Showing his talent as a filmmaker, Arshad Khan piles an investigation of sexuality, the experience of being an immigrant, living in a Muslim family, a dysfunctional family, sexual abuse, and migrating from one’s country into a tight 80 minute film. In the end it is not just about his father rather it is about being marginalized in society. For Khan this happened in two countries – Pakistan and Canada.
Abu is the Pakistani word for father. At the center of this film is the story of the relationship between a son and his father. We have all watched stories and documentaries about the trials of growing up gay. It is not really new ground. What Khan brings to the subject here is the added layer of being an immigrant and Muslim. Within the Muslim community being gay is forbidden. At one point in the film it is even said that Pakistan does not have any gays. If you find yourself gay in this type of environment chances are you will remain deep, deep in the closet. What other choice does one have when they know they will be looked at as a deviant and bring deep shame to their family? As for the immigrant aspect, here was a young man trying to fit in to his new country and having to deal with realizing his skin colour and his sexuality would put him firmly on the fringes.
It is apparent the tangled feelings that Khan had for his father. A difficult and increasingly religious man. One moment he loves his father the next he hated him. Despite this heighten emotion, it still remains a film with plenty of integrity. Integrity in that it tells the story honestly without piling on to Khan’s father, who could have been a very easy target and made out to be the big villain of the proceedings.
Towards the end of the film Khan divulges that while making Abu he came to realize that it was as much about his mother Bina as it was about his father. Her evolution from a young, beautiful, free, and even slightly progressive woman to one who is a devout Muslim by the end is a big part of the documentary.
Another big aspect of the film is the whole subject of immigration. A well off family living in Islamabad loses its money and decides to emigrate to Canada seeking a better life. Settling in Scarborough on the outskirts of Toronto during the 1970s and 1980s made for a difficult life for the family. They were never going to really fit in were they? Being brown, speaking a different language and being Muslim made them very different in the world of suburbia. The fact that the father could not really get a job in Canada did not help. As a result it is understandable that the parents would turn to their religion for comfort. To people like them. And as such insulate themselves with it becoming more and more conservative. As they became more conservative they had to deal with a son who was coming out as a homosexual. It was never going to end well, was it?
Telling his story through narration (by himself), family photos and video, interviews with family members like his older sister and mother, snippets of Bollywood films, animation, and observation, Khan also demonstrates that he can handle several different mediums in one film without making it feel too busy or like a flea market. Amazingly though he is revealing all his deepest feelings and thoughts to viewers he is able to keep things flowing and moving forward.
During his time working as a flight attendant he met and become friends with Indian-Canadian director Deepa Mehta (Water, Fire). She helped him on his first feature acting as the narration director. The Oscar Award nominated director helped him really get his story across through the use of words to accompany the images. As such, his voice had to remain calm, cool and collected despite the fact that Khan was talking about his own feelings and experiences like being sexually molested when he was just a child. Tricky.
How and why the film works is because of the universal feelings wrapped up in it. Though we all might not be gay or immigrants, we all have gone through family stuff and difficult times with parents. Then there are also the issues of gender rights and religion. All this turns Abu into a rather universal film that at the same time is intensely personal. In other words, it is highly relatable. Despite the fact that it is about people largely hidden in film – Pakistani, gay, brown, Muslim.