'What Will People Say' director Iram Haq on finding the strength to tell her story
Who can you trust when you can’t trust the people closest to you?
That is the question that Nisha (Maria Mozhdah) must ask herself in What Will People Say after she is kidnapped by her father and taken to live with relatives in Pakistan against her will.
When the film begins, Nisha is a fully assimilated Norwegian teenager living a normal life in Oslo. She spends time with friends playing basketball, partying, and even has a redheaded Norwegian boyfriend. She easily executes the balancing act of being a dutiful Pakistani daughter and teenager just looking to have a good time with her friends. While her parents continue to be fully committed to their traditional Pakistani culture, Nisha goes through the motions. Her father Haq (Adil Hussain), the owner of a convenience store, is loving. He brags about his children’s grades and coaxes them into dancing with him on his birthday.
That all changes one night when Haq discovers Nisha and her boyfriend alone in her room. Almost instantly, the Haq that the audience was introduced to becomes a man filled with rage. After attacking Nisha’s boyfriend, Haq — along with the assistance of his wife and son — kidnaps Nisha and forces her to go to Pakistan, threatening her life if she does not comply.
As Nisha struggles to reconcile her dual identity and to understand the choices of her family, she must also find the strength to fight for herself.
EW sat down with filmmaker Iram Haq to talk about how her life inspired the film (in theaters July 13), why it took her so long to tell her story, and why this film matters today.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How true is the story to your personal experience?
IRAM HAQ: The film is inspired by my own experience. I was born and grew up in Oslo, Norway, with Pakistani parents and I was kidnapped to Pakistan when I was 14 as Nisha was when she was 16 in the film. Of course, many of the emotions, what she goes through… some of them are from my own life but it’s also fictionalized.
You are now a mother. How did that experience help you tell the story in a new way?
This story was a story I really wanted to tell from a young age, but I was not ready for several reasons. One of them was to have the courage to dare to tell this story and also to try to tell it in a way that we don’t know necessarily hear from the media back home. I wanted to try to have an understanding for the parents — even if they’re doing totally wrong things, I wanted to try to understand them and it was really hard to write that. For many years, I was writing like an angry young girl and it took me a while. It was a big challenge.
First of all, I didn’t want to write this story. I wanted someone else to do it. But I decided to do it by myself to dig into this Pandora’s box and then while I was writing, my father fell ill and we were not really in touch. He was 81 at that point and I felt like I should go and visit him in the hospital and see [him]. [I thought] maybe this [would be] the last time. I didn’t know. He said sorry for everything he had done to me and he had cancer. That started something new inside of me because I was not angry anymore and, at that point, I was writing the story and we became very close, and very good friends, me and my father in the last 10 months of his life.
That gave me a lot of answers about why he did what he did and that changed and [took] my script in a different direction, which I was really looking for but I didn’t know how to do it. I needed to hear from him how he felt. He was so driven by the fear of losing his daughter and by the fear of what everyone else thought that he lost me for many years. We lost contact. Of course, that changed the script a lot and, of course, I’m a mother by myself, and, of course, it had an impact on the script in a way. I’m not like my parents but I can understand, somehow, fear — the fear of losing your child. That’s what I can find some similarities [in].
In the beginning of the film, Nisha’s father Haq is shown to be a loving, playful father, but once he finds her with her Norwegian boyfriend, that quickly changes. Why did you feel that time with him before the kidnapping was important to show?
It’s important to understand that he loves his daughter and he’s acting out of fear for what other people think and that he has some love for her. If we didn’t have those scenes, we really wouldn’t sympathize with him or like him at all. We would just [see] him as a terrible man. I think it was important because Nisha is also trying when she goes to Pakistan and when she comes back, even if she’s not really in a good position, she knows that her father loves her somehow. This culture clash is between them and they come from two different generations, two different cultures, he’s a man and she’s a woman. There’s so many reasons this love can’t work. They really come from two different worlds.
How was the process of making the film and reliving this moment from your past?
It’s a journey. This is a story I’ve wanted to tell since I was young, and I’ve finally done it. I remember so many years, being an outcast, being frozen out by the Norwegian Pakistani society, and today the story’s out. It’s just good because for girls who go through the same [thing], maybe they can find some kind of inspiration that they have to follow their own heart, and for parents, they should watch it to see what they should not do to their children. Of course, it was really, really hard to do this film many times, because going through all these emotions, I had to force myself to go through them, because there were so many years when I didn’t want to feel anything.
It kept coming to me in different ways, so it has been a very good journey in the end. It’s not a secret anymore. It’s something we can all talk about at home with my family members, and it also makes me happy to be contacted by other girls around the world who [have gone through the same thing]. It helps some of them and it’s something I’m happy about, and also about the Norwegian society, where this film has been taken pretty seriously and then trying to [make change] for these girls who are in similar situations. All this makes me happy.
Dialogue is used sparingly in the film. When Nisha speaks, she is often ignored or put down. In the moments when she is exercising her agency, such as with her love interests, she uses eye contact and touching as a way to communicate instead. What went into that decision?
When you see her in the beginning with her Norwegian friends, she dared to talk, and she’s a normal teenage girl from Norway and she gets more and more scared for daring to speak up because she’s put down every time. Every time you get put down, you get more and more insecure, especially at that young age. She tries to fight for her rights in the beginning, as you can see in the film, but then she gets so many punishments that [it] scares her [from] daring to speak up.
There are several shots of hands throughout the film. What was the significance of those shots?
Of course, hands, eyes, body language tell a lot about how people are feeling and what state of mind they are [in]. Even if they say something else, you look at their hands or body, you can read what they really think. I’m a fan of body language of people.
Why do you think this film is important in 2018?
It’s so important. When I was going to write this film, I thought, maybe this is an old fashion film, just something that happened in the ’90s when I was young. Maybe I shouldn’t do it. But then I did a little research, and I figured out this problem is so common still. It’s still going on in Norway, Sweden, Germany, Italy. It’s so important. We need to talk about this social control, what this social control does to people. I mean, this whole family is in prison because of what other people think, and what are they doing to each other because of that? I think it’s so important to talk about it so we take away the shame [people feel] when speaking out about these kinds of problems so we can have a change. I really want these young girls to have a different life and to recognize how social control works. It happens in the small, small details, how people look at each other, what they say…even the police are using [social control].
I think it’s so important to focus on these issues because for me it happened it the ’90s, but it’s still going on and it’s 2018.