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TIFF 2017: What Will People Say

Katherine Murray
Maria Mozhdah as Nisha (TIFF)

The culture clash in What Will People Say is manifest in a life-and-death difference between interpretations of defiance.

What Will People Say (Hva vil folk si)

Director: Iram Haq
Cast: Maria Mozhdah, Adil Hussain, Ekavali Khanna
Year: 2017

I've been to some uncomfortable Q&A sessions at TIFF, but the one that followed What Will People Say at TIFF 2017 ranks near the top. The film, based on experiences writer/director Iram Haq had as a teenager, is an unusually dark meditation on the immigrant experience that sees its young protagonist, Nisha (Maria Mozhdah), struggle and fail to find a balance that allows her to respect her Pakistani parents' wishes while still enjoying the freedom and self-determination promised to her as a citizen of Norway.

The way that that struggle plays out over the course of the film involves scenes of kidnapping, sexual assault, physical violence, emotional abuse, and attempted murder. Nisha's father (Adil Hussain), initially seems to be a loving man -- when he believes that Nisha is obedient and under his control. His values and attitudes toward modesty and decency are liberal compared to his wife and distant family members, but regressive compared to the mainstream in Norway.

He doesn't know that Nisha's been sneaking out of the apartment to meet her friends at night, until he finds her about to have sex with her white boyfriend. He attacks them both violently enough that neighbours call the police and, in the fallout, while Nisha stays with Social Services, he decides that the only way to save face is to send her to Pakistan, something he frames as a punishment so horrible that it will deter the other children from mimicking her behavior.

Nisha is fully aware of her rights as a Norwegian, but the brutal truth is that she can't defend those rights unless she's willing to lose her family. She isn't prepared to write her father off as a bad man, but she also isn't prepared to lead the life her mother had in Pakistan. The culture clash in What Will People Say is manifest in a life-and-death difference between interpretations of Nisha's defiance. Norwegian authorities tell her emphatically that she hasn't done anything wrong, while her relatives, who don't enjoy the same legal protections, are furious at her for refusing to obey and bringing danger to their homes. It's a disagreement that highlights how much freedom depends on a network of social and legal structures that eliminate most types of threat and coercion. In a world without those structures, the only way to feel safe is to be physically strong or wealthy, or to avoid doing anything that draws the attention of the strong and wealthy toward you.

In making the film, Haq, who has reconciled with her father as an adult, said that she tried to represent his point of view and the powerless position he found himself in, afraid that her attempt to live by Western values would destroy the safety he had tried to build. That said, the film lands very strongly in favour of Norwegian culture and restricts its fault finding almost exclusively to Pakistani culture.

Adil Hussain and Maria Mozhdah (TIFF)

After trying (and failing) to escape Pakistan several times, Nisha tries to find happiness there by starting a new relationship -- something fragile, innocent, and beautiful that's immediately destroyed when the police assault her and take photos to blackmail her family. When she tells her father what happened, he doesn't believe her, spits on her, and tries to make her kill herself to save him from further embarrassment.

By contrast, the Norwegian authorities are uniformly warm and supportive, and there's never any sign of racism in their treatment of Nisha's family. The characters switch back and forth between the Norwegian and Urdu languages at various points, but the only family member who's glad to see Nisha when she comes home is a young sister who says, “Jeg elsker deg" -- “I love you" in Norwegian.

This contrast led some audience members at the screening I attended to ask if What Will People Say is adding more fuel to anti-immigrant sentiment by stereotyping Islamic cultures.

In response, Haq explained that, while she doesn't support the views that Donald Trump, specifically, puts forward, she also thinks it's a mistake to treat other cultures as though they can't be criticized. It's also worth noting that she seemed surprised by persistent questions on the film's criticism of Pakistan, and explained that she doesn't see the film as being critical of Pakistan as a whole, but rather one specific aspect of its culture. She emphasized several times that she thinks there's an opportunity for dialogue between first and second-generation immigrants around these issues.

Regardless of Haq's intentions, many of Nisha's father's actions come across as cold and unreasonable. Hussain's long, silent, often impenetrable stares at the camera sometimes suggest a deeper understanding of the problem -- that maybe he regrets preventing Nisha from having the life he sacrificed everything to give her; that maybe he's proud of her in some way for realizing that she has to choose between her family and her freedom, even if she makes the opposite he doesn't want. At the same time, we also see that he's a man who would rather literally kill his daughter than have her embarrass him. Their relationship is less like love than like respect between enemies.

What Will People Say is the story of a doomed quest to reconcile two worldviews that stand in fundamental opposition to each other. That opposition can seem threatening -- which is likely why the movie drew such pointed questions during the Q&A – but Haq is right that immigrant women's rights is an issue we should be discussing.


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