Emotional Journeys Through Horror: A Profile of K/XI

Special Guest Writer: Brian Skutle

When I applied to cover the 2020 Women in Horror Film Festival, it was because two filmmakers whom I’d gotten to know over the years had projects there, and I was looking forward to not only their new work, but- for at least one- getting to meet them in person for the first time. By the time that 2 1/2 days ended, there were more filmmakers whose work connected with me, and I’d had one of the strongest communal experiences watching film in my life. No filmmaker made an impression on me that weekend, however, quite like K/XI (pronounced K Eleven), and her feature film, “Black Lake.”

Over the years, as more filmmakers have trusted me to give them honest feedback about their work, I often think about Anton Ego’s immortal words about the responsibility of a critic at the end of “Ratatouille,” and especially, our ability to be a friend and advocate for a voice that is new, and captures our imagination. When I watched “Black Lake,” it was- by far- the most profound film experience I’d had in that early 2020, and a big part of it was because it was a directorial voice that challenged me, and an experience that stuck with me. When that happens, it’s hard not to be evangelical in your praise of that voice, and by the time 2020 ended, not only had repeat viewings only confirmed the feelings of that first screening, but it solidified the film’s status at the top of my Best of list for that year.

K/XI is a Pakistani filmmaker based out of London whose work can feel like a mixture of David Lynch and Cronenberg, but with a resolutely female perspective, and infused with empathy for those who suffer. In both “Black Lake” and “Maya,” her first film, she explores female trauma through psychological horror, body horror, and memory. Part of what made “Black Lake” such an exciting experience for me was in how it found a way to tackle those ideas in a predominantly visual piece of storytelling. There is, maybe, about 10 minutes of dialogue in the entire film; as the cinematographer and director, she gives you all the information you need to follow her main character, Aarya, down her descent into pain when a scarf her aunt gives her, it turns out, has a tragic past.

Inspired by both real life and folk horror, “Black Lake” sees trauma as a result of sexual assault as something felt by all women, not just the one whom has violence inflicted upon them. An isolated house in Scotland is a perfect backdrop for Aarya’s lonely journey- K/XI’s visual eye uses light- both natural and stylized- to create a haunting landscape that will swallow the main character up by the end. (She won the Best Cinematography Lizzie for “Black Lake” at the 2020 festival.)

“K/XI is a Pakistani filmmaker based out of London whose work can feel like a mixture of David Lynch and Cronenberg, but with a resolutely female perspective, and infused with empathy for those who suffer.”

In early March, “Maya” came to the same festival- now re-branded as the Renegade Film Festival- for its world premiere. Though she began the film prior to “Black Lake,” she returned to finish it afterwards; as she explained in an emotional introduction prior to the film’s Q&A, it felt like, in 2015, the tenor of the world when it came to Muslim voices was not ready to accept such a film. And so, she moved on to “Black Lake,” and- after completing that- she returned to “Maya” with renewed drive and perspective. Knowing the history of the film, it makes sense, and it makes “Maya” better, and of a piece with “Black Lake.”

“Maya” has a more conventional narrative thrust than “Black Lake,” and some of the filmmaking feels a bit raw, but you can tell the experience with the more experimental “Black Lake” inspired some daring in how she approached the final construction of this story of a young girl (played by Madiha Hidayat) who suddenly becomes haunted by her birth mother, and physical pains she cannot quite understand. When Maya seeks out her biological sister, more questions arise, and some answers leave her unsettled. As with “Black Lake,” folk horror and trauma play a powerful role in this story, as well as memories that come to the surface. Once again, her use of light, shadow and depth of image invokes pain, and the exhaustion of the individual when faced with events best forgotten, but which cannot be ignored.

“Maya” went on to win Best Feature Film at the festival, and it was wonderful to be able to talk with K/XI at the after party for the festival about the film, her filmmaking process, and what’s next for her as a filmmaker.

Brian Skutle: So, I’m sitting here with…well, first of all, let me just say that I feel a little bit embarrassed because, when you were on the Sonic Cinema Podcast, I called you K XI rather than K Eleven. I don’t know why I didn’t even think about it.

K/XI: It’s just one of the many mysteries.

Brian: Indeed. First of all, let me just say congratulations, because we are talking after the award ceremony at the Renegade Film Festival where you won Best Feature Film, so congratulations.

K/XI: Thank you so much.

Brian: I knew from, listening to you talk about “Black Lake,” following you on social media, we’ve become friends. Your words when you talked about “Maya” last night were incredibly powerful, and the place you were when you made that film, the place you are now, it’s…it’s just absolutely remarkable the journey you’ve been on. And it’s funny because of the fact that, this is that you made first film that you made, you made it in 2014, but I’m seeing it after your second film. What was it that inspired you to put it on the back burner, and start working on “Black Lake” instead?

K/XI: I finished the first cut of “Maya” in 2015, and it was screened to friends and family in London, and then it was screened to friends and family in Pakistan. And there were very different reactions, but both were very positive. Then it came to submitting to film festivals and I have to admit, it just didn’t do anything. It was my first time submitting to film festivals, it was the first time I had faith in my work to actually submit it to film festivals, and it was a feature, even though I’d been making short films since 2007. And I just…suddenly thought, “Maybe it’s to do with the fact that it’s made in Pakistan, the fact that it’s in Urdu, it’s subtitled, it’s 2 hours long (at the time),” I thought maybe with the politics it’s just not the right time. So, I had to think about the money because at the time, it was my money, so I put that aside, and I felt like I was ready to do “Black Lake” just because I had gotten to a place in my life where I thought I’m now ready to face the issues I was going to deal with in “Black Lake.”

Brian: We touched on it a little bit in our interview on the Sonic Cinema Podcast a couple of years ago. What is it about horror that you just kind of gravitate towards?

K/XI: I think it’s just such a wonderful, comforting blanket, in a way. And I’ve just always been comfortable with the dark side, I guess. I’m a Jungian, and I’m very familiar with the works of Jung and Freud and the uncanny, and I just love to explore those things, and not just the beautiful side of life but those darker aspects, because I truly believe that life is about balance. And the more comfortable you are with dealing with fear, and facing fear, I truly believe the horror genre has the capacity to transform people in a way that other genres can’t.

Brian: Both “Maya” and “Black Lake” take this idea of folklore and legend and turn it into a narrative that explores trauma. And the way you do it in “Maya” is very different than the way you do it in “Black Lake.” They’re both extremely visual experiences, but “Black Lake” is much more visual storytelling than conventional narrative. What filmmakers, when you are coming up with your screenplays, and you’re trying to decide how much to tell visually, with montage and long shots vs. dialogue, who are some of the filmmakers you think about when you’re exploring that idea in script form?

K/XI: This is going to be a short answer because the answer is no one. When I’m scripting, it just comes from a place- that I call the universe- it comes in, and when I’m writing the script, I’m seeing the movie, I’m seeing it play out in my head. And when I finally get to the place where I’m able to film it, it’s about tapping into that memory, and trying to replicate what I already saw in my mind through the camera, the lighting, the timing at that moment.

Brian: You had a question asked to you at the Q&A after “Maya” about what you took from “Maya” into “Black Lake.” I want to go in the opposite direction, because you mentioned that you brought your post-production crew from “Black Lake” to work on “Maya.” So, what did you take from “Black Lake” and incorporate into telling the story of “Maya?”

K/XI: OK, so this is a great question. And the answer is, the energy. What “Maya,” I feel lacked the first time around, was…it had bad energy. There were certain things that happened on the set of the film, things that I experienced. The team that I had doing post at the time, it was more people who were doing favors and things like that- which I appreciated at the time. But when I worked with Laura Pavone (my colorist on “Black Lake”) and then Tatsujiro Oto (who did the sound mix, sound design, everything), they both came on board, treating the film like it was their own. And that’s all that I’ve ever wanted, for everyone involved in my movie, to feel like it was their movie, as well. That energy was just so beautiful to me, and I wanted to work with them again, and have that energy pour into “Maya.”

I like to call my work the cinema of feeling, the cinema of breath. Where people are allowed to take a breather from the violence that is often depicted, and focus on other horror elements.”

Brian: I think that was one of the most surprising things about “Maya” to me. I’ve now seen it twice, and watching it after “Black Lake,” but knowing it came before, you can tell that there’s a lack of polish to the filmmaking, to the camerawork. At the same time, though, it still very much feels like the same filmmaker who made “Black Lake.” Part of that is the story, part of it is the personal aspect of the story, which you’ve talked about. That’s one of the things I know I really gravitate towards, feeling like there’s a voice present in the film. Was it making your short films, or when you decide to go into features, that you realized, “This is the voice I want to have?”

K/XI: That’s a very interesting question. It’s interesting because, I often feel like I’m not necessarily the author of my work, but I wouldn’t say I make my work. It would be more accurate to say the work makes me. I’m basically the conduit through which things happen and manifest. Even the nominations that I got for “Maya” were just incredible because, honestly, I shot it on MiniDV tape. They’re 60 minutes tapes. It was a very cheap camera. I didn’t have a sound person, I was balancing the mic on a broom. It was so hot, the ceiling fans were going, and I knew it would disrupt the sound. There were times I would turn off the fan, but I would almost pass out from the heat, and it was like, “I just can’t do this.” And because it’s all shot in real life, it’s not in a studio, so I can’t really control things, but I think people like that lack of polish, and sense of rawness.

Brian: You and I talked about it with “Black Lake.” The fact that you’re dealing with these ideas of trauma- with female trauma, especially; both “Maya” and “Black Lake,” they’re different sorts of trauma, they both deal with women, and the after effects of tragedy. One of the things that makes your work so impactful and so surprising is that, it would be very easy for a filmmaker to lean into the violent aspects of what that trauma is, and you don’t. Because you’re dealing with a younger protagonist in “Maya,” it was no doubt an easier decision, especially since you’re seeing it from their perspective. Are there any films that you’ve seen that approach it that way vs. the more exploitative approach?

K/XI: On the top of my head, I honestly cannot think of any, and I think that’s possibly what I’m trying to do with my work. To offer some breathing space. I like to call my work the cinema of feeling, the cinema of breath. Where people are allowed to take a breather from the violence that is often depicted, and focus on other horror elements, like the food! We eat food every day. I just make it a little scarier. (Author’s Note: Maya’s eating habits, and what she eats, plays a role in the film.)

Brian: I will say, in watching “Maya” again, the way her makeup changes really stood out. We see her getting sicker, and then, when she’s in the presence of her sister, and eating again, she looks better. And then, when the truth is revealed, she starts to deteriorate again. The subtlety of the makeup is so good throughout the film, and it might take you a moment to notice the shift. What was the process like with the makeup?

K/XI: It was my first time doing something like that. We actually had a moment where, we were doing the scenes for Karachi, and we hired a driver, but he didn’t know we were making a movie. So when he saw the girl playing Maya, he came out, and offered to help her in the car because he really thought she was really sick, and we had to explain to him that this for a film. It was just really interesting for me, and one of the most exciting things, the prosthetics and everything, and all the challenges that came with the heat and the prosthetics. It was really incredible. It was nice to be able to do something different.

I’m a Jungian, and I’m very familiar with the works of Jung and Freud and the uncanny, and I just love to explore those things, and not just the beautiful side of life but those darker aspects, because I truly believe that life is about balance.

Brian: One of the things I’ve certainly gravitated towards when it comes to your films is the use of music. We’ve talked about how much I adore the score for “Black Lake.” What are some of your musical influences? What is some of the music that you really respond to?

K/XI: I have always loved film music. In terms of regular music, I just tend to listen to the same bands over and over again, so I’ll just listen to Massive Attack on repeat. I often find that, when I’m working on a film, first of all, I create a playlist of things that will help me get in the mood to script. And there will be certain kind of tracks for different kind of moods. For example, when I was scripting “Vessel” (her next film), I listened to the new “Candyman” soundtrack a lot. When I was working on “Black Lake,” I listened to the “Nocturnal Animals” soundtrack. There’s just this magical power to it. It’s not necessarily how much it influences my work because, the synth music for “Black Lake” was a really surprising kind of choice. If I had the money, I would have wanted music like “Nocturnal Animals,” which I think would have really elevated the visual side of it. It was interesting to choose the synth-based music for “Black Lake” because it attracted a different type of audience, and different types of people with its different elements.

Brian: This is another thing I noticed watching “Maya” again. The montage where the girls are walking through the market early on. The choice of music there- you could have used a conventional pop song, and it would have fit well, but it also would have hit a different note. The music in place now almost seems to telegraph what we’re about to see moving forward. What is your thought process when it comes to your musical choices in these films?

K/XI: What I do is, I spend a lot of time on platforms like Bandcamp. I type in some key words, and listen to hundreds of different tracks from different people, and I basically wait to physically respond to one, I get Goosebumps. I’ll get a feeling. I close my eyes, and think about the scene I want music for, and I listen to it, and it will just be there. So, the scene in the market, the original cut, the music was different, and I changed a lot of the music from the original cut, and there were other artists that I discovered between 2014 and now that I wanted in there.

The journey when the girls go to Karachi, in the original cut, I did have a pop song there. It was actually a very haunting pop song, it was a popular pop song from an artist who was the Pakistani equivalent of Britney Spears. But I couldn’t contact her because she had stopped making new tracks, and I couldn’t get in touch with her. So, I couldn’t get explicit permission for that. But, I’d recently been introduced to another singer, Azam Ali, and as soon as I heard her name, I thought, “Wait a minute, she did music for ‘300’ and ‘Thor 2,’” and I just emailed her. Her husband wrote back, and they were ecstatic, because when I heard the song I wanted I cried. I saw the visuals, I thought about it. When it played at the festival, I cried also, because I know what’s going to happen, and know how effective that track it. I was sold. And what’s the worst that anyone can say? No, and you just have to respect that.

Brian: You mentioned that this is officially part of a trilogy. You have the third part filmed (K: “Scripted. You’re in the future there.”). Can you tell us anything about it?

K/XI: I can indeed. First thing, yes, the three films are a loose trilogy, much like Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance trilogy, but with “Maya,” “Black Lake” and “Vessel,” the theme is the folklore of Pakistan. Whereas “Maya” was about Jinn possession, “Black Lake” was about Churail, “Vessel” is about the use of Black Magic, which is still something heavily used today. You can go and find someone and pay them and have them do Black Magic on someone else. It’s just that easy- just like going to get some milk.

Brian: Both “Black Lake” and “Maya” have had their world premieres at the Renegade Film Festival, although when “Black Lake” played it was the Women in Horror Film Festival. What was it about this festival that made you think, “This is the ideal place to start to present my work.”

K/XI: That’s a really interesting question. Vanessa (Festival Director Vanessa Wright) hasn’t asked me this yet, either. It’s really amazing because, honestly, when it was Women in Horror, it wasn’t on my list of film festivals to submit to. Not for any particular reason, but I just don’t like labels. I don’t like to be labelled one thing and not another thing. I just had a feeling, and it was like, “Submit to this.” When “Black Lake” was accepted, and then coming here. I actually went to New York before coming to Atlanta for the screening, and when I landed in New York, I just had this feeling like, “K, you’re about to go on a spiritual journey, and this is going to be such an important part of your life, and important time of your life.” Coming back again to what is now the Renegade Film Festival, it’s part of my spiritual journey, it feels like part of my spiritual growth. It’s so nice to be here, and connect with the people I met last time, to make new connections. It’s just so special.

Brian: That’s something I’ve definitely noticed about the festival, as well, and one of the things I appreciate about it so much, about the community Vanessa has created is the fact that you have filmmakers, fans, press, organizers and jurors, and everyone is just coming together, and sharing this communal appreciation of movies, and genre, in particular. One thing I appreciate about the festival is that it shows the wide breadth of what genre can do, and I know that’s one of the things I took away from that 2020 festival, and one of the reasons why I wanted to come back. I’m so grateful that I got the chance to meet you at that first one, and that I’ve been able to see your films. What I love about film festivals like this one is that, the likelihood of me seeing some of these films is very rare, outside of an experience like this. And I’m very grateful that I’ve had that opportunity.

I’ve shared my thoughts on “Maya,” and one of the things I responded to about “Black Lake” and “Maya” is the vision. The emotions they bring up in me. The ideas they present, and the ways they are presented. I likened it to the first time I saw “The Crow.”

K: You did.

Brian: That experience really reshaped so much about my thinking about film. I wouldn’t necessarily say that “Black Lake” was the same.

K: That would be really crazy.

Brian: But it gave me that same feeling, and I just want to say, thank you for creating films like “Black Lake,” like “Maya,” that have given me that type of feeling.

K/XI: Thank you, Brian. That really means a lot because, I’ve started to call myself, yes a filmmaker, but an artist whose also a healer. Not like a doctor, although I still want my PhD. I started my PhD before I did “Maya,” but I dropped it because it was one or the other for me, at the time. I could have been a doctor (Laughs)…a doctor of horror.

You know how emotional I got at the festival. With “Maya” being my debut feature in 2014, and I’m still here, I’m still rolling. Quite literally, with a camera. I just want my movies to be experiences for people, whether they like them, whether they don’t, whether they’re ready for them or not, whether they revisit them or shelve it and come back to my movies in 10 years. I just really hope there’s something in there to take away, and it helps to transform them and heal them when they’re ready. Some people were very triggered by “Black Lake” and they were like, “I hate it,” and it’s like, “It’s fine. It’s ok.” And it’s honestly just a gift. I want to present my work as a gift for people. And sometimes we don’t get gifts we really don’t like so we go, “Ebay. How much can we get for this?” So people can do whatever they like with it. It’s the experience. I’m just honored that people take the time to interact with it, whether it’s for a few seconds or if it’s the whole length. I really appreciate that, and I really appreciate you. So thank you.

Brian: You’re welcome. It’s one of those things where, if I see a filmmaker that I connect with, I will get practically evangelical about them. I will talk about them every time I get.

K/XI: It’s like me and the Pie Bar near the theatre, I’ve been promoting them. ::laughs:: Same here, when I love something or someone I just like to raise them up high.

Brian: But congratulations on the success “Black Lake.” You’re now a 2-time Lizzie award winner. It’s always great to talk to you, and it’s been great to see you again.

K/XI: Thank you, Brian, we’re going to talk more “Black Lake” at the end of the year.

Brian: I look forward to that discussion.

“Black Lake” is currently on Amazon UK. “Maya” is starting its festival run.

The Renegade Film Festival took place in Marietta, Georgia from Thursday, March 3-Saturday, March 5, 2022.

“Black Lake” Review: http://sonic-cinema.com/movie/black-lake/

“Maya” Review: http://sonic-cinema.com/movie/maya/

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