Pakistani writer-director Saim Sadiq says he just kept sobbing as the premiere of his debut film, Joyland, at the Cannes International Film Festival on Tuesday received a lengthy standing ovation.
Amid all the emotion, he was not sure how long the clapping lasted.
“Somebody told me 10 minutes, somebody told me seven. I don’t know what to believe. I know that I had enough time to hug my whole team of 40 people twice,” Sadiq told Al Jazeera.
Standing ovations are a tradition at Cannes, and each minute is a measure of the audience’s love for a film. Debut films by young directors are always special, and Joyland even more so because it is the first Pakistani film to be selected as an official entry at the world’s most prestigious film festival, which ends on Saturday.
Joyland is up for two awards at the festival, including Un Certain Regard – “a certain glance” – which celebrates emerging directors and films on marginal themes.
Joyland, which tackles gender and sexuality issues that are taboo in Pakistan, stars a transgender actress, Alina Khan, as the lead.
“Joyland is sheer joy for Pakistan … There are very few moments in Pakistan’s cinematic history that we can all be proud of. I know that in 2012, when I brought the country’s first Academy Award home, the nation united in its understanding that we too can be champions of cinema,” Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, Pakistani filmmaker and two-time Oscar winner in the best documentary short category, told Al Jazeera over the phone.
“And I think Tuesday in Cannes was another such moment for Pakistan.”
Pakistani cinema – which has been affected for decades by political intervention, religious commandments and bureaucratic apathy – finally having its glorious moment on the world stage was “magical”, says Sarwat Gilani, a well known Pakistani actress who stars in Joyland.
She said that the hugs and tears that flowed at the premiere during the extended ovation were not just an expression of joy, but also an acknowledgement of the struggles artists face in Pakistan.
“In our wildest dreams we could not have thought [we would be] here and represent Pakistan with a debut film,” she said.
Set in Lahore, Joyland tells the fictional tale of a middle-class family where a wheelchair-bound ageing but stern patriarch controls the lives of his two sons and daughters-in-law. He wants his sons to give him grandsons, but everything changes when his younger son, Haider, becomes a background dancer for a transgender dancer, Biba, played by Alina Khan, and they fall in love.
Speaking with Al Jazeera a day after his film’s preview at Cannes, Sadiq, 31, said he was still processing it all and had yet to call his parents.
He said he has long been interested in themes of “patriarchy, gender constructs and the idea of identity”. Joyland’s story was an idea that he worked on while doing his masters in fine arts at New York’s Columbia University.
That resulted in a short film, Darling. Starring Alina Khan as a struggling transgender dancer, it won the Orizzonti Award for Best Short Film at the Venice Film Festival in 2019.
Sadiq jokes that “one makes shorts only because one can’t make a feature”, and adds that a full-length feature film was always his goal.
Los Angeles-based Apoorva Charan, Sadiq’s friend from their days at Columbia University, and now one of Joyland’s producers, says funding was not easy to come by – although they eventually secured most of the funding from United States backers.
“I think the challenges were: first-time feature director, first-time feature producer, non-English language film with a Pakistan focus,” she told.
Sadiq says Joyland’s journey has been long, but the film is “blessed”.
As well as being in the running for the Un Certain Regard prize, Joyland is also a contender for Caméra d’Or (Golden Camera), an award given to a first-time director. The results will be announced on Friday night.
If Sadiq is nervous, he does not show it.
“Whatever happens is just icing on the cake. We have a cake already,” Sadiq said with a smile.