Haya Waseem is a Pakistani-Canadian filmmaker, raised in Switzerland, now living in Brooklyn. Represented by production company Object & Animal, she weaves a keen sense of observation into her work, intuitively concentrating the subtext of each moment into every frame and creating sensory experiences described as dreamlike.
Before she embarked on a career as a documentary editor and subsequently turning to directing work that has screened at TIFF, Cannes and other prestigious festivals, she was a creative child, travelling through a universe of imaginary worlds and adventures in the neighbourhood. As the eldest cousin, leading the troupe while they explored and made home videos came naturally to Haya, but it never occurred to her that it would one day be her career. “Growing up in Pakistan in the ‘90s, I was worlds away from anything to do with cinema or art,” she says. “It was all play back then, and had no relation to real life. It was an escape.”
The director also lived in Switzerland for a time, and credits the different places she grew up in with leaving “an indelible impression” on her, providing personal stories and observations to draw from. “Each location has instilled in me a sense of belonging and displacement, privilege and inequality,” Haya says. “These contradictions are something that I explore and make sense of through my creative work. I use my art as a means of investigating these experiences.”
With no prior formal film education, Haya went on to study media arts at Sheridan College, Ontario, and soon realised she would have to learn quickly to keep up with the cinema buffs surrounding her. One of her most cherished classes was a documentary class led by professor Vladimir Kabelik, whose polarising “no-bullshit attitude” shaped Haya’s beginnings as a filmmaker and who she remains a close friend with to this day. Through an early mean-spirited interaction with a peer after one of these lectures, she was also rapidly made aware that the industry she was entering has a tendency to chew up and spit out perceived outsiders. “I remember after our first class, a student came up to me and told me I didn’t belong in that class,” she recalls - although she didn’t believe him for a second.
Looking back at these early experiences - both good and bad - Haya distils several lessons that have served her well ever since, noting, “Enthusiasm is key. Partnership is key. Age, gender, ethnicity, are not barriers.” Taking these values to heart, she multi-tasked and pushed herself to the limits after graduating, working as an assistant editor on a food show at night, and as a freelance editor during the day. After expanding into feature editing and working with some of Canada’s top talent on documentaries, she eventually became hungry for more creative opportunities and decided to start directing herself.
“My base as a filmmaker was formed on documentary filmmaking,” says Haya. “I remember being introduced to cinema verité in Vlad’s class, and being blown away that this is what documentaries could be. As an editor, I got to see countless hours of raw footage of people being observed, interviewed and followed. There was no better insight into human behaviour than in the edit suite. I learned how to shape character-driven stories as a documentary editor. I switched to directing originally because I wanted to have more control over the image. It was for the edit in mind that I began to direct.”
From Haya’s first professional project - a short documentary called ‘Canadian Dream’ for CBC’s Canadian 150th anniversary celebrations - to her debut feature ‘Quickening’, the director has utilised this editing background to create meaningful connections between screen and viewer. Recently, she filmed a Parisian love story for a real estate company, creating a dreamy, dance-like romance between two neighbours that played with the genre - something she enjoys doing. She also directed a newly-launched campaign for Publicis’ ‘Working with Cancer Pledge’ that delicately presented the worries that people living with cancer have in the workplace.
“I always develop my approach from a place of dignity,” she says, discussing the project, “I want to honour the individuals on-screen and the stories they represent. This meant developing a thoughtful visual language with minimal coverage, and not overpowering the essence of the campaign with a hyper-stylised approach.”
Attracted initially by the juxtaposition between what’s hidden in the performance and what’s revealed in text, Haya says she worked with the cinematographer, Adam Newport-Berra, to portray a “somewhat formal and refrained sensibility” that embodies the professionalism and personal boundaries of the workplace. “This meant [using] wide, austere frames that don’t over indulge emotionally, and which place the characters within their environment.” She continues, “Distance can create a sense of isolation, but for me, it’s not until we’re intimate that we can catch hints of what each character is really experiencing. The close-ups, use of zooms, and high speed allowed for a deeper form of observation; through the eyes, or a subtle shift in expression.”
Throughout the last 5-10 years of working on projects like this, Haya explains that she has noticed a lot of exciting changes in the industry - especially when it comes to making leaps in DE&I. However, she says that weaknesses still exist, especially in the wake of covid-19. “The pandemic did cause some setbacks and we are still processing the aftereffects,” she says. “I think there is a balance, but for me, the pendulum swings back and forth between holding the system accountable and claiming space without seeking validation… [It’s about] staying calm and thinking of the long game.”
Outside of work, Haya’s hobbies include bouldering and climbing - mental and physical challenges that pair well with her regular transcendental meditation and keep her grounded. When she’s not scaling rocky terrain, she can be found with family or absorbing as much inspiration as possible through reading, film, TV, museums and generally wandering the streets and subways of New York. It’s this youthful wonder that keeps her driven and creatively fresh as a director, adding each new experience from her eclectic journey - from Pakistan, to Switzerland, to Canada, and now in the States - into every piece of work.
As she puts it, “It's the inner child that still tells stories of make-believe lands and adventures, and the spark it creates in the eyes of those that come along for the ride.”