What Will People Say/Iram Haq

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. Availability: Opens New York City, July 13, IFC Center, L.A. August 3 with national rollout to follow. Click here for the trailer. Thanks to Sara Sampson and David Ninh, Kino Lorber, for arranging this interview.

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

IH: 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.

Adil Hussain as the father.

Adil Hussain as 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?

Maria Mozhdah as Nisha, writer/director Iram Haq's filmic counterpart.

Maria Mozhdah as Nisha, writer/director Iram Haq’s filmic counterpart.

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?

Nisha with her cousins in Pakistan. copyright_Mer_Film

Nisha with her cousins in Pakistan.
copyright_Mer_Film

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 grown-up 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.  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?

Nisha's year in Pakistan.

Nisha’s year in Pakistan.

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 happens in the US, 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?

The cliff scene.

The cliff scene.

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.

Nisha and her cousin.

Nisha and her cousin.

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.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2018

School Life/Neasa Ni Chianain and David Rane

A miracle occurs every day in northwest Ireland. For forty-nine years, the staff at the Headfort boarding school, chief among them John and Amanda Leyden, nurture the young students entrusted to their care to be the best they can possibly be: the most discerning learners, the kindest friends, the most caring citizens. Documentarians Neasa Ni Chianain and David Rane capture a year in the beautiful life of the Headfort boarding school. Availability: Opens September 8, IFC Center, New York City, with national rollout to follow. A Magnolia Pictures release. Thanks to Susan Norget, Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: How did you discover this amazing place and these amazing people?

Amanda Leyden and Kevin, center, in a scene from SCHOOL LIFE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Amanda Leyden and students in a scene from SCHOOL LIFE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

NNC: It started with a hunt for a school for our children. We were living in the northwest of Ireland in a very rural community. We realized we needed something more diverse education-wise for our kids, so we started looking for schools. There’s not a huge choice in Ireland, but we realized we were going to have to move, and we found Headfort’s website. It was the parents’ comments that attracted us first, talking about the happiness of the child being at the core of the education, and we thought that was a really good starting point. We went there, we met them, we really loved the school, we decided to send our children there as day pupils, so we moved out as a family.

Then we realized this was a really special place. David and I have a history of boarding schools. I went to boarding school, David went to boarding school, I had a great experience and David had a traumatic experience, so we were really curious to see what a twenty-first-century boarding school looked like. Luckily the headmaster knew some of our previous work, so he was open to the idea, and that was it.

We discovered the Leydens, the teachers who are the main subjects of the film, a year into working on the film; we spent a year researching and getting to know all the people in the school, the other teachers, the staff, and the parents, and then we spoke to a lot of alumni. We asked them what their experience at Headfort was, and it was John and Amanda’s names that kept coming up. But at this point, John and Amanda Leyden didn’t like the idea of a film being made about the school. I didn’t understand why, and they were very hesitant, so it took about a year to get them on board.

DT: How did you finally do that?

NNC: I think over time they realized we were really serious about making a film, and they got to know us, and they got to know our kids slowly, and I think they kind of liked us. One day at the end of the summer term they invited us to their house for tea. And that was it. About a week later they came back to us and said, “OK, you’re going to do this? We’re in.”

 

DT: Who founded the school, and what was the philosophy when it was founded?

At a concert by the school band, a scene from SCHOOL LIFE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

At a concert by the school band, a scene from SCHOOL LIFE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

DC: It was founded by Lord and Lady Headfort. It was the ancestral home of Lord Headfort. They were Anglo-Irish, which means they would have come over and been part of the settlers who colonized Ireland. They decided there was a need for a school for children of other Anglo-Irish people, because it was a predominantly Catholic school system. So they set it up. Lady Headfort did that while they were still living there. They moved into one wing of the big house and set up a school in the other wing. Over time Lord and Lady Headfort ran out of money. That often happens with large ancestral homes. They allowed the school to continue. Finally the school raised the money to actually buy the Harry Potter building, and forty acres of woodlands. The rest Lord Headfort sold to developers, golf courses, the usual sort of thing. The school changed then, it became nondenominational, it didn’t cater just for the Protestant community.

It was a boys-only school the first ten, fifteen years, then a couple of daughters of staff were allowed in. That happened a lot in single-sex schools, the children of staff, if they were girls, were allowed to attend the school, and eventually it opened up. It became more and more progressive to the point where the current headmaster would call himself a Marxist. He taught for fifteen years at the Dalton School in Manhattan, and he would have a very progressive attitude toward education. I think that shows in our film. He believes in encouraging children to discuss and debate issues rather than feeding them facts and telling them this is the truth, this is the fact, this is what you have to learn.

 

DT: How did the Leydens fit into the history of the school?

NNC: When we were filming, they were there forty-six years. They both came as young teachers. It was their first jobs. They came independently, they met at the school, and a couple of years later they married. They’ve always lived on the grounds of the school. They raised a family there, and thankfully they’re still teaching there. They’re now into their forty-ninth year teaching.

 

DT: Can you talk a little bit about shooting? You got some remarkably intimate moments, but I’m also curious about how you knew which stories to follow.

NNC: In terms of the children we didn’t know which stories to follow. Basically we shot over three years. We ended up using the footage from the first year to raise funding for the film, because it was 2012 when Ireland was coming out of the crash, and nobody wanted to fund a film about a private school. So we had to shoot footage before people were finally convinced that this was something unique.

In the film you see the footage from the second year. We asked the headmaster from the very beginning if we could have a room in the school where we could hang about when we weren’t filming, because we knew that we had to become part of the furniture and part of the daily routine of the children’s lives so there was no big fuss when the film crew arrived to shoot.

DC: It’s important to note that the film crew was just the two of us. Neasa was doing camera and I was doing sound, and we were also the parents of two children in the school, so we were accepted very easily by the children. That was a critical thing, because children at that age, they played up a little bit for the first week and jumped in front of the camera and pulled faces and all the things that ten-, eleven-, twelve-year-olds do, and then they completely forgot about us. We were invisible to them and they just got on with their lives. We got that intimacy because they trusted us and they allowed us into their space.

The painfully shy Eliza with John Leyden and bandmate in a scene from SCHOOL LIFE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The painfully shy Eliza with John Leyden and bandmate in a scene from SCHOOL LIFE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

NNC: We had an idea of what children we were interested in, but we made a rule that we wouldn’t let the child know that we were focusing on him or her because we didn’t want them to carry that throughout the whole year. We filmed with everybody in all the classes, and we filmed things we knew we weren’t going to use that wouldn’t give us stories. It was in the editing that we could really figure out when we had a complete story arc.

We were always interested in Eliza. Eliza was just cinematically captivating from the very beginning, but had she not come out of herself at the end I don’t think we would have used that footage—we wouldn’t have suspended her in this kind of painfully shy state.

For our three main characters we got consent from all the parents, and we made sure they were OK with the storylines we were pulling out of the footage. We said to the parents of Kev, “He’s going to be featured in the film, are you OK with that?” And Kev said, “It’s not possible, Mom, they never filmed me.”

DC: As documentarians we didn’t have an idea of what the observational film would follow. We were following the surrogate family—the idea that all of these staff and teachers and matrons, the women who look out for the care of the children, the nurse, even down to the grounds staff and the kitchen staff, all had the role of surrogate parents. The original title of the film was In Loco Parentis, which means ‘in place of parents.’ We were trying to understand how surrogate family could possibly step in and be there instead of the parents. As documentarians we knew what to follow. The children fit in there, and then slowly we discovered the stories of the children.

 

DT: Let’s talk about the editing phase. You film has been compared to Frederick Wiseman’s work. Was that intentional? He assembles sequences and then he assembles the film from the assembled sequences. Is that how you worked? In the footage that you thought you were just going to throw away, did you discover anything that you ended up keeping?

NNC: We were very influenced by direct cinema  like D. A. Pennebaker, Wiseman, and Kim Longinotto, a female filmmaker in the UK. They were our three heroes. Yes, our approach is similar to Wiseman’s in the sense that because we shot for over three years we had over 450 hours of footage. We decided in the end that we would only use footage from the second year for coherence sake, because children change, and that we were going to hang the film on “a year in the life of” idea. Then we whittled that down to twenty-five hours of our favorite scenes. We always knew that John and Amanda Leyden would be main characters, and then the children who wove in and out of their lives became our primary focus. So it was a process, it took a year, and it was a process of whittling it down.

 

DT: Did you film your own kids?

CNN: Not much. We didn’t focus on them. As it happened, our daughter was in John’s class, so she features a little bit more just because she’s there.

 

DT: Your point was to ask the question, Can boarding schools function as surrogate family? What’s the answer, given your experience at Headfort?

CNN: I think very much so. From what we witnessed of John and Amanda, there’s a well-worn path to their house. On any weekend you’ll find a fifteen-year-old or a twenty-year-old staying with them or coming to visit with them or have lunch with them. John is in constant contact with the kids that have been in the school. They all keep in touch. Amanda still talks about them as “our kids.” “Oh, he’s one of ours,” she’ll say.

DC: They act like parents. They say, “Our kids are coming back. What should we feed them?” The surrogate family is very, very strong at Headfort.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

 

 

Brief Review: I, Daniel Blake/ Ken Loach

We’ve all seen them—the desperate young woman who talks back when the unemployment insurance agent turns nasty, or the intransigent old man who refuses to fill out a fourth irrelevant health insurance form. We chide them, thinking, ‘You’re not going to get anywhere by behaving this way. Just do what you’re asked and get your benefits.’ But sometimes, doing what you’re asked is simply too high a price to pay.

In I, Daniel Blake, Daniel has just had a heart attack, so he can’t work. After a 40-year career of steady, full-time employment, he knows nothing about the social services system that has suddenly become his sole provider. All he knows is that trying to get his benefits is making him feel like crap, and he doesn’t like it.

Neither does Katie, a single mother with two small kids who’s got dreams of going back to school so she can leave the crummy flat she’s been assigned and buy her own food instead of relying on handouts. When Dan sees Katie being harrassed in the social services office he comes to her aid. A beautiful friendship develops between Dan, Katie, and her kids—the family none of them ever had. But this is no Cinderella story, and this bright light remains the only one in a tale that goes from painful to impossible.

With I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach returns to his pre-Wind that Shakes the Barley days—to a time when he made My Name Is Joe and Kes, films that convey the angst, the irony, and the despair of England’s lower classes in a rough, handheld manner. I, Daniel Blake has the higher production values of Loach’s later films, but it’s his darkest film yet, filled with a despair that is fundamental, all-encompassing, and brutally real.

Many of the people who work with Loach speak of his ability to bring out good, strong, natural performances by giving his actors an unprecedented amount of freedom. Jim Norton, who starred in Jimmy’s Hall, said, “Often the way you play a scene decides what the next page of the script will be. Ken [Loach] and Paul [Laverty, Loach’s longtime screenwriter and screenwriter for I, Daniel Blake] are watching and seeing what the actor’s offering up and in what direction you’re intuitively taking the character on his journey. Then they’ll say, ‘Let’s go this way.’ It’s a very interesting way to work.”

And work it does in I, Daniel Blake. One never knows where the director’s input ends and the actor’s skill takes over, but in I, Daniel Blake, Dave Johns (Daniel) and Hayley Squires (Katie) play normal folks on the edge with such compassion that it’s almost too heartbreaking to endure. They capture the humiliation of their situations with such agonizing familiarity that it’s impossible to remain apart from them. And this is the point: However much we are not like them, they are us, and we are them. Denying so would be artificial. And artificial is one thing Ken Loach never allows us to be.

I, Daniel Blake opens December 23 in New York City, at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, and LA, Laemmle Royal, with a national rollout to follow.