A review on Canadian feature length documentary film, Abu aka Father (2017). It’s Production House and Distributor is Gray Matter Production / Loaded Pictures.
- Written, DOP, Directed & Produced by Arshad Khan
- Co-Written by Matt Jones
- Co-DOP by Bob Gundu, Franck Le Coroller, Justin Black & Shannon Harris
- Edited by Etienne Gagnon
- Music by Michael Robert Snow
Abu is a debut documentary feature length film by Arshad Khan. He has documented his struggles with his sexual identity on a journey to self-finding and acceptance within the family. Using the archives of the family photos and videos, it explores his family’s story, homosexuality and often tense relationship with his father.
Though this documentary is originally shot in English language, there is however a Hindi/Urdu version for South Asian audiences as well. Before Abu, Arshad has made a number of short films including shorts Threadbare (2008), Brownie (2011), Doggoned (2012), Valery’s Suitcase (2016) and Zen (2012).
Deepa Mehta, who happens to be a famous an Indo-Canadian film director & screenwriter, is this documentary’s narrative director. Deepa is best known for her Elements Trilogy, Fire (1996), Earth (1998) and Water (2005). Sylvain Bellemare & Mimi Alard are Abu documentary’s sound designers while Sergeo Kirby co-produced it.
Abu had its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2017. Also in the same year, it screened at the Dharamshala International Film Festival and the next year at the Kashish International Mumbai Queer Festival in 2018. It has also screened at BFI London Film Festival, LA Film Festival, Fantasia International Film a Festival. This documentary has won 12 awards including for Best Feature, Best Documentary and Jury Awards. Since then it is shown on the Canadian broadcasting network CBC TV as well. Unfortunately, due to its content, Abu is to yet to be shown / released in Pakistan.
Due to sensitivity of the subject, the names of the main cast are intentionally avoided in this review. There are some SPOILERS ahead!
+ Main Cast
- Abu as Father
- Arshad Khan as Son
- Ammi as Mother
- Baaji as Sister
As a gay man, the film maker, Arshad Khan explores his troubled relationship with his religiously devote, Pakistani Muslim father.
+ High Points
i – The usage of the video archive, pictures while going back n forth and talking about the past & the present is certainly not an easy task to do. To deal with such a touchy subject in a non-linear narrative, one needs to hire a really good editor to do the job. And this documentary has made their promise come true.
ii – Arshad Khan’s direction may surprise many people as this is his directorial debut for a documentary feature length film. By showing the viewers of his father’s origin to his enlisting in the army to his marriage, having children till Arshad’s life starts to come into focus. We then see how the dark past of his unfolds, which may have changed his liking towards sexuality, discovering, accepting himself in a foreign community and eventually facing his parents on a topic which is still considered a taboo in sub continent countries.
The way it is shown in this documentary, without making it obscene or vulgar have made the viewers to come closer to such a sensitive subject. Those people, who are already facing such similar problems in their lives, may learn how to deal with it. And as for others, who see this issue in bad light… well, now they might give a second thought on them and try to treat them as human beings. Arshad has been able to make that bridge between these two different types of people on their understanding towards this subject.
iii – I believe that not only just his father had three different images that he portrayed of himself but we all do. Such as, his father’s first image was for the people who barely knew him and the outside world. The second image was for his family, close friends and relatives. The ones who were the closest to him and knew him personally. And the third one was just for himself. This image is a conflict with our inner demons where we question ourselves on our acts and thoughts.
The reason behind this is that, not only how his father was reluctant to talk to his son on his sexuality even after coming out in the open, Arshad’s father was by nature was shown to be more reserved and self centered.
Although, he loved all of his children very much but still had some serious communication gap with them especially with Arshad that made them draw away from their father. After having the ‘Dream’, his father was really shaken up by it. He then soon decides what his ultimate goal now is and starts to act on it almost immediately. He even starts to mend things up with those who meant to him a lot, such as his children. It was his inner call that made him to reach out towards them.
iv – There were some of the film references given in the documentary, including some song references that bought out the real beauty of this film. The situations which Arshad had to deal with on different times of his life and at times the real life was played out in a very much typical scene taken from a Bollywood film was a good call, by the director to make this documentary more interesting to watch.
v – The emotional end of having the person staring silently at the open sky. This technique is often used to bring out the dramatic effect mainly in documentaries based on their personal tragic journeys. Good thing is that it works well with this documentary.
vi – There are a number of people behind the camera who gathered and shot different timelines footage. You would fall in love with the vintage videos Arshad has of his family. Besides the video footage shown of Arshad’s family past (recorded in VHS format since his childhood days), the present footage taken to make this documentary possible including where the interviews had been taken, have come out nicely.
vii – The usage of the animation to reenact a scene, dream sequence, is one of the best ways to show his side of the story.
+ Low Points
i – The title of the film is Abu as Arshad’s father is the center person where his son, Arshad’s troubled relationship revolves with. Although, his father’s different turning points are shown in detail from his upbringing to what he did in life for his family, the multiple businesses that he switched on to, his struggles to survive after the migration at a foreign country, turning himself to be a religious devotee and finally towards redemption.
Even after showing all that, I feel as a viewer I still do not know Arshad’s father on a personal level. Such as how exactly he treated his children which made Arshad specially to grow so much apart from his father long before he gets to know of his sexuality? We never get to see his father’s personal interactions with his children in detail but only briefly mentioned at some places.
We know that his father had a short temper and did lots of shouting. And by having long history of past different experiences in his life, have made him a person unlikely to develop close or friendly relationship with his children. However, with all that keeping in mind, he was a father who was unable to express his love to his children in a manner where their mother was able to do it successfully.
I just feel that we (as a viewer) didn’t really get to know of his father the way that we wanted to, as we should have been. Either the director on-purposely skipped to talk on this explicitly or maybe because of the communication gap he had with his father, Arshad too was kept in the dark as well.
A handful of documentaries that I consider them in ten best list, out of which Abu is certainly one of them.
Rate: 4.50 out of 5 stars