Interview: Filmmaker explores religion, homosexuality, migration and his intensely complicated relationship with his father in ‘Abu’

By FATIMA PATEL

Canadian filmmaker is delighted that his documentary ABU (Father) has been screened at the Toronto Film Festival and at this year’s BFI London Film Festival to a crowded audience.  The documentary was ‘loved’ and received an ‘unprecedented’ welcome at the Toronto film Festival has now also left it’s mark with UK audiences too. The documentary shares his intensely personal journey of being gay, an unwelcome immigrant and a Pakistani Muslim, with the rest of the world.

ABU explores the emotional journey of a fragmented family who are grappling with religion, sexuality, colonialism and migration. Through a tapestry of narratives composed of family footage, observation and classic Bollywood films, gay-identifying Pakistani-Muslim filmmaker Arshad Khan takes viewers through the tense relationships between family and fate, conservatism and liberalism and modernity and familiarity.

The documentary is brought to life with home video footage, animation and clips of classic Bollywood movies and came about as a result of Khan making a video for his father’s memorial when he realised exactly how much footage they as a family had created over the years.

In an exclusive with Asian Style, our interview with Khan begins by expanding on the question as to why he chose to make this documentary.

Fatima: What was the turning point for you to make this documentary?

Arshad Khan: In 2011 my father got very sick and he died. I was making a video for his memorial and for a five-minute video I realised I had a huge wealth of information and a lot of video archives and like an obscene amount of video archives and photos, that I could possibly use to make a much bigger story. So, I thought you know what, while I am waiting to work on my fiction projects I could work on possibly a documentary about my relationship with my father. My very difficult relationship with my father, because I like hated my father for so long. But when he passed away I was extremely affected by it and I just didn’t understand why this reaction happened. It was such a strong reaction for me, so I wanted to examine that. So, I made a three-minute teaser for a festival that invited me for a talent lab and they gave me a lot of great feedback.

I then did a crowd funding campaign and I got a lot of support for this project and then led me on the journey to make this film.

My objective was to make a film, that was really really moving, really sincere and that captures the essence of who we are as people. It took me a long time to figure out what I was making, it took me nearly 5 years.

Is it true Indian filmmaker Deepa Mehta has mentored you for your documentary?  

Well what happened was that after I made the film, the narration is the backbone of the film, so when Deepa watched it she was like oh my God take your Directors hat off and put your actors hat on and come meet me in Toronto and I went there and she directed the narration for my film and made a huge difference. Because she is an actors Director and narration is such an important part of my film, so that’s how she helped me, she helped me with the narration and gave me a lot of love and support for the project.

I brought on board a really amazing sound designer, who worked on the project for next to nothing and he ended up winning an Oscar this year for his film Arrival – Sylvain Bellemare and I had a great Editor Etienne Gagnon and so I had really good collaborative partners working on the project because film is a really collaborative art.

How does it make it feel that you had some really established names and creative talent supporting you on your first project and for a project that’s so personal to you, for it all to come together like this?

You know I have been through such a gamut of emotions with this project. I was very very scared at first and then I was very questioning of everything. Am I doing the right thing? Am I doing justice to my family, because I am using shared memories, this is a shared heritage. So am I doing justice to my families shared heritage? How are they going to react? I was very very scared, like I had a lot of fear making this project.

I wasn’t making a sensationalist film, I wasn’t making a manipulative film, I was making a sincere film. So finally, we got through that point. You know, I wrote rewrote, wrote rewrote and re-edited many times, until I got to a place where I felt like OK yeah, this is a good place for where I want the film to be.

You mentioned you were really worried and scared about how your family would react.

Absolutely

How have they reacted?

So, in the beginning my mother refused to see the film, when we had the Canadian premiere in July. She didn’t even go in, so I got very very upset with her and my solicitors kinda talked to her. My family is a very divided family. Half of them are very conservative and half of them are very liberal. There is like no in between. So, my sisters had a chat with my mum and eventually my mum came to the screening yesterday (11 October) in Toronto and that was extremely successful. We had a fantastic reception in Toronto, they loved it. You know my mum really liked it and I didn’t really get a chance to really talk to her about it, because it just happened yesterday and of course I jumped on the plane and came to London, like literally right away. So, her reaction was a positive reaction, it wasn’t negative.

It must’ve been doubly special for you firstly the audience reaction last night and then your mum’s reaction…

Oh my God the audience’s reaction I have to tell you – unprecedented! We never imagined that the film would be so appealing to young people first of all. They loved the film and the elderly loved the film. It’s like incredible how they are really getting the film and I never thought that was my demographic. So that was really wonderful to see that the film we have made is having a really universal appeal in a way.

What do you hope to achieve from telling your story? Do you hope you can help other families who are may be going through similar issues, similar emotions by telling your family story?

Look I became a filmmaker because I was sick after 9/11. I was sick of the association of Muslim with terror. This identity this false and completely racist and prejudice label of terror. I was really angry about it and that’s why I became a film maker and with this film. I wanted to show the world that we have our issues we maybe messed up or whatever, but we are not terrorists. We are coming from somewhere and we deserve dignity, that was my whole reason of making the film. That’s for the western audience. For the desi audience – the South Asians and so on – I want to remind them of who we are. I don’t want this to become a self-fulfilling prophecy for these westerners. I want us to remember that we are poets, lovers, musicians, lovers of life, appreciators of art and creators of art. And because I felt there was a lack of representation and no voice for us that’s why I made this film and it’s really doing its job. It’s literally touching people beyond culture religion and race.

So, I really feel my objective has been met.

There is a line in the documentary where you narrate your parents saying that ‘you can either bring great fame or great shame to the family’. If your father was a live today and he saw the documentary which part of that saying do you think he would relate with the film?

What do you think my father would say? That’s a really good question, excellent question.

The fact of the matter is, I did not make a sensationalist film! Nowhere in the film do I say Muslims are bad Pakistani’s are bad, South Asians are bad and these people are horrible feel sorry for me. Right? I said that this is the condition and situations that exist. There are conservative people and there are liberal people, but everyone is trying to live and survive and everyone deserves dignity and respect. So that’s why I had very conservative people come to my screening and still they were just broken. They loved it. Everyone can relate to it and so that question came up in the screening and I said my father loved his children and really loved their success and so he would be very happy that the film is getting some recognition. The second thing that I said was that he loved attention (laughs) so he would love that even more that I made a film in his honour. My mother really liked it, she laughed and cried and went through all the emotions that the audience went through, so I think I have been successful in that sense. So, it’s OK you know!

Within the Asian community there tends to be this culture or taboos rather, of izzat and family honour…

Yeah, exactly and log kiya kahenge (what will people say). It was so hard for me, I tell you. I was so fearful of that, but as you can see from the film it’s very difficult because people will agree with my mother and be like, she is totally right, but they will still see what I am going through, right! They will be able to see both sides.

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