Abu: the patriarch is the trigger, not the whole story - Drew Rowsome - Moving Pictures - MyGayToronto

Abu: the patriarch is the trigger, not the whole story

REVIEW by Drew Rowsome

14 April 2018

Filmmaker Arshad Khan lives in the intersection of several contemporary hot button issues. So much so that his biographical film Abu, almost requires an update before each screening. The cultural landscape is changing that quickly. Changing while remaining tragically the same. 

Khan is gay, Muslim, Pakistani-Canadian and a #MeToo survivor. While the documentary is titled Abu, the Urdu word for father, the film is about Khan and his struggle to feel at home in the world. Abu traces his disconnect all the way back to well before his birth, when the partition of India and Pakistan first uprooted his father. It was only the first of many.

Fortunately for Abu, Khan's father acquired one of the first VHS recorders in Pakistan and Khan's life, from childhood, is extensively documented. Much of the footage is intimate and, as Khan says in the narration, fraudulent: home movies only show the facade, only the happy times. And the happy times do look wonderful, family outings, dancing to vibrant pop music both western and eastern, catching the casual affection that exists between siblings and between children and parents. 

The nostalgic sweetness doesn't last. Khan's deadpan but hypnotic narration has provided a counterpoint to the family footage, and to his mounting despair and confusion. The edits become punctuation. The film zeroes in on pointed moments - Khan and his brother being forced to kiss their father during his birthday party (birthday cakes are used as a potent creepy metaphor), his sister's fleetingly surfacing unease during her wedding festivities, a piercing glance of despair and anger from his mother when Khan is visibly fey - to show just how fractured the family really is.

It is the accumulation of details that overwhelm in the same way that life seems to have overwhelmed Khan. A jump cut from Pakistan greenery to Mississauga drabness shows visually how drastic the difference is. The realization that the events of 9/11 and his Pakistani passport are going to disrupt his career as a flight attendant and his entire existence. Finally daring to dance jubilantly on a Pride parade float while his voiceover intones, "But all the world's prejudices show up in the gay world. Your race, your weight, your dick, all have to measure up."

Khan never loses empathy for his father, even when the man becomes fundamentalist and in direct conflict with Khan's inner core. This lack of drama - the family is as repressed as the WASPs who inhabit EM Forster's Maurice, a book an insightful high school librarian suggests to Khan - doesn't flatten the film as much as it heightens the tragedy. When the evil and horror that only a family can produce is treated by all, and by the film, in such a matter of fact manner, it is truly insidious and suffocating.

Khan does have the insight to realize that he and his father are on parallel courses - the father finding family in the army, Khan in activism and the gay community - and that is visualized through animated dream sequences that link the two's psyches. There is also an animated sequence, a glorious one, when the 14-year-old Khan falls in love with a youth named Elvis and the love is returned. It is as if, as in the technicolour fantasy Bollywood clips and the equally technicolour fantasy '80s music videos interspersed, heightened emotions or real emotions can only be expressed at a distance through art. Or through a documentary.

We never get to directly see the central conflict suggested by the title, but we explicitly see another tragedy. Khan describes himself as a child as "a momma's boy." We see his mother as a glamorous fun-loving woman in a restrictive marriage. She blossoms after immigrating, but it is squelched when the father's adoption of hardcore religion infects her as well. The colourful clothing and smile are replaced by a monochromatic head scarf and pursed lips, the love for her son with confusion. There is footage of the truly heinous Dr Farhat Hashmi, a lifesucking televangelist, that contrasts with the father's jubilant encounter with a poet/musician, trading rhymes and riffs instead of prohibitions. 

And of course the father is filmed on his deathbed, where it is impossible not to sympathize and relate to the reconciliation. The mother has to settle for being interviewed on camera, growing visibly more uncomfortable and prickly. When his mother expresses her desire for Khan to get married, he protests that he has a boyfriend. She replies, "I totally didn't hear that." She missed one step in the father's journey from liberal to reactionary to accommodating.

There are so many little stories, so many unsolved mysteries (the mother has an intense one), so many characters, that Abu feels like many dangling threads failing to be resolved. But that is what life is like, that is what Khan's life is apparently like: no catharsis, just a continual struggle to understand, live, love and forgive. Home is not guaranteed and even chosen family can prove difficult, but Khan's unique intensely personal journey, full of intersections, intersects with all of us. We all have either had to come out, deal with religious tyranny, felt like an outsider, and/or had a rocky moments in relationships with parents. As Abu attempts to untangle the threads, we get to reflect on ours. And wish for more animated sequences and for actual change.

Abu opens at the Yonge-Dundas Cineplex on Friday, April 13.