What started out as a five minute memorial video for his father has turned into multi-award winning film that has delighted cinema-goers the world over.
Canadian director Arshad Khan recently visited Australia for the Sydney premiere of his film “Abu” which is Urdu for “Father” at Queerscreen Film Festival. Arshad calls the film a “Canadian gay Pakistani love story documentary” which centres on the difficult relationship that Arshad experienced as a gay son with his devout Pakistani Muslim father.
The film that we see today was not what Arshad originally set out to make. “I was making a 5-minute memorial video for Abu [father] and I realised that my family is obscenely well documented and it is very unusual. We were one of the first families in Pakistan to get a VHS camera recorder in 1981 so there is all this amazing footage of me when I was little.”
Encouraged by the support he had received following a three minute teaser about the film that was shown as part of a competition at Montréal Film Festival, Arshad set about making this film with the support of Canada Council for the Arts and then later the National Film Board (NFB), Quebec Arts Council and SODEC. Through the generosity of multiple grants as well as his passion for the project, Arshad was able to fulfill his dream of telling to “the story that was sitting inside me that I needed to tell”.
By using family films and photos, Arshad traverses the years from his childhood in Pakistan through to his family’s emigration to Canada and onto his adult life as a flight attendant then filmmaker in Canada. The film is self-narrated and combines animation and unique sound design to make this story about an ordinary Canadian migrant family become extraordinary.
When asked what this film is about, Arshad said that is about so much more than his relationship with his father. “It is about so many things. It’s about the trials and tribulations of being a migrant, it’s about finding that elusive place called home, it’s about the fact that we come from all over the place to a place like Canada for whatever reasons and it’s about how we learn and grow so much because of the internationality we find in Canada which is such a learning lesson no matter where you’re from.”
While this film has had huge success in Canada and internationally, Arshad was anxious about how this film would be perceived by the general public. “I felt that I had exploited my family a little bit and my family was very much against it. They thought that it was sharing our dirty laundry and that it was a very bad idea.” Even up until the world premiere of Abu at the Los Angeles Film Festival, he says he felt apprehensive about how it would be received.
The response that Arshad has received, however, both professionally and personally, has been overwhelming; the film has won several awards received a theatrical release across Canada. Arshad said these awards pale in comparison to the personal response that so many people feel and share with him.
“People have given so much love for the film and I started getting bombarded on every platform imaginable,” he said.
“So many people are crying and after each screening, so many come up and hug me. They thank me and say that they feel the same way and that they have had the same struggles. So often they say that is ‘our’ story and I am talking not just about people who are South Asian or Muslim. I’m talking white, Asian, black and this has been so encouraging”
Accolades aside, Arshad said that the reception of this film by his family is priceless. His biggest critic has been his mother, who did not initially support the film as she was concerned about what people might think of their family. He said that she was “dead-set against it even though she gave me an interview”.
His mother’s views changed upon seeing the film with her son on the silver screen.
“I was watching it with Deepa Mehta [well-known Indo-Canadian filmmaker] who was laughing through the film on one side of me and my mother on the other side who way crying throughout. At the end, my mother said to me ‘I am proud of you’ and she said ‘it’s kind of funny’.”
We will never know what Arshad’s father thinks about this film as he passed away in 2011. However, Arshad said that his father always used to say that to him that “My sister Asma and I would either bring him great fame or great shame”. Whether it is has brought fame or shame, this film definitely bring a celebration.
“[This film is] a celebration of difference. It’s a celebration of family and it’s a celebration of what connects us more than what divides us.”