Iram Haq hadn’t planned for a career in directing, but there are some stories that only she could tell, something that had been recognized by others before she even saw it herself as she began writing screenplays and pursued acting. After finding early success with “Trofast,” which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2004, and was followed by “Little Miss Eyeflap,” which she begrudgingly stepped behind the camera for.
“I wanted to give it away [to another director] and someone from the Norwegian Film Institute said you should make it by yourself,” recalls Haq, now on her second feature. “It was something that slowly happened, but at the same time I always had this love for cinema and also storytelling, which I was also very interested in since I was very, very young – I just was not so aware I wanted to be a filmmaker. Now, I really enjoy making movies, but it was not really in my plan.”
However, Haq has had to take control of her own narrative before. As a young woman of Pakistani descent growing up in Norway, she grew up in a house where her father’s love of storytelling would lead her to a library in Oslo read as many other tales as she could, yet as the fear seeped in that she was developing more of a European attitude culturally, her parents abruptly sent her to live for a year in Pakistan, after which she didn’t retain much contact with her family for the 25 years that followed.
In her debut film “I Am Yours,” the filmmaker dealt with this chasm between the two sides of her cultural identity to a present close to her own as it related to the insidious way gossip amongst a resolutely conservative Pakistani enclave could become weaponized against a woman who recently divorced her husband and shares joint custody of their son. But you never need to see or hear the disapproving outsiders in her second feature, “What Will People Say” despite its title, since it’s so ingrained into the way the parents of Nisha (Maria Mozhdah), a 16-year-old, is looked upon and spoken to, knowing that the L.A. Dodgers cap she wears around town can lead to nothing good. Although her father Mirza (Adil Hussain) will proudly tell others that Nisha will make a fine engineer or doctor, those aspirations become secondary to his rage when he believes she has lost her virginity before marriage, inspiring him to kidnap her to live with relatives in Islamabad.
While her characters may be beholden to what others think, Haq clearly isn’t, contributing to a propulsive narrative that brings out all the rough edges of the confusion created by the values that have been passed down to Nisha versus the ones she’s cultivated on her own by being exposed to a life away from the community she grew up inside with observations so sharp it can often leave a mark. As the film arrives in the U.S. following its premiere last fall at the Toronto Film Festival and after it became a huge hit in its native Norway, Haq reflected on the personal inspiration for the film, which is removed from her own story, coordinating a shoot across continents with India standing in for Pakistan, and how she made peace with her father shortly before he passed away in real life.
The film is inspired in a way by my own experience. It’s not really my own story, but I was born and grew up in Norway and when I was a teenager, I was kidnapped to Pakistan. When I came back when I was 16, I knew that I wanted to tell this story one day, but [I didn’t know] how and when. I just knew I had to be more brave and to have more years behind me to tell this story in the right way, so it took a very long time. When I started to write the script some years ago, it was a very angry young woman writing a story about herself and her father and it didn’t really work. I was not very close to my family, but in a very surprising way, when I was in the middle of writing, my father became very ill and I had to visit him in the hospital. He was a very proud man, and when I came to the hospital, he said, “Sorry for everything” without me saying anything. That was a big surprise for me and that started a new journey for me as a person, but also as a filmmaker.
We became very close and I got the chance to understand who he was, why he did the things he did to me and that changed me a lot, but also the script. He was very old when he died, and came from a very conservative family, so he was not integrated into society. He was a man who was really working class and he had to bring money to the table, to the family and he was not a part of the bigger society, so when [i grew to understand that when] I became part of the Norwegian society, it became very scary for him. He was full of fear and handling the situation out of big time anxiety as I see it, so that really helped me to understand the father [character] and also not being so angry at him anymore. [Learning] why he was how he was [made it] easier to tell the story from the father’s point of view.
Yeah, things have changed because for example in Norway we’re third and fourth generation of Pakistanis now. When I grew up, I was the second generation and of course, people are changing there. But when I was going to make this film, I was like this is not an updated story. I did a little research — and I didn’t need to do that much — before I knew there’s so many girls who get kidnapped [and taken to their] home countries where they get killed in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, France. Everywhere in Europe, this is happening, not just from Pakistan, necessarily, so I felt like this is a story that’s important to tell, to speak up about social control. It has so much [to do with] what other people think that your life becomes more like a jail.
What was it like to find actors to play Nisha and Mirza?
That was a challenge because it was a controversial project for many Pakistanis in Norway, so there weren’t many girls coming in for the auditions [for Nisha]. We did really big research — for a year-and-a-half in Norway and a little bit in Sweden and Denmark as well, and when Maria came, I felt so happy because she is amazing. She came for an audition and she had the Afghani background and did such a good job. I’m very happy about the collaboration with her. My way of working with Maria has been to be very, very close to her — she was just 17 and I could’ve been her mother, so I felt like she was my friend and my daughter sometimes. We worked so closely and the most important part was to make her feel secure – that whatever she does is fine and we’re going to go together into this, so she shouldn’t be afraid. And [for Mirza] I’d seen some clips and some movies with [Adil Hussein] and we had a very, very good conversation. I felt like he would be the right man and how he understood the father character was also great, so I felt very, very lucky with these two main characters, how they have taken their roles.
In one way, it was easy in the sense that I learned a lot from my mistakes from the first film, and I wanted to challenge myself to make a different film in a different way. But of course it was also a big challenge when you have the pressure on the second film. To have more experience is always good and I felt like I had a really, really good ensemble of actors from Norway and from India that we had to start with.
What was it like to coordinate an multinational shoot like this?
It was so exotic for me. I had like a hundred people in India, which I didn’t know [we’d have] and when we started to shoot over there first, I lost my voice the first couple of days. I was pretty nervous in the beginning, but they were wonderful to work with – that Indian team was fantastic and we had a lot of people from Germany and Denmark and Norway [as well]. I was really worried that it was going to be very challenging to have so many people from so many different countries, but that was not the problem. The hardest part about shooting in so many places was to go and visit all those places again and again and again with scouting and to secure [locations] we are sure we want to shoot. It was always a big time drive from here to there, like five hours to one place and then five hours to the next and then flying 16 hours. That part was tiring, but it’s important for finding the right places to shoot.
I wanted to ask about one specific scene – the car ride in which Nisha is taken to the ferry by her father, not knowing where she’ll go. It’s such a tense scene in such a confined environment, what was it like to shoot?
There were too many people in one little car, so it was intense. [laughs] But it was a fun challenge for all of us to do those scenes in the car — I liked shooting those. It’s not a comedy, so of course to do many of those scenes are really hard [for the actors] and we have to reshoot those scenes again and again. That’s not fun.
In India, there were many people working on the light. [laughs] But in the Norwegian and German parts, there are not so many, so we were more flexible. The cameraman and I found our style after a little while to get closer to the actors. We cared about the light, but we were so aware of trying to be as true as possible to get the feeling of [Nisha’s] emotions — that also has to do with all the artwork, the clothes, the hair, the makeup, the production design, the locations I chose. When she sits in the car in Norway closer to the end, you see the grey. Normally, people think Norway’s so beautiful and I show every day life in the suburbs in Norway where everything’s grey and not so nice. Everything has so much to do with how she feels.
What’s it been like to travel with this film?
Mostly people have been very positive, but it’s been very interesting. Of course, some people with Pakistani backgrounds can be provoked — in Norway, [some] feel like this is not true, this is not happening. “Why are you putting us in a bad light?” But that’s just a few. Most people agree that this is something that happens time to time, and most of the people have been very positive. I was very curious how they would react towards the film when we showed it in Dubai, for example, and it was a big surprise for me that they could relate to it.