Dr. Hassan Zee didn’t intend to make San Francisco his home when he immigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan, but when he arrived via a Greyhound bus and saw the skyline from the Bay Bridge in 1999, he knew he was here to stay.
“When I was in Pakistan at medical school, I was also working as a host for Radio Pakistan,” explained Zee, who had crafted radio plays as a teenager. It was the beginning of his journey toward becoming a San Francisco-based filmmaker of Pakistani-centered stories, acted in English and Urdu.
“One day a producer threw away a couple of brochures that I picked up from the recycling bin,” he said. “I read about a guy making movies in America.”
That guy was Amin Chaudhri, a Pakistan-born director who had his own production facility in Sharon, Pa., and was known for making movies with Patrick Swayze, Forest Whitaker and Sharon Stone.
“I was intrigued. I took the brochure home, wrote a letter and told him, I’m a medical student in love with filmmaking and I want to come to America and maybe have an internship.” Not expecting a reply, Zee was surprised that Chaudhri wrote back.
“Dear Hassan, glad you’re becoming a doctor and if you ever come to America, meet me,” said Zee of the letter’s contents. “I held on to it for about 10 years,” he said, as he completed his medical studies and residency. At the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences, he was assigned to the burn unit.
“It’s where women who didn’t have dowry or who had extramarital affairs would come after they were burned,” explained Zee of the horrific form of domestic violence known as “bride burning.” Victims of acid attacks and self-immolation would also find their way to his unit, as women’s safety and gender inequality became part of his daily reality on the job. Zee also recognized the plight of his country’s population of hijras, transgender and intersex people, who had been largely cast out of society.
“I would see the hijras beg, and my mother would give them money. At the time, it was a law they could not have jobs,” he said. “As an artist and as a filmmaker, you think of these things and want to do something about it. What can I do as a human being to stop this?”
For Zee, the answer was to move to America and make the movies he had long seen in his mind. But while he initially missed his connection with a friend whom he had arranged to meet at New York’s JFK airport, as chance would have it, a fellow passenger and medical student helped him catch the next bus to Harrisburg, Pa. where he was able to meet his penpal, Chaudhri. He stayed at the filmmaker’s studio for three months.
“It was rural Pennsylvania,” said Zee of the director’s facility in Sharon, Pa. — not exactly the center of the film world. He learned that California was the place to be and so he pressed on, finding his people among the independent filmmakers. Many of them like himself, lived downtown, South of Market, and congregated at the Film Arts Foundation. For over 30 years, the now-defunct non-profit served local filmmakers like Zee, providing a space, loaning equipment and other necessary services.
“I remember talking about film with people from all over the world. Now that’s gone,” he said. “But the coffee shop culture is still here,” he said, sipping a latte. As a filmmaker in the digital age, Zee does much of his work in cafes, brainstorming ideas.
“When I’m writing a screenplay, I don’t really need an office, I can do it at a coffee shop or the San Francisco Public Library,” he said of one of his favorite local haunts.
“The Public Library is like my second home,” said Zee, who’s learned about The City’s history not only from reading but by taking the library’s walking tours.
“You have to be able to understand San Francisco to enjoy it,” said Zee. “By living here and immersing myself in the culture, now I can say, ‘I’m San Franciscan,’” he said, though he has by no means left Pakistan behind. His fourth and most recent film screened at the main library’s Koret Auditorium, and is widely available for streaming online.
“Salaam Pakistan,” or “Good Morning Pakistan,” concerns a young American’s journey back to his country of origin where he confronts the contradictory nature of a beautiful and ancient culture that’s marred by economic, educational and gender inequality. The Independent Movie Data Base (IMDB) describes it as a comedy, a mystery and a romance, and it is indeed all of those things, but with a strong message.
“I’m interested in Ingmar Bergman. It’s so spiritual and dramatic,” he said of the work that inspires him. “I like Italian films, Passolini, Fellini, Antonioni. The German Expressionists, things from the silent era, ‘Nosferatu,’” he said. “And a few Hitchcock films, for the thrilling parts that make you jump, that’s what I like about Hitchcock.” As for the Americans, he noted Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights.”
“Where I came from, it was so limited, everything was censored by the government,” said Zee.
“There’s still censorship going on in Pakistan but here, there is openness in films, from religion to sexuality, thrillers and horror. In Pakistan, these subjects are treated very rigidly. If you go to a small town in the middle of America, it might be like Pakistan.”
Zee’s at work on a new film, “About the spirit, ghosts and people who have passed into the next vibration,” he said. For the last 15 years he’s belonged to Golden Gate Spiritualists, a community that welcomes people of all faiths or none, to consider the concept of continuous life.
“Ghosts aren’t really very scary,” said Zee. “Everything that we’re doing — the spirits are helping us.”
And yet, the doctor in Zee believes personal contact is at the root of human wellness.
“America is the culture of the self, what can I do for myself, how much money can I make,” he said. “At home it’s more about the family, brothers and sisters, living together. I have not seen a lot of homeless people at home,” he said. “There’s no such thing as old folks homes.” He talks to his six sisters and brothers “almost everyday” and for the last 14 years he has had “My American mom. She’s very interested in Pakistani culture and I talk to her three or four times a week. It gives me strength to keep moving,” he said.
I asked if he had any suggestions for our city’s seemingly intractable housing crisis and the homelessness it’s wrought.
“The internet has revolutionized everything,” noted Zee. “But we need personal connection to progress. There are so many smart people here from all over the country. Why can’t 10 people sit together and come up with a solution? What can we do with all this money and resources help people stand up and get back on their feet?”
He’s an advocate of housing and mental health check-ups for everyone.
“As you learn about people from other cultures through film, you’ll find that all the people in the world go through the same things,” said Zee.
“People have helped me,” he said. “I want to give back.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” A guest columnist, her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.