June 13, 2024 | Alumni

U of T alumna producing world-class films in Pakistan got her start at Hart House

By Megan Wykes

A still from In Flames

In Flames, produced by Anam Abbas, was released in April 2024.

Producer, director and cinematographer Anam Abbas (BA 2008) is earning her spot on the world stage as an independent filmmaker. Her first feature, a documentary called Showgirls of Pakistan, premiered in 2020. Four years later (April 2024), her new film In Flames premiered at Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight and debuted in Canada at the Toronto International Film Festival where it ran at the TIFF Lightbox until April 25. It also played at Vancouver’s International Village Mall that month, then showed at the South Asian Film Festival of Montreal on June 2.

Portrait of Anam Abbas
Anam Abbas. 

This psychological movie, which follows medical student Mariam who struggles to keep her family together and consoles her mother after the loss of her grandfather, was Pakistan’s official submission to the 2024 Oscars, arguably the most prestigious awards in the film industry.

Few realize Abbas got her start at Hart House through the Hart House Film Board, the University of Toronto’s leading movie-making centre since 1974. 

We sit down to chat with Abbas, speaking from Los Angeles where her film was enjoying its theatrical opening, about how those undergrad experiences helped to shape her filmmaking career.

Abbas first became interested in film in her undergrad years at U of T. She discovered the Film Board while wandering (she playfully says “lurking”) around the House, first discovering Hart House Theatre. At the theatre, she participated in student productions of Mad Forest and The Rocky Horror Show. “My job in The Rocky Horror Show was to run the visual installation behind the live performance. Just press ‘play’ and stop on blue. I was so happy to do that!” 

Promotional image for In Flames
“In Flames”, produced by Anam Abbas, was released in April 2024. Image reproduced with permission.

An Innis College student who lived in St. Michael’s College dorms, Abbas spent much of her university years watching and studying movies. (At one point her dorm mates asked her what she did all day other than watching movies!) A lover of theory, reading and writing, she also spent many hours at Robarts Library.

“I came to U of T from Pakistan one semester late so I couldn't take my year-long core courses. As a result, I picked up electives,” she explains how she was able to focus on her interests and passions as opposed to her formal coursework. Abbas now interprets this set of circumstances as the universe compelling her in one definitive direction: film. The first course she took was on religion and film, and from there, she was hooked. “That one course turned into a minor in cinema studies.” This later evolved into a major in cinema studies and a minor in world literatures.

“That was a change in direction for me because I came to U of T thinking I want to do political science or English. Maybe I'll be a writer? Maybe anthropology? I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I knew I wanted a liberal arts education.”

Then she says she had to convince herself to push on in film “because it was not something in my imagination that I could study in school. Over time, I submitted myself to my inclinations!”

Hart House Film Board: “Supportive, low-risk place to experiment”

Abbas soon realized that the Film Board was “a place where I could flex my creative muscles.” She acknowledged that although she was studying theory at Innis, she wanted to be more of a creator.

She fondly recalls when Hart House’s registered programs coordinator Rick Palidwor introduced her to the Super 8 camera in one of the Film Board workshops. “Rick was really supportive,” she says.

She credits the Film Board as a place where students can experiment, make mistakes, learn at their own pace. “It was a very good, low-risk place to do stupid things and just learn the camera. It was a place where you could float in and out and do whatever you like, not be embarrassed about not knowing anything.”

Hart House memories centre around sense of constant discovery

Abbas recalls Hart House with great fondness. “There’s a certain romanticism or even mystery to the building … just wandering the hallways, discovering the little corners, hearing a piano, opening a door and running into a friend. Lots of memories, friendships. I think there's a sense of constant discovery, which is really nice.”

Encourages student to practice fearlessness

She has advice for students: “When you're in school, you're there to experiment, learn, find your voice, collaborate with others and be unafraid. This is your time to practice fearlessness as an artist … and that's a muscle,” she says, adding, “Hart House doesn't have any expectations, hierarchy or ‘hustle culture.’ You can experiment without any pressure. That's so beautiful and rare.”

Her advice to budding filmmakers? “Just do it. Find your tribe, your people. Find your community that’s value based, not opportunity based because opportunity-based connections and communities will falter and shift. Value-based communities are solid and rooted.”

Originally published by Hart House

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