“I’m Interested in People, Families & Emotions”: An Interview With Iram Haq, Director of WHAT WILL PEOPLE SAY

After establishing herself as an actress in Norwegian films depicting cliched or stereotypical Pakistani people, Norwegian director Iram Haq has now broken through as one of the country’s top directors, depicting stories about those who are stuck between two cultures, and how they manage love, their Scandinavian identity, and their foreign background. Haq’s latest film, What Will People Say, is based on a traumatic experience in her childhood, and we sat down with her to talk about how the film changed her opinion on her father, who kidnapped her and sent her to live in Pakistan when she was fourteen.

How did you get started in film-making?

I wrote a short film called Trofast, which was released in 2004 and was selected for the Venice Film Festival. After that, I spent some time writing scripts. I planned to give them away to other directors, but it was suggested that I try to direct. That short film was Little Miss Eyeflap and it ended up screening in Sundance. I then made my feature debut with I am Yours, so it was really a journey. Film for me is like magic, and I really want to dig deeper into this magic. I love making movies.

What Will People Say is a film that is inspired by true events that happened to you.

I come from a Norwegian/Pakistani background and when I was a teenager I was kidnapped and sent to live in Pakistan for a year by my father. The same thing happens to the character Nisha, though I was much younger than her. It took a lot of time for me to talk about what happened, and when writing the script it took a lot of emotion from me and my father. However, the script gave me the chance to figure out why my father did what he did. I was able to talk to him about it twenty-five years later and he opened up to me about his thought process, and I used a lot of it in the film.

In this film, it’s very easy to demonise the parents, yet you managed to find a balance.

I wanted to make sure the film didn’t become black and white, where the audience would just hate the parents and Nisha wouldn’t be nothing more than an angry young girl. In order to try and understand the characters, I wrote the script several times, each from a different point of view of certain characters, like the parents or the father. I tried to understand each angle, and it’s always nice to challenge yourself to understand things you don’t understand. It’s one of the good things with writing.

Did it end up changing your point of view of your parents?

My father said sorry to me twenty-five years after I was kidnapped, and the film allowed me to understand his mind. I have a child now who is twenty-one years old and I understand the fear of losing a child that my father also felt with me. Also, I was able to understand this big gap that exists between generations and cultures. My father comes from India and Pakistan and I come from Norway, so I was struggling to live between two cultures that existed within me somehow. I tried for many years to just be Norwegian, believing I could never be Pakistani. When I lived in Pakistan, I struggled to accept the culture. My father came to Norway to give his children a good life, and for him the Norwegian culture was scary and different from Pakistan, and I was able to understand that after speaking with him.

Many second-generation immigrants struggle with this pull between two different cultures. Did you feel a similar thing?

I have this longing for India because my grandparents and father are from there but moved to Pakistan when the two countries separated. I have always felt like India is part of my identity, and even though I consider myself Norwegian and am from Norway, I have this missing link. When I shot the film in India I really felt at home and felt as though I had found what had been missing. The film industry is similar to Europe, so I felt very much at home working with an Indian crew. However, this gap is a problem that many people have.

What was it like shooting the film in India?

I loved it, and I speak the language, which helped a lot. We had a crew of one hundred people and they are so warm and lovely smiley people, so it makes it much easier than in Scandinavia where everything is subtle but serious. In India, they are serious too but they also have a different way of thinking and approaching the film. They did a great job and I loved going to work every day.

Many Scandinavian films in the last decade tend to portray Pakistanis as gangsters. Your films show Pakistanis as normal people facing normal and cultural conflicts. Is that an important theme for your film?

I’m interested in telling stories about people, families and emotions. I believe there is much more to a person than if they are a gangster or criminal. There are many gangster and genre films, but it is changing, and we are getting more stories now. It’s time to show that Pakistanis are normal people with other problems and other things going on in life.

Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.