What made Abu such a revelation in this year’s edition of River to River Film Festival in Florence, was its honesty. Arshad Khan’s film is so personal that it almost feels wrong watching it. It’s like peeking through a keyhole and finding things about a person that you wouldn’t even openly admit about yourself. It’s awkward and hysterical, heartrending and defiant – but more than anything it is true to itself and to its viewers. It is a refreshing filming approach to the documentary genre and perhaps the only approach for Arshad Khan’s story to be told.
Not because Arshad Khan’s tale is so complex – on the contrary, it is rather simple. But because we – society – have made it difficult to unveil rather simple things and have made it virtually impossible to live in a way that is honest to who we are. In a global society where we are raised to hide our true identities, and in a Pakistani society where people are expected to completely reject homosexuality and dismiss it as something sick and immoral, yes, Arshad Khan’s message takes guts as well as a very personal filmmaking style in order to be delivered.
So he goes about it using animation, mixing it with family footage, interviews, Bollywood film abstracts, and his own narration that doesn’t hold anything back. Arshad Khan’s sarcasm and disarming honesty made some people visibly uncomfortable in the room, while it delighted others. Needless to say, I was one of the others. I found this mix of different storytelling styles as well as of comical and heartbreaking moments exhilarating, not to mention effective and enlightening. It felt as though I was witnessing someone’s journey of self-discovery, and through that, discovering something more about myself – I turned to the person sitting next to me quite a few times to gasp “that’s it”.
And I found the use of animation particularly resourceful, as it served to fill cracks that family footage very understandably – and thankfully – left behind. Visual gaps such as a child being molested, a woman getting married in order to escape the family restrictions, and parents failing to be there for their sons and daughters while prioritizing their religion instead. These are heavy issues and animation is indeed the only medium light and detached enough to raise them without breaking its audience.
Abu – which is “father” in Urdu – keeps Arshad Khan’s father as its solid background, no matter which direction it goes in every time. It starts from him, keeps coming back to him, and ends up by his side on his deathbed. The filmmaker’s strong desire to be accepted and appreciated by his father is ever-present, even when the father has done nothing to deserve it. In fact, very often the father, being the devout Muslim that he is, can’t help but push his children away, reject them in a way, and deny who they have come to be. Even when the family moves from Pakistan to Canada, the denial persists. The fact that this is a more versatile place, with different cultures coming together within the neighbourhood, the school and the workplace, if anything, makes Abu cling on to his culture and religion even more and try even harder to defend it.
This fear of identity, culture, language, religion loss is to blame for a major crime being committed here – a child with a beautiful personality and extraordinary talent, being forced to live a lie and hide who he really was. A child that was molested, a teenager that was bullied and a man who is still forced to hide his partner – not from the outside world, but from his family itself, from his mother whom he adores and his father who he looks up to and wants to please more than anyone else. It fills one with anger watching this father’s grand error, but then, it fills one with sadness to see how he couldn’t have helped it. This error was not down to mean spirits or lack of love. It was determined by the only way of life that Abu knew, not who he was. An error committed by a society and a culture, a set of beliefs and a lifestyle, and admittedly, by Abu’s inability to think and act outside that framework.
Watch here a trailer of the film: