Overview: Canadian-Pakistani documentarian Arshad Khan recounts his difficult upbringing as a gay Muslim in a fundamentalist immigrant home. TCDM Associates; 2017; Not Yet Rated; 80 minutes.
So Close Yet So Far: The most objective documentaries are always the hardest ones to review. Stripped of any kind of creative stamp or focus other than the dry regurgitation of facts, interviews, or images, it’s nearly impossible to review them without simply recounting everything that was shown or said like you were writing lecture notes. At a glance, Arshad Khan’s Abu should be the exact opposite: it’s an intimate recounting of the director’s troubled youth as a gay Pakistani immigrant in Canada interspersed with animated sequences and clips from classic Pakistani movies that comment on the action. It deals with broad, sweeping themes like the struggle between Western individuality and Middle Eastern community, sexual discovery and identity in the wake of childhood assault, and the bond between father and son. And the film is also a passionate political diatribe against the War on Terror and the persecution of Muslims in the West. After all, 9/11 happened soon after his family moved to Canada and he saw the ensuing anti-Islam hysteria up close. Yet for all this, Abu still feels somehow hollow, somehow unfinished.
But how could this be? After a good deal of thought, I came to the conclusion that while Khan gives many surface details of his life, many of the details remain just that: surface ones. Take his handling of Islam, one of the defining aspects of his life. He grew up in a relatively moderate Muslim household in Islamabad. But his stern father—called “Abu” after the Pakistani word for “father”—experienced a religious awakening. Despite being a cinephile and amateur photographer, his father declared them haram along with singing, dancing, and even birthdays. When they moved to Canada, he retreated further into fundamentalism, subjecting Khan to fire-and-brimstone sermons on cassette tape when he began to suspect his homosexuality. Even when Khan moved to college, his father would send him aggressive emails asserting his paternal and religious authority. Later in his life he would be consumed by visions beckoning him on pilgrimages to the Holy Land.
But here’s the kicker: through all this, Khan barely mentions what his faith means to him on a personal level. He explains that in college he joined a club for gay Muslims, but there’s no other mention of a reconciliation between his sexual identity and his faith. He doesn’t even describe a rejection of that faith. The closest we get is an implied sense of quasi-religious wonder when his father fulfills one of his received prophecies by dying at exactly 3:00 AM. Even when Abu recounts his years as an anti-war activist in the wake of 9/11, years where he once stormed a talk show and browbeat a pundit explaining that the people of the Middle East would welcome American and Canadian troops as “liberators,” we don’t feel he did so out of religious conviction. Fury towards a capitalist war machine? Certainly. Anger at the media’s portrayal of Middle Easterners as homicidal fundamentalists? Of course. But sympathy towards a faith the West has never bothered to try and understand? That’s a different story.
Eventually the empathetic disconnect between viewer and filmmaker becomes uncanny and uncomfortable. Abu mentions a handful of times that he was molested as a child, and late in the film he reveals that he had possibly repressed memories of repeated rapes. Even worse: we learn that one of his siblings and possibly his mother were also raped as children. But Khan seems generally nonplussed by this discovery of intergenerational child abuse. He quickly moves on from the subject after the requisite somber montage of childhood photos. If he suspected his father of knowledge or complicity in this cycle, if he has any conclusions about the source of this abuse or the forces that have kept the victims silent for so many years, he doesn’t mention them. This is a crucial directorial miscalculation.
Overall: Arshad Khan has a fascinating life story. For all my issues with Abu, I can’t fault him for ambition. But it tells too much while explaining too little. Despite all its bells and whistles, it left me with little more emotional or artistic fulfillment than one of those banal objective documentaries that are the bane of film critics.
Featured Image: Outplay Films