Writer-director Iram Haq made me want to punch the screen on which I was watching her heartbreaking, frustrating film, What Will People Say. The story follows a Pakistani girl, Nisha (Maria Mozhdah), who's raised in Norway and who gets caught hanging out with a boy in her room, causing her parents to kidnap her to Pakistan to live with distant relatives. My anger was in direct response to the family’s casual cruelty but also to how quickly they assumed she was lying about her sexual experience (she had none), and to how deeply affirmed the family was that what they were doing — burning her passport, locking her up — was normal and good. The quiet psychological terror and the simple, blunt manner in which it was shown stole my breath.
Haq’s directorial style is reminiscent of Michael Winterbottom’s, particularly his Tess of the D’Urbervilles adaptation, Trishna, wherein a young Indian woman played by Freida Pinto endures a series of hardships until she is utterly hopeless. What Will People Say is ultimately more hopeful than Trishna but the two are no doubt cousins. And while Haq’s film does go quite dark at times, she shields us from the worst — a sexual assault — and offers an unbreakable heroine in Nisha.
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Nisha doesn’t get a ton of dialogue and is often ordered into silence, so Haq has no choice but to tell the story visually. An intimate camera focused predominantly on faces and hands dominates the aesthetic, revealing the subtlest emotions. In one scene, just a quick shot of Nisha’s fingers shaping dough reveals her attraction to a boy who is watching her.
What is most unnerving throughout are Nisha’s interactions with the younger Pakistani girls who’ve yet to feel the full constriction of womanhood in deeply patriarchal communities. Nisha’s eyes denote she wants to tell them something, to warn them, but what would she say? This is just how things are, and to disclose that there is a life outside these norms seems akin to cursing them to unhappiness.
Despite the subject matter, Haq is most often quite tender in her storytelling. Nisha is loved. Her parents think they are saving her from a lifetime of pain and loneliness that they believe all Westerners endure. They’ve immigrated to Norway but have stubbornly stayed planted in their cultural bubble, where one can spend a week worrying about whether it was OK to have danced in the presence of men at a birthday party, and whether that will get them disinvited from weddings and the community at large. Haq’s portrayal of the endless insecurities of immigrants desperate to hold onto some piece of home and self in a foreign land is at once realistic yet also confounding.
It’s difficult to tell a story about the issues within immigrant communities without demonizing the entire community, and I’m not totally sure Haq succeeds on that front. (We should remember this sort of behavior is also present in white religious communities right here in the United States.) But being that the film is based upon the fictionalized account of the director’s own life, there is, in the end, a kind of benevolence granted to this family. This film, above all, seems an act of forgiveness.