The personal documentary is a narrative strategy by which filmmakers turn the lens on themselves to highlight larger truths about their worlds. It’s a perfect device for Arshad Khan as he tells the story of himself, his father, and his country of origin, Pakistan.
The Pakistani-Canadian filmmaker’s 80-minute documentary Abu (Father) is a personalised history of Pakistan, which unfolds in tandem with the journey of his family. In the 2017 production, which is among the titles that will be screened at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala (July 20-24), a light-hearted tone masks many dark secrets and truths.
In Abu, 43-year-old Khan explores his family’s story, his homosexuality, and his frequently tense and combative relationship with his father. The film blends archival home video footage, animation, interviews and Hindi film clips and songs to create an arresting portrait of an experience that is both singular and universal. Stripped off its particulars, Abu is the story of a great many families in the subcontinent, whose lives after the end of colonial rule were marked by optimism, only to descend into despair and frustration as larger political forces eroded their hopes.
“Indians who have watched the film have told me that it is the same story on this side of the border,” Khan said in a telephone interview from Montreal. “The good thing is that when you leave India or Pakistan and come to the West, you realise how insignificant and ridiculous this man-made border is.”
The story of the Khans begins around the time of Partition. Arshad Khan’s father, orphaned, comes to the newly formed Pakistan with his siblings. Under the care of relatives, he gets educated, enrolls in the Pakistan Army, marries Arjumand Bano and has a brood of children. He is among the few in his social circle to own a video camera, and he records picnics, home parties and festival celebrations.
The clouds are slowly gathering, but they are not immediately apparent. Arshad is sexually abused as a child, which leads to anger and self-loathing. As Arshad grows older, he begins to understand that he is gay. Meanwhile, his father resigns from the Army and launches a string of businesses, some of which work and some of which don’t. The family emigrates to Canada in 1991, but their problems only seem to be beginning. Arshad Khan’s father struggles to make a living, while Arshad Khan battles homophobia and racism, conceals his sexuality from his parents and branches out in the opposite direction in terms of his career.
Despite the weight of the story, Arshad Khan maintains a droll voiceover even during the most despondent moments, which sweetens the blow for viewers. The film was originally made in English, but Khan also made a Hindi/Urdu version for South Asian audiences.
Khan said that he was attempting to strike a tone that was both bantering and balanced. “My voiceover was already overpowering and was controlling the narrative, and I didn’t want to control the emotions as well – I wanted to keep it objective,” he explained. “It’s unexpected – one second you are laughing and the other you are struck by something I have said. It’s actually a very dark film. There is rejection from the family, sexual abuse. As an LGBT person, I had to humourise the film to make people connect with it. This is how life is – it’s bittersweet, but there’s always hope.”
Khan embarked on Abu after his father’s death in 2011. He has previously made fictional and documentary shorts, including Threadbare (2008) and Zen (2012), and was attempting a feature film.
“This [his father’s death] wouldn’t leave me,” Khan said. He set out to profile his father through a short commemorative video tied to the first death anniversary. “That is when I realised that we are an obscenely well-documented family, we had this VHS camera that nobody else had,” he said.
The filmmaker also embraced the difficult truth that he could not exclude himself from the narrative. “I started off telling my father’s story, but then I had to tell my story too because it would not make sense otherwise,” Khan said. “My relationship with my father was difficult, and it destroyed me when he died. I could not understand why he left such a big hole in my life. I definitely didn’t want to put myself in the film, it’s the worst and most difficult thing in the world.”
After his mother and one of his sisters agreed to be in the film, Khan began patching together the story about a happy childhood in Islamabad, the ascent of dictator Zia-ul-Haq in the late 1970s, the shifting fortunes of the Khan family, their flight to Canada, and his father’s latter-day embrace of religious orthodoxy. Khan’s influences among personal documentaries included Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation (2003), Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (2012) and Meet the Patels (2014) by Geeta and Ravi Patel.
Crowdsourcing helped the documentary over its five-year production cycle. Other hurdles were less easily surmountable, such as the deeply intimate nature of the material.
“There were numerous occasions when I could break down while recording my voiceover,” Khan said. “The editing was very difficult, especially to see my father die over and over again. My editor said, here is a tissue box.”
Equally tough was the task of revisiting memories of the country of his birth. “It was very difficult to tell the story of Pakistan,” Khan said. “It was hard realising how much we have lost. Migration is a very difficult thing, especially when I think about the drastic changes my parents had to make for the well-being of their children.”
Abu has been screened at several festivals, including the Dharamshala International Film Festival in 2017 and the Kashish International Mumbai Queer Festival in 2018. The documentary will also be shown on the Canadian broadcasting network CBC TV later in the year.
However, Khan hasn’t been able to show Abu in Pakistan yet, and he could not get a visa to come to India and attend the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala in Thiruvanathapuram.
“This discrimination is ridiculous – I have come to India many times before, including to MIFF in Mumbai in 2008 to show my film Threadbare,” Khan said. “This exclusion and uncertainty are not good for storytellers and artists. The future isn’t religious bigotry and animosity and nationalism, but globalism and universalism and collaboration.”