When Arshad Khan was in the editing room for his debut feature “Abu,” scouring over the mountains of video that his father had left behind after his death, he had become slightly dismayed with the quality of the picture as the tracking static would occasionally threaten to overwhelm the frame. But in relating the story of his complicated and at times quite contentious relationship with his father, he saw a pure expression of what he went through in the technical glitches.
“One day I was transferring the tapes to make them hi-res and the technician paused at one of the glitches and I thought oh my God, this is so beautiful,” says Khan. “All of the sudden, this footage I thought was very ugly was actually not ugly at all. It’s actually quite beautiful, and that changed my way of thinking about my footage.”
While “Abu” now cleverly uses that fuzziness that’s familiar to all children of the 1980s with a VCR as a way of smoothly transitioning from scene to scene, Khan recounts with clear eyes his upbringing in Pakistan where his father’s love to technology and a passion for art led to documenting his family as the patriarch and much of his clan slowly succumbed to the most extreme religious convictions of the Muslim faith as Khan would come to realize he was gay. The family moved to Canada as conditions worsened in Islamabad, where radicalization spilled over into a thriving middle class during the 1980s, but as “Abu” recounts, Khan’s feelings of being an outsider only deepened with age, with past abuse within his extended family coming to light and his perspective broadened by attending college while his father, a once-prosperous investor in a bottled water company, was reduced to being a security guard in his new country.
Although “Abu” covers undeniably dark territory, Khan illuminates his personal history with callbacks to the pop music and movies he grew up with, as well as lively animation, simultaneously demonstrating and extolling the power of art to serve as a beacon of light to get him through tough times and bring difficult circumstances into perspective. With plenty to unpack, Khan has spent the past six years following his father’s passing working on the project, recently premiering on Father’s Day of all possible dates at the Los Angeles Film Festival and on the eve of the film’s debut in his now-native Montreal as part of Fantasia Fest, he spoke about the psychological and production obstacles he had to overcome to bring this story to the screen, turning the uneven quality of his archival material into a strength and the collaborators who were able to offer invaluable outside insight.
I made the film because I was working on a fiction feature and my father, God bless him, passed away, and I was making a five-minute video for his memorial and I realized I have a huge wealth of video and audio material that I could use for a much bigger story. Then I kept trying to write my feature and it just wasn’t working. The story was just sitting in my mind and I couldn’t get it out, and [the story of my father] just kept interfering with everything, so I made a two-minute teaser and it went viral. I was quite afraid because it was outing myself to the world, but I got quite encouraged by making that teaser because people really, really connected to it.
How much footage did you have?
My editor Etienne Gagnon is nothing short of a genius. He went through so much footage. I had so many different kinds of footage – VHS, mini DV, Hi-8, iPhone, Flipcam – and then we shot some new footage with Canon, with HD, with the RED and there was a lot of photographs, so we used a lot of different mediums. It was a very complicated editing process because of that and then new information kept emerging, so I kept adding and changing stuff because it’s very deeply personal story, and that made it even more difficult to really be sincere.
But my father loved technology, so he always liked to document everything and everyone. He was the first in 1981 to get a VHS movie camera in Islamabad, Pakistan, so I have this beautiful footage of me very young, and I discovered a lot of photos. Then when the National Film Board of Canada came onboard, I started scanning negatives, which I had never done, and I found even more personal, beautiful photos that my father had taken. A lot of my father’s photos from the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s got destroyed in a flood, but even with this huge body of work that was gone, there was still enough to represent his eye and his photography and his art.
What is it like to watch this old footage or photographs in a new way?
The fact is when you grow up with these images, you don’t think anything of them. You’re kind of bored of them. I had actually almost forgotten about all of these and VHS is a terrible, terrible medium because it’s not very long-lasting. I’m very glad that I started preserving some because we’ve already lost so much, and the challenge was to make a film that was beautiful, so where the footage is lagging, we made up with the excellent quality of sound. Our sound designer recently won an Oscar for the film “Arrival.”
When I started making the film, I thought I was going to make a film about my dad, mixing myself in. My childhood and whole history of sexual abuse was a very, very late decision, and that was because it’s very difficult for me to come to terms with it and discuss it. That’s why editing was even harder because first of all, seeing my father dying every time would trigger me, and then discussing these memories would trigger me, so quite often I’d be sitting there crying next to my editor. It was really ridiculous. [laughs] And I really wish I didn’t feel I had to make this film, but the fact is no one wants to talk about these things and to put themselves out there and someone had to do it. I’ll be honest with you, my family’s not entirely happy. My mother is very upset I’m making a film because my culture doesn’t like the word “gay,” let alone discuss it so openly.
As you can see from the film, my mother is a really conflicted person. She’s a really beautiful, amazing human being who has been really ruined by this psychotic strain of Islam, so she’s conflicted. She said, “Why don’t you make a film and put some other people’s names [on the characters], or make a fiction film?” And I challenged her on it. I had to like really give her a recheck for her to realize it’s time that this story was talked about so others don’t suffer the same way as we have.
I was intrigued with the great director Deepa Mehta (“Water”) credited as a narration director. How did she help?
Deepa saw [this film] and said, “Oh my God, your narration is horrible.” [laughs] So she’s just like, “Come over, take your director’s hat off, put your actor’s hat on and let me direct your narration.” When she did, it made a big difference and I actually had the help of Deepa and [“Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam” director] Omar Majeed too, two very good Toronto directors, to help me with my narration and to make it better because I’m so close to the project, it’s very hard to direct my own narration.
Did you have clarity on this story early on or did you have revelations while making it?
No, there’s no clarity. And that was a very frustrating thing for my collaborators because I couldn’t give them direction. That’s why I started with a blank screen and just narration and started filling in from that. I thought I was making something completely different when I started and then it ended up being this. That’s the thing about a personal POV documentary. It can go in so many directions and as you can see, I packed a lot into this film and let me tell you, there was a lot more. I had to cut a lot out of the film and stay very focused on the basic story of a father/son relationship.
Was there a breakthrough in the process that changed what your idea of what this would be?
When my sister spoke about the sexual abuse, I never thought I was going to go there. My producer Sergeo Kirby said to me, “She’s come clean, and so should you. This film is not complete without you being honest with yourself. People will know that you’re holding back something.” So I had to really, really struggle and once I overcame that resistance, it became a lot easier. You have to understand I’m incriminating people in my family. It’s not an easy thing to do and these people are not ready to talk about it, so I had to make a film that discussed these issues, but spoke to the problem at large and didn’t point any fingers.
Animation was very tricky because my collaborators hated the animation at first. At the beginning, the animation was very [rudimentary like] “Beavis and Butthead,” so I was concerned, but we worked for years on the animation and the animator Davide di Saro made improvements slowly because I had no money for making this movie, so [when] we got money, we worked on it more and more. [My collaborators] said, “Arshad, you will spend so much time and effort on this animation and you’re going to end up cutting it out.” But eventually, the animation became so beautiful [when] he started better understanding as well. That’s why I’m saying it wasn’t an easy road to this film. We really struggled. We really went back to the drawing board over and over again and [said] rewrite, re-edit, re-do, so that it would just be perfect. And the animation would be just right without putting it over the top. It couldn’t be extremely refined and beautiful so that it stands out against the otherwise imperfect footage. It had to be more basic.
You mention in the film going to therapy. Did the act of making this wind up being therapeutic in any sense?
Yes, it was actually very, very therapeutic. It was very cathartic and it was good to get it out of my system and get it out there. Honestly, it’s so emotional I can’t even tell you. I just want to cry all the time because I worked so hard on this. And I can’t even believe that people are liking it and they’re appreciating it. It feels so nice.