Written & Directed By Arshad Khan
In the battle for equality, two concepts come up again and again: representation and inclusion. Thanks to movements like #OscarsSoWhite, there’s more diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry, the media, and the workplace. If demanding representation and inclusion are shots across the unenlightened’s bow, then Abu, by Pakistani-Canadian filmmaker Arshad Khan, is an all-out blitz.
Narrated by Khan, the 80-minute documentary chronicles the life of his father, the eponymous Abu. The film focuses on the uneasy relationship between Khan and Abu, a conservative Muslim. After leaving Pakistan for the snow-covered streets of Mississauga, Ontario, the entire Khan family faced culture shock, but none more so than young Arshad. Besides being one of the few brown faces in his school, Arshad was also secretly gay. Things were also difficult for Abu. Confronted with blatant xenophobia, ageism, and prejudice, Abu found solace in his faith. As if fate were playing a mean joke on the Khans, Abu turned to conservative Islamic values during a period when his son was most in need of his family’s support.
Unfortunately, there are too many people out there who still see being gay as a person’s entire identity, as if gay people spend every waking moment expressing their gayness instead of going to IKEA, eating Chipotle, and binge-watching Game of Thrones. The LGBTQ community is not an easily defined monoculture; it takes voices like Khan’s to showcase less-explored facets of the culture before people start “getting it.” As Khan explains, even amongst gay men there are still prejudices, fetishes, and racial biases.
Early on in the doc, Khan offers viewers the sort of look at day-to-day life in Pakistan that western audiences rarely see in TV and films. What stands out is how the Khans lived the American ideal well before relocating to Canada. Abu was a patriot who joined the military to serve his country. He took an early retirement and went on to become an entrepreneur, running a successful business selling water. The children spent their time watching movies, celebrating birthdays, and dancing nights away to disco and pop records.
It’s the Khan’s relatability that makes what happened next feel so avoidable. As a middle-aged Pakistani immigrant, Abu faced constant ageism and discrimination. Ultimately, it’s feeling disenfranchised that leads him toward religious fundamentalism. Abu goes from the liberal Muslim dad that let his daughters swim and ride horses to growing out his shaggy white beard and addressing his son in formal letters. At one point, Khan tells us that acts of kindness from strangers stay with you; we’re left to wonder how many kind acts would it have taken to prevent Abu’s pivot to fundamentalist values.
The film’s straightforward confessional style won’t be everybody’s cup of tea. Although Abu begins with an animated dream sequence, the rest of the movie isn’t as polished. Much of the film is Khan speaking over amateur home video footage from the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, and I can’t stress the amateur part enough. At one point Abu decides to document his life on a smartphone, and commits cinematography’s cardinal sin: shooting video in portrait mode. When you factor in Khan’s calm and measured narration style, Abu gives off a sitting-on-your-friend’s-couch-and-watching-home-movies vibe. Whether or not you find his style grating is a matter of personal taste. The way Khan shot and edited Abu creates a sense of intimacy that works in the material’s favour. The low-fi aesthetic isn’t a problem unless you only enjoy glossy, hyper-stylized Netflix Original-quality docs.
Love and heartache are devastating forces that come crashing through our lives and then disappear as if they were never there. As the years get farther away and our memories grow vague, making sense of those feelings only gets harder. Fortunately for moviegoers, the Khan family have always been a band of cinephiles, with access to cameras and a desire to capture a lifetime’s worth of memories. In 80-minutes, Abu compresses the arc of a man’s entire life’s story — the love, conflict, and final absolution — and lays it bare for the world to see. The story’s details may be specific to the Khan family but Abu’s themes will resonate with anyone who has ever struggled to fit in — and hopefully, even those who haven’t.