Caught in Between: Iram Haq's 'What Will People Say' is a harrowing personal account of a teenage immigrant's trauma

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Nisha lives with her family in Norway, where she was born. Her parents are Indian immigrants from Pakistan. When Nisha inevitably breaks her family’s rigid taboos, she is brutally abducted and sent to the “home country.” Reflecting writer-director Iram Haq’s personal story, What Will People Say unflinchingly lays bare the violence engendered by fear and isolation. Director Talk recently spoke with the filmmaker.

Director Talk: Much of this film is autobiographical. Can you talk about the process of turning your own life experience into a piece of art?

Iram Haq: This was a story I wanted to tell for many years, because I experienced this when I was fourteen. It’s not one-to-one my story—it’s fictionalized. I wanted to tell this story, but I didn’t know how to tell it. I knew that I needed to be braver than I was, and I knew that I wanted to tell it in my way. I used up many years to adjust it, and it took a long while before I started to write it. That was also a journey, because one of the earliest drafts was really black-and-white. It was an angry young woman who wrote this story. I had to keep working on it because I wanted to tell it also from the father’s point of view. I wanted to understand the father.

I was not very close to my family, but while I was writing this, my father became ill. He had ten months more to live. I went to visit him in the hospital, and he said he was sorry for everything he did.

DT: Unprovoked?

IH: I didn’t say anything. He just said, “I’m sorry for everything.” It changed my script. It changed me a lot. I got the chance to be very, very close to him and also learn who he was, why he did the things he did when I was young. We started a friendship, and I asked him questions about why he did these things to me.

He was so full of fear. He was an immigrant, he was not integrated into the society, because he came from Pakistan, he had to work and send money back home and take care of the family. He never had the chance to integrate, and that’s why he found my lifestyle very scary. I was rushing into a new world, into Western society, as a young girl. He comes from a very conservative family, so I think it was a big surprise for him—not surprise, but he was full of fear—and he handled the whole situation really badly.

I also had an ethical problem. How could I make this movie now, because we were becoming good friends. I asked him, “What do you think? I want to make this film.” And he said, “Yeah, I think it’s so important that you make this movie. I think it’s so important that you tell people how evil people can be when they are full of fear.” That really helped me get the courage to tell it and also to change the script so we have love for both characters [Nisha, Iram’s alter ego, and the father].

DT: I had a long discussion with a film school friend about the final shot. You’ve made two very successful features now; how do you arrive at your final shot?

IH: I wrote both features by myself. I know more or less where it’s going to end, but it’s also a process on the other side, because you don’t know exactly how it’s going to end. You have an idea where this film is going to stop. For me it’s important to have a good idea what the end will be like, but not to the point where you see the shot. I was not so aware of it before getting close to the end of shooting, and the editing process changes it a little too.

SPOILER ALERT

DT: For me, the final shot of this film radically changes its meaning, because it becomes the father’s film; this has enormous significance in terms of the possibility of personal and cultural change.

IH: He sees himself in the reflection. We already saw her little sister, who was watching her big sister leave, and the next one is going to be her. The father sees his daughter, their eyes meet, he sets her free, and he also sees himself in the reflection; it’s he who has to work on himself, it’s not the girl, and it also gives hope for the younger sister.

END OF SPOILER ALERT

DT: In some ways, growing up as the daughter of Pakistani immigrants in Norway gave you an outsider’s perspective. What did that allow you to see about both cultures that you were occupying—the Pakistani and the Norwegian?

IH: Dealing with it is always a delicate matter, because I’m telling one story, I’m not telling everybody’s story. The good thing is that I have the inside view from both cultures. For this problem, which is about social control—how we control our youth, especially girls with an immigrant background from a Pakistani family, for example—the Norwegians don’t know what’s going on in these kinds of families. In the film you see that the social workers don’t know how to handle it. They can see this is a problem, and they don’t know what to do. That’s something I can show because I know how the Norwegian social workers work. I also have the insight of the mentality and way of thinking of the Pakistanis, so I feel very lucky, kind of rich, because I have two cultures which I understand pretty well.

DT: There was that marvelous moment in the film when Nisha, the character representing you, says, “I’m here to explore my parents’ culture,” and her little cousin says, “Your culture.” To what extent did Pakistani culture become your culture after your year in Pakistan?

IH: That year really changed my life in so many ways. I grew up so quickly; it was like taking away my childhood. You have to be grown up because nobody is there for you. You have to learn this society, the language, how to read and write, to handle situations. Coming back to Norway, it was also very hard to find my place. To have two identities was very hard, because for many years I tried to not have anything to do with the Pakistani part of me. I’m Norwegian, I just have black hair; my parents are Pakistani, but I have nothing to do with it. But the older I get, the more aware of it I am, because sometimes it’s the Pakistani music or food I feel more connected to. I know now that I can choose from both cultures, but when I was younger I had to choose: either/or. I couldn’t have both. I was frozen out of the Pakistani community in Norway, so I had to think I was totally Norwegian, because there was no choice; I just had Norwegian to choose. But today, as a grownup woman, I can choose both as much as I want.

DT: Why were you frozen out of the Pakistani community?

IH: When I was a teenager I left my family, as in the movie. Everybody froze me out, so I had to just accept that and choose the other option, which was Norwegian. That was very hard when I was young and really hard to find my identity. Who am I? I look different. My behavior is different. I was really looking for something. I didn’t know what it was, but today things are more balanced.

DT: Did your year in Pakistan give you insight into what it means to be an immigrant?

IH:In a way, but for me it was more like looking at my parents than looking at myself in Pakistan. I really felt sorry for my father, for example, who was really not good at being part of Norwegian society. I could really see how much of a struggle it was for them to fit in a society where there was no one like them. Of course we had the Pakistani community, but we were not really a part of the bigger society, and that made the world very small for my family. I didn’t want to be a part of that. I wanted to be a part of normal Norwegian society. I was born there, I speak the language fluently, I have Norwegian friends. I didn’t want to keep myself just with them [the family], because they were afraid of the difference.

DT: From your firsthand experience, how possible do you think it is in the world today, where things are becoming more integrated in some ways but in some ways more fascist, to both assimilate and maintain your own community at the same time?

IH: I hope it’s possible to keep the culture you come from and integrate into the society you’re living in. I think there are people who can do that, but for my family it was very, very hard to be both, as I saw it. Maybe not for other people, but my family was different: They were not typical Pakistanis either, because they were Indian immigrants from Pakistan, with slightly different behavior from the Pakistanis. So we were also outcasts between them. But the problems I experienced were not unusual…this is a problem we have in Scandinavia and many Western countries, where Pakistani girls and girls from other countries get kidnapped or killed by their families. This doesn’t happen in the U.S., but this happens in Europe.

DT: The cliff scene was one of the most shocking and brutal I’ve ever seen. What was it like for your actors?

IH: I wrote that scene on Christmas Eve. The young girl who plays Nisha [Maria Mozhdah] played in some small TV serials when she was ten, but this was her first film. She was seventeen when we shot, and we worked very, very closely. She’s lovely. The actor who plays the father [Adil Hussain] is a famous Indian actor. My work was to give them not just the idea but all my emotions around those kinds of situations. But of course it was really hard for them to make that scene. There were several scenes that were hard to do—for example, when the father had to spit on Nisha’s face, and the police scene of course. It was really, really emotionally hard for him, really hard for her as well, but they were brilliant and we were all so close, so it went really well.

DT: You’ve been a writer, director and actor. Does working on certain films change you as a person?

IH:For me it was weird. It was like opening Pandora’s box to start to look at all the emotions and what happened to me, which I hadn’t been thinking about much all those years. Even though I knew I wanted to make this movie, I didn’t want to open up and look at what happened when I was young. I tried to give the script away. I wanted someone else to write it for me because it was so hard. I ended up writing it for myself because I didn’t find the right writer. At the beginning I just wanted to throw up, and then slowly the script started to change and got a fictionalized feeling. That helped, but scenes like when she’s with the father on the cliff, when he cried, I cried behind the monitor. It was emotional for me to see and understand her emotions and my father’s emotions and what I went through. Suddenly I could see my life from outside. It gave me some new ideas; of course it’s too early to say how I’ve changed, because we released the film last year, but definitely it made some changes in my life. Telling this story is also something like a closure, because there were so many years that I didn’t talk about it. Not because I didn’t want to talk about it—I just kind of forgot that I was kidnapped. Once in a while people are surprised, because they didn’t know anything about my background. Many people thought I was adopted. It was really interesting to dig deep into my own issues, why I had those issues, and how they’re linked to what happened at that time. Those things got more clear.

DT: One thing that struck me is how weak the men are.

IH: The men are weak, but the women are also socially controlling. The girls, the mother, the aunt, it’s a cultural problem too. They’re full of violence as well, so it’s not just the men. They all are part of it: It’s as if someone else is handling them like marionettes, making them do things. The brother understands Nisha in a way, but he is so into pleasing his father and mother that he doesn’t care about her.

DT: The most shocking was the cousin in Pakistan, who was asked if he wants to marry Nisha after the event with the police and he says, “I’ll do whatever you want.”

IH: You believe that these men are so macho, so strong, but it’s not necessarily like this. In my experience I have seen many Pakistani men being more weak than the women, who can be so strong.

DT: What do you want audiences to take away from this film?

IH: I really hope that people will not see it as a black-and-white story, that they’ll also see that everyone is in a jail here—the father, the brother, the mother, the little sister and Nisha. They all are into What Will People Say. They’re in a jail, all of them. I want people to see the struggle, what’s happening, and also I want audiences not to close their eyes if they know, if they have any idea about someone else experiencing this kind of problem. Try to care.

Released by Kino Lorber, What Will People Sayopens at the IFC Center in New York City on July 13 and in Los Angeles on August 3, with a national rollout to follow. Click here for the trailer. The author thanksSara Sampson and David Ninh, Kino Lorber, for arranging this interview, which is published here courtesy of Director Talk. Copyright © Director Talk 2018