Umar Ali interviews director Arshad Khan about his new feature documentary ABU which screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017
ABU is an emotional family journey that grapples with religion, sexuality, colonialism and migration. Through a tapestry of narratives composed of family footage, observation and classic Bollywood films, gay-identifying Pakistani-Muslim filmmaker Arshad Khan takes viewers through the tense relationships between family and fate, conservatism and liberalism and modernity and familiarity.
I caught up with Arshad between worldwide screenings of ABU to discuss his documentary.
One thing I found very interesting about this documentary was your process – you use a lot of archival footage, and a lot of home videos. What was it like re-interpreting them for the purpose of this documentary?
I was trying to do a feature fiction project, then my father died. I made a five-minute video for his memorial, and I realised I had a huge wealth of archival footage. And I was inspired by films like Meet the Patels, Stories We Tell, Tarnation, and I thought, “They’re not using the best footage, but telling very effective stories. Let’s see if I can do that with my footage.”
You use a lot of different layered forms of media. Was it difficult stitching all these into a single narrative?
Very difficult! But what really helped the film feel so full are not the images necessarily – it’s the soundtrack. Sound design is very powerful in the film. That’s why I try to encourage film festivals to show the 5:1 Dolby sound, because my sound designer, Sylvain Bellemare, actually won an Oscar this year. Where we lack in image quality, we make up for in sound.
So here I had all this footage, and I just met this really wonderful animation artist who was such a sweetheart, Davide de Saro. And I asked him if he would collaborate with me – because I’m making a film mourning someone who’s already passed away, so how do you do that? At first it was very cartoonish, kinda Beavis and Butthead, but we worked on it, and again, the strong sound design really helped it stand out.
As your long feature directorial debut, this is quite an interesting film to start things off with.
Making a film about your own life is much more complicated than you would think. Firstly, I am using our shared family archives. And I was also very nervous about it – a lot of people didn’t help me in my family. My uncle refused to participate once he found out that it’s a film dealing with my gay identity and my father. My uncle’s a very important person in our family – he’s the oldest. So I had to make this film without him, which was not easy. But I’m a storyteller, a filmmaker, and what you learn in film school is that you tell stories with whatever you have. And that’s what I did.
I knew the subject matter really well, which was a good thing, and I could get really indulgent too, but my collaborating partners prevented me from going there and feeling too sorry for myself.
You interviewed your sister, as well as your mother who appears to be quite a religious person. How did they feel about it?
They did it because they thought I was making a film glorifying my dad [laughs]. But when it got to the more serious questions, my mother was quite concerned, and you can see it in her body language, she is a conflicted person. But I wanted her perspective, because you cannot make a documentary without showing the other side. My mother saw this film! And she actually liked it, because she felt she had been represented in a dignified and balanced manner. And that means a lot to me.
Going onto the LGBT discussion, there’s a clear difference between the western idea of a nuclear family and the ‘khandan’, the extended unit that everyone’s always a part of. How do you think that made your experience as a gay person different from more western perceptions of LGBT identities?
I went and explored where homophobia in our culture came from, and it can be directly attributed to western colonisation of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. This whole “macho” attitude, this toxic masculinity, is also a gift from the coloniser. And it makes me very angry, actually. Often I talk to people and I used to have patience with them, but now, if they cannot connect the dots between their persecution after 9/11 and the persecution of LGBT people and other minorities, then they’re really fucking stupid and it’s time to call them out.
I didn’t make a hateful film. I was trying to, but I didn’t because I have very strong collaborative partners. I made a loving film, you know? But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have a rose in one hand and a stick in the other. I’m still like “get your fucking act together”, because we are suffering. And it’s time to break the silence. Someone has to do it, and it might as well be me.
Yeah, it’s very frustrating, because you’ll talk to people about things like Islamophobia, but in the same breath they’ll say terrible things about gay people and trans people.
Yeah, it’s very annoying. And it’s been years. And now look at what’s happening in Egypt. Like, really? It’s so upsetting, and the West is silent and complicit, you know, it’s disgusting. Floggings in Indonesia, killings and concentration camps in Chechnya. When’s it gonna stop?
What can people do in their everyday lives to break down these colonial barriers and unlearn these prejudices?
The simplest thing they can do is come see my film and bring other people to it. Bring their white allies, parents and people who are sceptical about it. I made this film to help people like me, so other young people don’t suffer, so we can accomplish greatness.
Look at where the earth is going – it’s 25 degrees here in bloody October, seriously? Even in Montreal, in Toronto, it’s really warm. Something is not right with our planet. There are fires raging, floods, hurricanes, and you’re worried about who we’re fucking? Come on!
What advice would you have for the LGBT youth of today, who are going through similar struggles to you, albeit in a different political climate?
On the one hand, I think it’s really nice that these kinds of things are being talked about. When I was young, there was no internet, no Google, no Wi-Fi, no way to connect with different communities. Now we have that, it’s pretty amazing. But on the other hand it’s also quite alienating – everything is instant, so no one can actually get to know you, before they already have all the information about you and reject you very quickly. Overall, I feel like the world is a more aware place, because of the fast travel of information.
You can’t pretend to ignore it any more.
No, you can’t pretend to ignore it anymore, and the parents of young people are more exposed to it now than, for example, my parents were. So that’s nice.
I was talking to these teenagers in a classroom, mostly white kids and straight kids, and they loved the film. And I was telling them that being young is hard. Being a teenager is shit. You’re not considered a full person – you’re not cute enough to be a baby and you’re not old enough to be an adult. Everyone has it hard, it doesn’t matter who you are. Try and hang out with people who make it less hard for you.
That’s very good advice.
Images via Arshad Khan
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