Emotional journey


A THOUGHT-PROVOKING film showing at the ongoing BFI London Film Festival is Abu, the personal journey of a gay Pakistani man who is an immigrant in Canada and from a deeply conservative Muslim family.

The sensitive documentary sees filmmaker Arshad Khan take viewers through his emotional journey of grappling with a fragmented family, religion, sexuality, colonialism and migration. He uses home video footage, animation and clips of classic Bollywood movies to share personal and tragic moments, including the death of his father. I caught up with Arshad to find out more.

What was the primary reason you wanted to make Abu?

I wanted to make a film that showed who we Pakistanis are. I was tired of the uni-dimensional representations in the media. I wanted to create something that would help people better understand us and help our community remember who we are too.

Tell us about the film.

Abu started off as a film about my father and his journey from India to Pakistan after the 1947 partition, and then from Pakistan to Canada. It was much later that I realised the story had to include me or else it was incomplete. I decided to examine what my father meant to me and examine our tumultuous relationship. It took a long time to write the film because not only did I have to write an entire screenplay, I also had to make sure I had matching audio-visual materials to go with it.

What was the most difficult aspect of making the film?

The most difficult part was trying to work with archival and found footage. My family is very well documented and I wanted to use all these beautiful images to make an authentic film. The trouble is, most of the memories captured are happy memories. Our sorrows are not documented. Editing the film was extremely hard because for a long time my editor and I did not know where we were going with it. It took years of struggle to come up with a cohesive storyline.

Were you scared of putting so much of your personal life on the big screen?

Making a film about your own life may seem like the easiest thing to do, I mean, you know yourself best right? Not so. When I had to think about sharing our family archives that are collective family memories, when I thought of exposing and outing myself to the whole world, and putting my life out there for scrutiny it was very difficult. And I still get nightmares about how people will react to my film.

How did making Abu help you?

In many ways it was cathartic. I could not understand why my father’s death affected me so deeply. I hated him most of my life. And then when he was gone, I had this terrible sense of loss. I slowly got over that loss while making this film. It made it easier to cope and also I felt that I had made a sort of a gift to my dad and his struggle.

Your father passed away in 2011…

In 2011 I was making a video for his memorial service in Mississauga, Canada when I realised I had such a huge archive of material I could use to tell a story.

What did you find most difficult, being an immigrant or being gay in a deeply conservative family?

My family was not conservative when we lived in Pakistan. That happened once we migrated to Canada. I found my parents recoiling into themselves and their own “community” most difficult.

What was it like when you finally came out?

At first I was relieved, but then I wanted to stay away from my family and community due to fear of judgement. No one wants to be judged and excluded. I am a very social person and very close to my family. It is a constant struggle back and forth, but things are getting better.

When did you feel at peace?

Are we ever at peace? I feel life is a constant struggle. If its not one thing, it’s another. Being a filmmaker is a tough life, you are only as good as your last project. I am never at peace.

What advice would you give those conservative families with gay family members?

I would tell them to please let their LGBTQI children shine. They have much bigger issues to take care of in this world of rampant war, terror, climate change and ever diminishing resources. Once your children don’t have to worry about these very basic rights, they can take on the world and achieve greatness.

How do you feel about the movie screening at BFI London Film Festival?

I am truly honoured and deeply moved that they selected our film. It is a real acknowledgement of my team’s hard work and years of dedication, blood, sweat and tears. This acknowledgement means the world to me.

What does the future hold for you?

I am working on a fiction feature. I hope people will enjoy Abu and entrust me with moving on to a bigger project next. I need all the support I can get. It’s an exciting film coming up.

How did your family ultimately feel about the film?

Those who have seen the film absolutely love it. Others who are more conservative boycotted the film, my mother included. I was very upset at first, but that’s the problem with conservatives, you see. They don’t want to even be exposed to ideas that might open their minds and hearts up. They are their own worst enemy