Arshad Khan on his documentary Abu, exploring the Pakistani identity and social dichotomies
Arshad Khan on making Abu, the documentary about his relationship with his father, through which he also came to terms with his sexual orientation
Editor’s note: Ever since Arshad Khan’s Abu arrived at the festival circuit, it has become a force. It is a thoughtful, at times heartbreakingly personal account of Khan’s own life, his coming-to-terms with his orientation, and his relationship with his father.
The film is an essay on the state of immigrants, the very fabric of the Pakistani identity and the little space afforded to the LGBTQ community by it. In a conversation with Firstpost, Khan talks about the film and opens up about the motivations behind it, his struggles with the editing process and why he chose to make his first film about himself.
You have studied film and worked on a number of short projects. At what point did you decide that your first feature was going to be your own story, and why?
In order to answer this question I have to tell you why I became a filmmaker. I became a filmmaker when after 9/11, the 'war of terror' started. This was the legitimisation of a war on brown bodies, and I for one was not okay with it. I was angry with this association of my identity with terror. I wanted to make a film about a Pakistani girl with magical powers, kicking a** in suburban Canada, when my father fell very ill and died. His death left a huge hole in my life. I needed to examine why. This examination led to a film about my father, which eventually ended up becoming a film about me, too.
Unlike writers, filmmakers don’t usually begin with films about themselves. Why then did you make the choice?
I did indeed start with myself and my family, which is what I know best. I always told my students, "No navel-gazing," and then I ended up making the ultimate navel-gazing film. In all seriousness, though, Abu is a deep examination of personal life, family and community.
Our families are usually shaped by the socio-political realm they occupy. How does Pakistan view the people on the margins? Does it have a heart, but cannot speak? Or does it simply still not understand?
I am one of those people who live with a hyphenated identity: Pakistani-Canadian. My father Abu used to say that "You are more Canadian than Canadians." Actually, this is how I was in Pakistan too. If open-mindedness and liberal thinking are what make me Canadian, then I learned all this back in Pakistan. Years of right-wing rule have decimated civil society in Pakistan. Now we celebrate hate instead of celebrating love. All of a sudden, the responsibility of the entire Islamic world seems to be on the shoulders of the Pakistanis, and they are letting all hell break loose in order to accomplish this in their own way. I think the problem is you cannot make a country based on religious exclusion, whether it is Pakistan or Israel. These are the pains these nations are suffering from. In the 21st century, there is no space for bigotry and exclusion. Therefore, everyone suffers.
The film is based on raw footage that was not only captured miraculously, but also survived — how? Were you buried under nostalgia when you looked back at these clips? What was the editing process like?
It is a miracle that this film got made.
Editing it was hellish because of the many hours of VHS, Hi8, miniDV, Flipcam, iPhone footage and still photographs we had, dating as far back as the 30s. My father was an orphan and I think his love of photography existed in part because he wanted to capture moments of joy and beauty that he had missed as a child. He once told me that he barely remembered his mother's face. How sad is that? It was difficult looking at some of the footage, especially the parts in the hospital when my father was very ill.
A documentary film is really made by an editor, and mine is a genius named Etienne Gagnon. I thank him every day for his incredible dedication and love for me, the film and my family by extension. Where images may have been compromised, Oscar winner Sylvain Bellemare's sound design took over. We used Davide DiSaro's incredible animation where we were missing images for the story. And the beautiful music by Michael Robert Snow weaved the whole film together very effectively.
Your family was first displaced by Partition. How did your father remember it or talk about it? The second migration happened with you moving to Canada. What, according to you, were the differences and similarities between the two? Does a sense of home exist, in the midst of these journeys?
As I have said in my trailer, migration is the hardest thing in the world. No one wants to leave the comfort of home and family. For many people living in these uncertain times, economic upheavals often result in migration.
So it is often not by choice but by necessity. And I have yet to meet a person who felt the Partition was a good thing. It is the cutting up of a living being. Unimaginable horrors were experienced by people on both sides of the border. My father refused to talk about all the mayhem and murder and rape and disease, but it was his brother, my uncle, who told me about it. And it is all very well documented. The world is one; animals don't follow these borders. They are imaginary.
It is only humans that are stuck with borders and limited imaginations. Why is it that Canada and the USA or European nations get to experience each other’s cultures freely and we in India, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan cannot even cross the border to pay a visit to our neighbours? It is absurd and it perpetuates misunderstanding and animosity, which is what division and militarism thrives on. Shame on borders! They are a sham and a curse on humanity. Home is where you are embraced; it is not a specific location.
After its initial premieres (including Dharamsala in India), what has the journey of the film been like? What has been the response of the Pakistani community to the film (in Pakistan or Canada)? Does acceptance in larger communities come any easier than within conservative families?
The journey of the film has been thrilling. Many people see "gay" or "Muslim" and do not come to see the film. Those who get past that and actually come to see it, absolutely love it. I am speaking their truths. I am saying things they have felt but have never seen articulated in a film. I have given up trying to fit in now. During research for Abu, I came across a journal (diary) I used to keep when I was in my early teens. Upon revisiting it, I realised that the same people who I loved and appreciated then, I appreciate now. And the same people that made my life hell, continued to do so. People do not change. As LGBTQI individuals often realise, we need to build a new family with our friends and those who support us, and that family is not always the group we are born into. My family is very supportive and loving, but it took a long time and a lot of negotiation to get to that better place. And on that journey, I got myself a chosen family.
Is Abu just a coming-out story, or does it mean more to you?
Abu is a love story. It is a story about the dichotomy that exists in our world between East and West, India and Pakistan, father and son, truth and lies, liberal and conservative, gay and straight. It is about the universality of our experiences beyond caste, creed, race, gender and sexuality. So it really is a film about love, and one feels fulfilled after watching it. Or so I am told time and again by the audience.
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