaker Anam Abbas set out to shine a light on a hidden world. But the diversity problem in Hollywood might mean her film stays in the shadows.

Jennifer Bisset
Jennifer Bisset
Jennifer Bisset Former Senior Editor / Culture
Jennifer Bisset was a senior editor for CNET. She covered film and TV news and reviews. The movie that inspired her to want a career in film is Lost in Translation. She won Best New Journalist in 2019 at the Australian IT Journalism Awards.
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Jennifer Bisset
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Burlesque dancer. It's a profession you don't often associate with women in Pakistan.

It's also the taboo subject that filmmaker Anam Abbas took on for her first full-length feature documentary.


Anam Abbas

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In 2016, Abbas, a producer and cinematographer from Pakistan, set out to shine a light on a hidden community with Showgirls of Pakistan. The film details the lives of marginalized Pakistani women who dance burlesque for a living.

But you can't see it. At least not yet.

Like many filmmakers, Abbas lacks funding. She's also dealing with an industry that's dominated by white male directors and a Western documentary market that appears uninterested in her film. 

The lack of representation for certain minorities on screen has long been an issue in Hollywood. Studies show that minority women remain largely excluded from leading roles, and minority directors are few and far between.

But the landscape may be changing. Crazy Rich Asians marked the first Hollywood film in 25 years to star all Asians and Asian-Americans. It was a massive success, raking in $174 million in the US and another $63 million outside the States.

The road for Showgirls of Pakistan and Abbas is a long one. But thanks to groups addressing the diversity problem, her experience and that of other women and minorities in film may slowly see positive change.

How bad is it?

Abbas spent a year filming burlesque dancers in Punjab, a province of Pakistan. Canon 7D in tow, she visited strip shows in the province's capital, Lahore, as well as in working-class areas of small towns. Dancers took her behind the scenes and into their homes, demonstrating how they prepare for the spotlight. Abbas fell in love with the women, tracking three in particular whom she describes as "badass," "brazen" and "independent."

But her new friends live under constant threat.

The women are managed by dangerous handlers, including boyfriends, who regularly export them to the United Arab Emirates club scene.

Showgirls' trailer went viral, hitting 75,000 views in six days before Abbas felt forced to take it down. She was scared after handlers contacted her in "threatening ways" with late-night phone calls and warnings of revenge for releasing just the trailer.

"When I went to shoot in Multan some months later and after the trailer had been taken down, I was surrounded by a bunch of these thugs, pimps, managers and narrowly escaped with my life," Abbas said.


Showgirls of Pakistan

Anam Abbas/Chicago Media Project

Showgirls, Abbas said, is too "out there."

"The culture here is you have to present a positive image of Pakistan. They don't want to talk about burlesque dancers because they think it's something to be ashamed of."

Abbas is finding it difficult to tell the story of Showgirls. A few interested parties want to see a rough cut but won't pay for a professional editor to wrangle the hours of footage, a feat that can take months.

So the film is stuck in limbo.

Investors "think it's a vulgar film," Abbas said. "It's not something most people would want to associate their names with."

Foreign funders working in Pakistan aren't biting either "because again they have reputations to take care of."

The stories to come out of Pakistan are "handpicked," Abbas said. Editors working in the Western documentary market tell her that unless Showgirls features click-bait words and ideas associated with the Muslim world, investors won't be interested.

It's a sentiment that goes beyond the documentary market.

The numbers aren't good

Hollywood is struggling massively with issues of representation and diversity, particularly when it comes to directors.

A report from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, conducted in 2018, looked at the directors of 1,100 top-grossing movies from 2007 to 2017. Just 4 percent of the directors were women. Of those 43 directors, four of were black. Two were Asian or Asian American. One was Latina.

With numbers like those, the forecast may seem grim for young female filmmakers.

Still, Marsha Gordon, a professor of film studies at North Carolina State University, said she believes Hollywood is aware of its problems. The film industry is also filled with people tackling the issue.

"In the wake of #MeToo, there has been an uptick in attention being paid to how few women actually have the opportunity to direct films -- especially big budget films -- in Hollywood," Gordon said.

In 2017, the #MeToo hashtag began blazing across social media as people, mostly women, voiced experiences of sexual harassment and abuse, starting in the entertainment industry and expanding far beyond that. Ground zero was renowned film producer Harvey Weinstein. With more than 80 women alleging sexual misconduct, Weinstein was dismissed from his company Miramax, expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and charged with sexual assault.

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"There are numerous initiatives and organizations that have been trying to support women as directors, producers, cinematographers, and so on," Gordon said.

Some of these groups: Women and Hollywood, Gamechanger and Reese Witherspoon's female-focused production company Hello Sunshine.

An initiative called 50/50 by 2020 asks film festivals to compile data on the gender of submissions and acceptances. This year, the Sundance Film Festival reported that 37 percent of its films were directed by women.

That's not perfect. But with the festival's average at 25 percent in previous years, it's progress.

One country may be on the right track

Outside Hollywood, other smaller, local film industries are tackling similar problems, often with more effective results.

Spectrum Films is an Australian picture and sound-finishing company behind movies like The Great Gatsby, Hacksaw Ridge and Alien: Covenant.

General manager Adam Scott said he's aware of the troubling stats prevalent in Hollywood, but he can't say Australia has the same problems.

"We've been around for 54 years and involved in thousands of films," he said. "The bulk of them are Australian, independent, sometimes by first-time filmmakers."

Screen Australia, The Australian Film and Radio Television School and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation all offer scholarships for indigenous Australian storytellers. Before Australia became a British colony in 1788, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders lived on the continent and the surrounding islands.

In 2015, Screen Australia investigated the number of women working in the Australian TV and film industry and found that just 16 percent of directors were female. That spurred its Brilliant Stories initiative, an AU$5 million pledge to stimulate awareness of and create infrastructure for female filmmakers.

"They're addressing a lot of issues that have come up from people with low incomes in certain minority groups," Scott said of government film groups.

Spectrum Films is working on a documentary series with the ABC, written, directed and produced entirely by indigenous Australians.

"Behind the camera," Scott said, "we already have every social group covered."

You've got to move it

"I've been hustling for a long time," Abbas said.

Abbas works in video for the development sector in Pakistan to self-fund as much of Showgirls as she can. She's also a film festival director, overseeing 2016's Face Film Festival in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital.

The I Am Karachi Film Festival is another pet project. Last year, a week before opening, the event was cancelled after a spate of bombings hit Pakistan. The cancellation, said Abbas, was heartbreaking.

But it hasn't all been bad luck.


The Green Room filmmaker app provided much-needed funding for Abbas.

Green Room

An app called Green Room provided support when Abbas needed it. Green Room is run out of Australia by Peter Lord and Kostas Nikas (Sacred Heart and upcoming Crooked Chef), indie filmmakers funding other indie filmmakers. The app connects up-and-comers with projects currently in development or about to go into pre-production. Makeup artists, runners and head-honcho directors -- anyone in the industry -- can benefit.

The Green Room Film Fund, a grant for upcoming filmmakers, awarded Abbas a share of its AU$50,000 (about US$36,100) first-round funding. It's one of the "small nuggets" keeping Abbas afloat, along with Canadian $10,000 (about US$7,600) she won from a Best Pitch contest at the 2016 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.

What's next?

It's hard to make a film, but it may be getting easier.

"I've seen things changing already," Abbas said. "I feel that there is a conscious effort to get more people of color and younger people onto decision-making positions."

If Showgirls is financed, Abbas wants to take her subjects to screenings in Pakistan. They've been asking her about the film, their interest adding pressure on Abbas because they want to create their celebrity via the screen.

"I thought this was going to be good for my career," one young performer said, according to Abbas. "I thought this would get me shows in the Middle East, Europe."

It's a film Abbas has invested "everything" in. And she's "hopefully at the final stretch."

The road to Hollywood is long, but Abbas still has faith.

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