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.

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 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?

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?

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.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2018

Keep Quiet/Sam Blair

Ambitious, scheming, virulently anti-Semitic, Csanad Szegedi rocketed to power as the vice president of the ultra-nationalistic, far-right Hungarian Jobbik Party. He resurrected the Arrow Cross, a WWII pro-Nazi Hungarian group, and was elected to the EU Parliament, the youngest delegate ever. That made some of his colleagues jealous; jealous enough to level the most despicable smear they could conjure: that Szegedi himself was a Jew and had no place in the Hungarian far right. In the course of trying to disprove the claim, Szegedi discovered the impossible: Not only was his mother Jewish but his grandmother was an Auschwitz survivor who had hidden her true identity from her grandchildren. His life and self-image in tatters, Szegedi sought to create a new identity as an Orthodox Jew, turning to Rabbi Baruch Oberlander for guidance. Szegedi’s “conversion,” as well as Oberlander’s place in it, angered many.  Keep Quiet examines the social forces that led to Szegedi’s anti-Semitism in the first place; his grandmother’s motivations for keeping quiet; and Oberlander’s quandary over leading a neo-Nazi to the Torah. Availability: Opens February 17, New York City Lincoln Plaza Cinema; March 3, L.A. Laemmle Town Center/Music Hall, with national rollout to follow. Check local theater listings near you. Click here for trailer. Thanks to Linda Altman, Susan Senk PR, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: I’m not asking this question facetiously: Why does this story matter?

SB: Straight in there, Judy. Let me try and warm up a little.

DT: The next question is related: Does it matter if Csanad’s conversion sticks and he remains a “good Jew”?

SB: I think the question is, Matter to whom? His story matters to a lot of people; that’s what we’ve found when showing the film. While we were editing, we talked a lot about how it would leave questions hanging. It can provoke all sorts of responses, and I love that. The film touches on things that are very personal and more political or obviously to do with faith, but I think it’s also open enough, and he is a confusing enough character, to allow for multiple readings. One of the questions that always comes up is, What’s he doing now? because there is this mixture of suspicion and interest and fascination with him. So I’m interested to see what he does next. Alex, the producer, always jokes that if Csanad decides to go back to fascism, it will make a great sequel. At some point this is a very sensitive story. As a character Csanad can be beguiling, confusing, insensitive. As a filmmaker, you just have to let the character be who he is, with all his flaws, all his contradictions, and then say, let’s look at him and let’s talk about him.

 

DT: For me, the moral center of the film is the rabbi. I found him absolutely fascinating.

SB: He is. His quandary is the moral center of the film. We always felt that the heart of the film is with the grandmother, maybe in the female characters in the film, and then the head—this kind of wrestling with the moral and ethical quandary—was with the rabbi. In filmmaking terms, he was a wonderful character. I enjoy him being on screen. He has a wonderful presence, he has a sense of humor, he’s human in this. He doesn’t just resort to saying he’s the religious authority; he wrestles with it himself, and I think it’s refreshing to have a religious authority figure also saying, “I was trying my best.” I think that’s a wonderful thing that comes across. He doesn’t totally know, he’s not completely sure, but he feels in his heart and everything that he’s learned from his religious education and his experience, that this is the right thing to do. But the fact that he’s wrestling with it makes it all the more interesting for us as viewers and makes him all the more human.

 

DT: How did you feel about Csanad, and how did your feelings about him influence your filmmaking?

SB: I picked up directing the film when the first director couldn’t continue, so I came to it with a chunk of the story having already been told. I didn’t have a particularly personal relationship with Csanad. I spent time with him, I shot with him, but a lot of my experience with him actually came from watching the interviews that had already been done.

The word I always overuse is ambivalence. I retained a complete ambivalence about him. I think that’s actually important. He’s not one thing. He can be a very charming guy, big smiles. I met him when a big chunk of this story had happened, so he’d already been some way along this path of changing himself. I was fascinated in trying to understand him and his motivations, but I didn’t come to an absolute conclusion about this man. I found it more interesting to look at all the things that made him who he is; what really interested me is how does this guy come to be? The idea of a far-right politician finding out that he’s Jewish, it’s almost like a setup for a gag. He can seem absurd, but what you find out when you look into it is there are a lot of people in Hungary who don’t understand who they are. The turbulence, particularly in the second half of the twentieth century in Hungary, means that there is a sort of identity crisis in Hungary, and he’s one example of something that is quite prevalent. My interest in him was trying to get past this personality or getting past the cult of the individual and trying to understand who he was in a wider sense.

 

DT: Documentaries are made in the editing. Could this film have gone another way? If so, what way?

SB: Documentaries absolutely are made in the edit, and every time you make a film you wrestle with the various elements that you’re trying to put in it. This one was particularly challenging because it’s such a complex story. You’re dealing with a complex individual with a complex history, and you’re talking about huge things like religion and politics and you’ve got to find a line through this in ninety minutes.

Absolutely it could have gone any number of ways. We found our way through it by trying to balance the mixture of the personal and the political. It was very, very tricky; showing someone’s internal transformation is very difficult. How do you show someone becoming Jewish? And then how do you balance that by explaining that he’s a product of a very complex history in Hungary? What happens in a documentary is that every line, every second ends up counting, trying to mean something, and we did our best trying to navigate through that.

 

DT: Can you talk a little bit more about audience reaction.

SM: It’s been absolutely fascinating. The first ever public screening was in New York, at the Tribeca Film Festival. At the end of the Q&A, I thought, What have we made here? Csanad was there, and there were almost hysterical responses to him. Very emotional, very angry, but in the same audience you had people who were much more understanding. A woman come up to me on the verge of tears—she said that she was married to a Hungarian man and struggled all her life with her in-laws, whom she couldn’t understand. She couldn’t quite connect with them culturally, and emotionally she felt a distance, and she told me that the film had understood her in-laws. I’ve had people of Hungarian origin come up to us afterward and say, “This is my story. I don’t know who I am. I think my grandmother was Jewish.”

Those were screenings in the States. The most extraordinary Q&A was in Tel Aviv, where it was bordering pandemonium at times. A man had to be ejected from the theater after five minutes because he was so angry about something. Normally at a Q&A you’re fishing for questions, hoping for something interesting; in Tel Aviv we didn’t ask one question because the audience was arguing with each other. There were these impassioned comments in our direction, questions…I’ve not experienced a Q&A like that, where it’s like you’ve lit a torch paper and this comes out. When you’ve made a film, it’s a wonderful thing to experience this sort of response, from whatever direction it comes from.

 

DT: Maybe that’s the answer to the first question, why does the film matter?

SB: If Csanad were just the punch line to a joke, then I don’t think he would matter. But I think he matters because of something quite extraordinary this year. The film premiered last April: what’s happened in the world since then? I recently watched the film in London for the first time in six months. It recounts the rise of Jobbik, which is the far-right party, and how it latches onto people’s feelings of disillusionment with the political system there, how it uses ideas of nationalism and how it provokes by crossing over into areas of taboo that tap into populist sentiments in the country. I watched it and thought, This film has actually become more relevant in the last six months. I think it tells a story about how that kind of movement can come about in a country. You can then use Csanad to dig in, and you see that his absolute certainty about who he is and these ideas that he attaches himself to in order to give himself this feeling of strength and further enhance this certainty about who he is in the world are a problem.

 

DT: What do you want the film to achieve?

SB: We made  the film thinking about it as a piece of cinema, so for it to find an audience and play in theaters is great.  I just really want this engagement to continue to I can continue to be fascinated by the response.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017