Many dream of breaking into the film industry with the lofty ideal of either acting, directing, producing or perhaps combining all three! It is a dream that is difficult to achieve in the very epicenter of the entertainment industry known as Los Angeles, so how is this dream achieved in a country that is not known to foster and encourage such an ambition? Enter Hassan Zee who is better known as Doc Zee whose tale can be the basis for a thrilling action film that would have audiences on their feet leaving their chairs far behind them!
On a typically chilly night in San Francisco, California I met the Doctor in the lobby of the cavernous and scenic hotel known as the Hotel Nikko in the heart of the city. Eager to hear his tale I quickly jumped into the interview by asking Doc Zee about his background. Zee obliged and began about his time in his country of birth-Pakistan. Zee begins, "when I was six years old I knew I had film in my DNA. My dad was in the military and he wanted us to become good students and become doctors. The orderly who worked for my family would take me to these outdoor cinemas and that is where I saw my first image of two women dancing! I was six years old and that is where something happened." Zee's enthusiasm is immediately infectious and his smile widens. The doctor continues, "I went home and I would do the same thing that they did on that screen. I never told anybody as the orderly that worked for us told me not to tell because he might lose his job if my parents ever found out!" It was immediately evident to the very young child that this would be one of the many challenges that he would have to face if he wished his dreams to translate to reality.
Doc Zee's tale continues at the amazingly early age of seven. Zee comments, "my first story was published in a small magazine in Pakistan and then I started in radio. I wanted to be a radio artist-a host! I told my parents that that is what I wanted to be and they began to think that there was something wrong with their son!" Zee adds with an amusing laugh. Parents typically and naturally are concerned about their children and what they wish to do with their lives. Zee's parents were not exempt from this traditional mode of thinking and they continued to suggest that their son enter medical school in order to become a doctor. Zee states, " at age nineteen, I was accepted to medical college on a scholarship and I thought that alright-I would be a doctor." Zee's dreams of being in the entertainment did not wane. He continues, "while I was doing my medical education I was going to the radio and television station in the evening." Zee's parents were pleased when he finished his medical training at age twenty-six. Zee explains with a hearty laugh, "my parents said the first thing we will do is develop a small clinic for your practice and then get you married!" Doc Zee elaborates, "there are many many countries, especially the Muslim and Hindu countries where it is very common to have arranged marriages. In fact that is the topic of two of my films that I have made!"
Doc Zee's eventual decision to emigrate to the United States involved a number of factors and as the interviewer I must caution the readers that his tale was fraught with many dark chapters of which this reporter was heartbroken listening to! Zee begins, "there was a girl who was my friend when I was a child and when I was nineteen she was placed in an arranged marriage. Two years later her in-laws killed her! She was my friend and it really struck me quite hard and I needed to do something about it. When I was a doctor I was assigned to the burn unit. There were women whose parents did not give them enough dowry money or could not have children so they were burned by their in-laws. These women would die in my arms! Somehow the universe brought all these stories to me to tell them and express them in film. When I came to America the first film that I did was called Night of Henna which was about a woman who came from Pakistan and did not know she was in an arranged marriage." Doc Zee continues to explain his decision. Zee ruminates, "I was a very liberal kind of soul. As an artist you are very sensitive to society and what is happening."
Doc Zee's experiences would cause many to become cynical and perhaps remain in a state of utter despair, but Zee has used his own life as a way to demonstrate the human ability to overcome and be empowered. Doc Zee passionately explains, "my films are about human empowerment. In Night of Henna you see the theme to be about female empowerment. In Bicycle Bride you see a woman also struggling in San Francisco. In my new film that I just finished called House of Temptation is about human empowerment which shows a boy who has faith in his parents and himself. That is the core that lies within the stories that I tell!"
How does one make the transition from being a practicing physician to an active writer and director and why? Zee is tickled by the question and once again succinctly responds with his trademark enthusiasm. The doctor speaks, "when I get up in the morning and I know my schedule is filled up with meeting actors, doing some writing, editing and making some calls-that is what fascinates me! That is why I do what I do!" Zee further adds, "I read a beautiful proverb which became my mantra. Falling down is not a failure, refusing to get up-is! Everyday I work with that because to make a film you get rejections and rejections, so I keep reminding myself about the mantra."
Doc Zee's can do spirit and seemingly boundless energy allowed him to be self taught about making films. Zee explains, " I came to the U.S.A. fourteen years ago and I immediately went to the San Francisco Public Library and read every book I could find about film-making. I wrote my first script which was Night of Henna. I went to a camera rental company and I seen a list of academy award winning cinematographers and I thought that I want one of them for my film. I asked a guy at the store if someone on the list lived in the Bay Area and he said that Hiro Narita lived in Petaluma. The next day I was having lunch with him. He read my script and said he wanted to do it. When he got aboard, we were to get Sony Pictures to give us cameras to shoot the film!" Zee adds with a laugh, "I had to raise my own money! I used my credit cards and that is the great thing about America! Spike Lee also did this! The next morning I had forty thousand dollars because of the credit cards!"
Film-making is more than just creating a story to be seen on the screen of various sizes. There is always the question of how to get said film to the proper exhibition outlets. Doc Zee has also mastered this difficult aspect of the business. Zee speaks, "I went to San Francisco State University and met Muata Kenyata who wanted to do a screening of my film. We decided to do the screening and then we created a press release that stated the movie was being released in San Francisco on March 4th! I bombarded all the distributors who rejected my film. I started to get calls from Sony, Miramax and Samuel Goldwyn. The woman from Sony told me that she was going to fly in and take my movie and put it in theaters. She arrived and wrote that big check that evening! I was able to get distribution and my distributor flew me all over America. It was just amazing and a learning experience."
Many filmmakers are influenced by other artists and Doc Zee is also inspired by other filmmakers. He specifically cites the late director, Alfred Hitchcock as a major influence on his work. Zee speaks of his latest film, "House of Temptation is a psychological thriller. I am a great fan of Alfred Hitchcock. Part of the film was shot in Bodega Bay where Hitchcock shot The Birds. We shot in the church and in the school also. The horror in my film is psychological like that of a mother losing her child. I think that this film is truly about faith. When we grow up we have faith in our parents and in God. Sometimes circumstances happen in life when our faith starts to break apart and how this family gets that faith back is at the heart of House of Temptation. It is perhaps this theme and the dark side of it that caused actor, John Travolta to state that he found the screenplay to be scary!
The idea of a supernatural presence as embodied by a house or any other such non-traditional element has been explored in previous films and novels and this columnist wondered what Doc Zee brings to this film that will distinguish it from others. Zee talks, "I believe that everything we do and say hangs in the universe. If we say nice things, somewhere a flower blooms and that energy just opens up and transforms. The people who have passed away still have their energies around and they still want to tell their stories!"
Doc Zee is a filmmaker who has a thematic thread running throughout all of his films. His belief in the empowerment of human beings is evident and he offers a tantalizing glimpse into a possible film based on a classic novel. Zee reveals, "I have been reading more about Frankenstein and there is a story lingering around in me. There is a monster in that and I want to make my monster a human being and very natural. My story is about a little girl and a monster."
What of the allure of Hollywood and Los Angeles? Doc Zee responds, "I love San Francisco! This city has so much to offer. There is something in this city that I am very spiritually connected with. In this city, my soul feels at home here."
An unapologetic and enthusiastic lover of films shown in the cinema, Doc Zee offers an incredible pitch for his film and for all films that are shown in the theater setting. Doc Zee offers the final word, "there can be films that are made for television, but cinema itself is really made for that big screen. You cannot have that experience anywhere else, so you have to go to the theater to get that experience and that is the beauty of the cinema!"