Every cup of tea is an opportunity – Published in Aurora, Pakistan

Three years ago, I left New York on a bright, sunny day and hesitatingly, descended upon a somewhat dismal and drenched London – an omen I should have taken seriously at the time. Despite the sullenness of everything around me, I was full of hope and in an excited manner, punctuated with many exclamation marks, I thought to myself, “I have arrived!! I am gonna make it here! Hold yourselves now BBC and Channel 4, your filmmaker has some jetlag to get over.”

Who could blame me for my enthusiasm? I was a recently graduated, documentary filmmaker teeming with ideas. The fact that I was from Pakistan, one of the most volatile places on the planet and thus, the most heavily reported, made things even better. Naturally, I believed everyone would want me. In a very dramatic, cinema style fantasy, I visualised myself entering the studios of the BBC and being welcomed by an eager and servile staff whose adoration was palpable. All this to the tune of Chariots of Fire, of course. Nothing else felt appropriate.

A few weeks later I realised that the reality, unfortunately, was going to be quite different. Tragic.

Reality check, please! London is saturated with filmmakers and South Asians and South Asian filmmakers.

I was naïve enough to believe that most Pakistanis still chose to become engineers and bankers, and that somehow, my profession made me unique and desirable. Certainly not the case.

The fact that I had worked in the media in Pakistan and produced and directed an award winning documentary in New York did not elicit much response from anyone I happened to mention these facts to. This was shocking to me. I lived for films and I loved making films. I take pride in saying that I gave up my (not so thrilling) career in an ad agency to become a filmmaker. I wasn’t born to be ignored. More importantly, I couldn’t afford to be ignored.

Moving on…

I spent a gruelling six months sitting on my couch, unwillingly watching insurance ads and daytime television, while submitting job applications, résumés (or CVs as I was snobbishly told) and stalking production houses through cold calling and email. My efforts paid off. Kind of.

I got my first big break – an unpaid internship at a small production house and documentary training company in East London. From being an independent self-shooting director/producer in New York, I suddenly found myself relegated to the position of a chota of sorts in this company. I had the glorious job of crushing cardboard boxes for recycling; hand delivering packages all over London; washing dishes; fetching lunch; and very occasionally, packing up camera equipment after shoots. The redeeming point was that I was in a ‘production’ environment and I thrived on that.

I was also responsible for making tea – which did get me somewhere.

A cuppa: The thought that a Master’s degree would get me only as far as serving tea and biscuits to directors and filmmakers, had never really crossed my mind. Yet, that is exactly what happened – at first, at least. There I was asking people whether they wanted milk and sugar in their tea, while I laid out an assortment of Bourbons and Digestives on their plates. Anyway, I like to think that I am somewhat of a perfectionist (OCD more like it), so if I had to make tea, then I had to do my best and if I was going to serve biscuits, then I was going to do that with utmost grace – even as the total amount of my student loan flashed urgently in neon lights over my head.

The best lesson I learnt was that no work is pointless, least of all, making a cup of tea. In the UK, where tea breaks are more frequent than cigarette breaks, a hot brew, at the right time, gets you opportunities and that proverbial foot in the door.

So, as the story unfolds, it was over steaming cups of builder’s tea that I got to know the various directors, editors and producers that walked through the doors of this little media house. It was while discussing how sinful and calorific custard cream biscuits are, that I told people about the films I had done and the ideas I had for conquering the world. Basically, I did not stop blabbering.

I gave this internship my all, working even on Sundays – a day London sets aside to construct and reinvent itself for the 2012 Olympics – and a day, on which, public transportation is restricted, to put it mildly.

I even discreetly handed DVDs of my films to my new found ‘contacts’, acting like the dodgy vendors that prowl the subway stations of New York, selling pirated films out of their briefcases. Point is – making that cup of tea gave me the chance to be seen and be heard, and in the filmmaking world, that is gold. With this in mind, I kept boiling and brewing.

Brewing experience: Film production is not an easy profession to break into. Besides a wide set of skills, it requires passion, grit and a willingness to do more for less, and sometimes for nothing at all. Basically, it means killing the ego.

On one occasion, I happily agreed to travel three hours on a train from London to Sheffield, just to deliver copies of a film to my supervisor for an ongoing documentary festival. What did I get out of it, you ask? The chance to watch amazing, never-seen-before documentaries, and meeting the directors who made these, in person. Was it worth it? It depends on what day you ask me.

The thing is, hard work does get noticed and every dog has its day. Despite my bruised ego and shattered self esteem, I eventually did get a chance to do things besides make tea. I have been directing films and doing production and training work ever since. In fact, my first proper television documentary about child slavery in Ghana (Slaves of the Lake), will be broadcast on a channel in the UK in March. Not a bad end for someone who started out by making tea.

The ultimate blend: The thing with being a freelance documentary filmmaker is that there is no sitting back and waiting for things to happen. If I do that then chances are I will end up once again in a room full of cardboard boxes, using my talent to flatten them.

If I am lucky, it will be with a teapot in one hand saying, “Milk and sugar, anyone?”

To avoid that, I stay hungry for work. When there is hunger there is determination. I spend hours on the internet, researching story ideas and manically calling people to follow up on leads. I am perpetually trying to get funding sorted out as well as finding new ways to distribute existing work. I do any and every project I get. Paid or not. And most importantly, I never stop learning, because this is a game where the rules are always changing and if you don’t plan ahead, you will be left far behind.

Sheherzad Kaleem is a freelance documentary filmmaker. sheherzadk@hotmail.com