A funny thing happened on the way to making a fiction film. Montreal-based filmmaker Arshad Khan was busy delving into the screenwriting process, concocting a universe full of magical, surreal flights of fancy.
“I was trying to write a fiction feature about a Pakistani immigrant girl with magical powers living in Mississauga and my personal life story kept interfering with the writing,” Khan recalls. “I realised there is a story that needs to be told and it’s sitting in my gut. It can be found somewhere in the enormous family archives that are spread across my family’s living room cabinets from Lahore to Oakville, dying a slow death like the Great Barrier Reef. As I awaited development funds for my fiction work, I decided to dabble into making a film about our migration story, keeping my recently deceased father in mind as the central character.”
If that sounds like a complex documentary, it gets even more so. Abu (the title is the Pakistani word for father) recounts the often painful story of Khan’s own childhood, memories that begin as joyful and gentle, in the family’s native Pakistan, where the children thrived and celebrated in a beautiful home with a lovely garden. Even as a young child, Khan remembers being something of a gender outlaw, relating to the girls more than the boys, cross-dressing and acting out in a way that left some family members unnerved. Due to economic circumstances, the family moved to Canada just as Khan was hitting puberty, and he experienced severe alienation in his Mississauga high school due to both racism and homophobia. He tried heterosexuality, he explains, but failed at it, and finally realised he was gay.
But this didn’t go down so well with his parents, especially as his once secular-leaning father became more and more preoccupied with living his life as a devout Muslim. Arshad Khan’s own evolution and that of his father led to inevitable conflicts. With the film, Khan takes deeply personal first-person filmmaking to new levels. Abu spans two continents and depicts Khan’s inner emotional world while reflecting his family’s struggle to reconcile with modernity. It is powerful and at times emotionally challenging to watch. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I should acknowledge that Khan was a student of mine in a film aesthetics class I taught at Concordia a decade ago.)
Khan knew he had a film to make about his complicated family history. A eureka moment happened in 2010 after his father died, when he was poring over family archives to prepare for the memorial service. “I was working on a five-minute montage about his life for the service and I stumbled across all these beautiful photos and videos. I had grown up seeing them all my life, but after film school I had developed a new eye for such images and learned to appreciate what could be done with them.”
Khan, who has made a number of short films, concedes the filmmaking process was tough. “This film has been the greatest challenge of my life and I am exhausted by it. I first cut a three-minute trailer for the Cuban Hat Pitch [at the Montreal documentary festival RIDM] and immediately got cold feet. I did not share it on Facebook or social media because I was so afraid of how my family would react to it. And you only win the competition depending on how many people vote for it. By the time I realised that they loved the video, it was too late. But slowly, as more people gave me positive feedback, I felt more encouraged to continue with the project. When I started my Indiegogo campaign, I started getting letters from young men and women telling me how moved they were by the teaser, how they are struggling to come out to their family, how important they thought this film would be to them personally. I met one of the women who wrote to me and I was moved to tears by her own story of perseverance and courage—and really humbled by her praise.”
As is often the case with first-person documentaries or memoirs, Abu meant exploring every aspect of Khan’s childhood, however uncomfortable those might be. Khan recalled being sexually abused at a very young age by a friend of the family. “Most of my family members did not know that I would be addressing childhood sexual abuse when I was making this film. They thought I was making a film glorifying my father. I didn’t know that I was going to go there myself even though in the interviews I ask my subjects about childhood sexual trauma. That decision happened a lot more recently. I thought I could get away with telling an objective and more impersonal tale about migration and sexuality and its challenges without having to delve into such dark issues. It wasn’t working. I had to be honest and make sense of my anger.”
Khan’s voiceover and interviews with family members are interspersed with lots of home video footage (his father was careful to capture his children and grandchildren with obvious affection) as well as bits of Asian pop culture (over-the-top family melodramas). “I thought of Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation and Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell. Both are extremely personal films by directors detailing events in their own lives that were transformative and impactful. Both dealt with unravelling family secrets and used home video. It was Meet the Patels by Ravi and Geeta Patel that made me comfortable with the use of animation and bad-quality video to tell the story.”
But aside from style, Khan wanted his film to be honest in its substance. “I learned to tell a story that was authentic and not contrived in any way. I learned to be brutally honest with my storytelling no matter what and I feel that’s the most important lesson. And I also learned a lot about the way a camera captures the personalities of people when they are not self-conscious or aware of being filmed. I learned that the captured image gives us so many clues into people if we are really looking. I learned that I have a lot of perseverance and stamina and that I will work to finish what I started. I know it sounds like a cliché, but I learned to trust my own instincts and my own decisions.”
But Khan says his own instincts and decisions led to a film that was lengthy and perhaps a bit unwieldy. So he had to take time to ponder what might fall away from a final cut. “The first cut of the film was three hours long and extremely self-indulgent. I was adding things that seemed intriguing on paper but really did not convey what I was trying to say once they were in the movie. Additionally, I learned that there are some family members that do not need to be in the film in order for it to make sense and convey an effective and authentic story. It was very difficult to cut things out, but in the end those cuts strengthened the film.”
And Khan says considerations of privacy did mean he had to think carefully about what could and could not be included. “One has to hold back and balance the information and the way it is presented. This is a very intimate film and I have to do justice to my family archives and the legacy of my parents. I sometimes had to walk a fine line. However, I do not compromise the integrity of the film or the characters and the subject matter.”
Abu features a number of signature sequences, but one that is particularly painful for me is an interview with Khan’s mother. If gay men know one childhood trope very well, it is that—not always, but most of the time—young gay men know an initial alienation and/or rejection from their father but unwavering supporting from mom. Not so with one talking-head moment Khan has with his mother, in which she condemns being gay.
“The condemnation of being gay itself was not as painful as the realisation that there is a great deal of disrespect that my mother has for me due to the fact that she feels a great deal of shame for her and the family due to my decision to be out. Making this film has been a cathartic experience, though. Often it’s been like repeated scratching of a scab—bleeding all over again each time I sit to edit.” Which prompts the question: has he shown a cut of Abu to family members? “I have shown it to some of my nieces and nephews and their response has been overwhelmingly positive. My younger brother watched the film and confirmed that I have depicted the truth. I have nightmares about sharing it with my mother though. I am losing sleep over the idea.”
Documentaries almost always involve questions of exploitation and thorny issues of consent. In Abu’s case, I kept wondering how the film’s central figure, the late father figure, would take to being in a film that deals so openly with issues of homosexuality and its acceptance. “At one point in the writing and editing of the film I pondered that question extensively, about how Abu would feel about me making a film about him. This film is a sort of posthumous collaboration in that I am using a lot of the videos he shot and photos he took to tell the story. In the end, I came to the conclusion and truly feel he would have been proud of this film. I think he would have liked the fact that I am brutally honest and that I am not compromising anyone’s integrity or making a sensationalist film. I think he would have definitely consented to being in the film. He loved attention.”
For all of the film’s incredibly dark content, including racism, homophobia, social alienation and family rejection, Khan hopes Abu will be interpreted with hope and optimism. “On a personal level I hope this film will help my family understand me better and other gay children who show this film to their families, it will touch them and they will finally embrace their children instead of alienating them. In terms of my own work, it’s been validating in that I’ve managed to put together a good story that is authentic and engaging while being entertaining and artful. It gives me a bit of hope in a future as a filmmaker. I am always so insecure about having left a well-paying corporate job in order to pursue this career as a forever-broke artist. So in that sense, I feel better.
“I haven’t yet had a public screening of the film but I have screened a rough cut with friends. Their response surprised me. Some cried from beginning to end. They were of different backgrounds but could all relate to the film in one way or another. One of my friends is from China and had no idea what Pakistan is like. She was incredibly moved by the similarities between her patriarchal authoritarian father and mine. She could totally relate to the film. She laughed and she cried. So that response meant a great deal to me.
“My hope is that this language of self-expression, this mosaic of a film, this tale of life in between glitches, will resonate with a wide cross-section of audiences.”