Iram Haq on directing Norway's entry to Oscars 2019 What Will People Say, and working with cousin Riz Ahmed

Devansh Sharma

Dec 12, 2018 12:32:51 IST

Iram Haq, a Norwegian filmmaker of Pakistani descent, is in India to promote her Netflix film What Will People Say, which is also Norway's official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 91st Academy Awards.

Firstpost caught up with her for an exclusive interaction on her film that borrows heavily from her life instances, when she was abducted by her father (played by Adil Hussain) in Norway and sent to Pakistan. Excerpts below.

What Will People Say is a semi-autobiographical piece of work. How did you maintain any sense of objectivity?

I think it was rather easy to be technical about the story I was telling. A greater risk than losing the objectivity was losing my voice. I had to be aware that I can't get carried away by the technical aspects but also ensure that the film has soul. Because it's very easy to make a film that is technically good but lacks soul. As far as objectivity is concerned, the story is not just about me. The camera doesn't follow me all the time. It also tells my father's side of the story. That helped me to approach this film objectively, despite huge parts of it being from my own life.

A still from What Will People Say. Netflix

A still from What Will People Say. Netflix

Did you consciously choose not to make a completely autobiographical film because the issue of social control is universal?

It is indeed so many women's story. They get killed in or kidnapped from Western countries. I also wanted to include many more scenes that had incidents that didn't happen to me, but have happened to so many women all over the world. I wanted to get the larger picture of social control. Also, my decision to make the story not just my own allowed me to make the film more watchable. It was as important to get more perspectives s it was to get more eyeballs.

Does What Will People Say also address political control, along with social control? 

My film is based mainly in Europe. So we address more of the issue of cultural control. Since there is a large immigrant population there, the narrative deals with how the children are subjected to control by both their family and the community. Even when the narrative moves to Pakistan, the cultural control remains the primary issue throughout.

You have said you lived the life of a normal Norwegian girl till the chain of incidents (as depicted in the film) happened to you. Can you recall the first instance when you discovered the implications of your dual identity?

I am born and grew up in Norway. What was horrible was to be sent back to my parents' country, which is not mine. The language was also not mine. I understand it but it wasn't mine. To send a little girl away from her friends while she's growing up to an alien land, can be traumatic for anyone.

How did you learn to deal with the problem of 'What will people say'?

I believe in following your gut feeling, let the young people free and let them have their own voice, especially the women. I have a 22-year-old son. The only thing I can do is give him love. It is up to him how he chooses to live his life. After I broke free from my family and their culture, that's the way I've been living since. I left them when I was a teenager. For many years, I was guilty that I left my parents in trouble. You know, that's a very South Asian way of thinking. But I realised that I have only one life and also use my voice in the benefit of other young girls. Because when I was growing up, there was no one to look up to. Now, it's not just me but many women the girls of today can look up to. This will to live life on my own terms is no longer a work-in-progress for me. I'm much more aware about it than I was back then.

A still from What Will People Say. YouTube

A still from What Will People Say. YouTube

What have been the changes, both internal and external, since this incident happened to you till the time you finished shooting?

After making the movie, I feel more relieved. I told the story I wanted to tell since I was a teenager. Now, it's out there. I've dared to speak up because I hadn't been able to do that for years. Unfortunately, the issue that the film addresses is still happening every day. When I finally decided to make this movie, I though, 'Do I really need to make it? Is the issue still relevant'? But then, I didn't even have to do much research since so many women around still go through this issue all the time. I was also aware that I do not have to promote racism. There's so much racism today in the Western countries. So I had to ensure that I humanise this story and not make my father a monster.

Your father apologised to you for his actions. That helped you explore his point of view that you have also incorporated into the film. Has your maturity also lent a new dimension to the story?

I tried to write the story when I was a younger. But I felt like I was just a young angry girl ranting. But once I broke the ice with my father, had conversations with him, I realised what his fears were like. It was important to remember I loved my father, but he didn't do right. As a filmmaker, I had to adopt the voice of a critic, rather than that of a daughter or a victim.

India has an Assamese film as the official entry into the Oscars this time. However, the regional film is battling paucity of funds to campaign in the US ahead of the Academy Awards. Do you have any suggestions for us since both your films have been Norway's official Oscar entries?

It's a very different film industry here. Norwegian Film Institute has a jury that chooses the official entry. I've been twice to Los Angeles for screenings and media interactions. I don't have any suggestions because it's a producer's or a government's job to arrange the funds. I can just do my job and represent my film at the screenings across the US.

Your film stars a couple of Indian actors in Adil Hussain, Sheeba Chaddha and Rohit Saraf. It also has an Indian producer in Guneet Monga's Sikhya Entertainment. Why do you think the film is particularly relevant to India?

I believe the issues of India and Pakistan are quite similar, though the degree may vary. Also, we've shot large chunks of the film in India as we've projected it as Pakistan. I chose these actors because they're talented and great to work with. Guneet has been a great producer. Her connections here were so helpful. I came from Norway so I had no clue. She was introduced to me by my cousin Riz Ahmed.

Do you plan to collaborate with Riz Ahmed anytime soon?

Well, yes he's extremely talented. So why not? Hopefully, soon.

Updated Date: Dec 12, 2018 12:32:51 IST