In What Will People Say (Hva vil folk si), 16-year-old Nisha is trying to balance two worlds. At home in Oslo, she does her best to live the traditional life that her Pakistani parents expect her to. But outside, she is comfortable with the life of a typical Norwegian teenager. She plays sports; she hangs out with friends and smokes marijuana; she accepts the advances of a sincere white suitor. But when her father, Mirza, finds the boy in her room at night, he assumes, incorrectly, that his daughter has been deflowered, and he beats her boyfriend.
Influenced by the opinions of others in the Pakistani community, and aided by his wife and Nisha’s brother, he forces her to fly with him to Pakistan. There he leaves Nisha in the hands of her aunt and uncle, who burn her passport and warn her that if she misbehaves, they’ll marry her off to a peasant and “You’ll be milking buffaloes for the rest of your life.”
Although Nisha does take an interest in her heritage, and particularly its cuisine, she breaks the rules again with a male cousin. They are brutally punished by the police. Mirza hauls her back to Norway, where she clashes with her parents again and feels obligated to lie on their behalf to Family Services investigators.
I had the pleasure of spending time with writer-director Iram Haq and then to moderate a question and answer session with her after a screening. The audience was riveted by Haq’s presentation because she spoke so honestly about the fact that the film is heavily autobiographical. In real life, Haq was 14 years old when her father and brother kidnapped her and dumped her with relatives in Pakistan.
Haq told us that she felt a need to tell her story at a time when she was estranged from her parents. Then her father contracted a fatal illness. She reestablished contact with him and they reconciled. But Haq said that the hardest part of making What Will People Say was getting over the lingering anger she felt at the way she was treated by her parents.
In the film, early on we are led to believe this is the story of men exploiting women. However, after Nisha returns to Oslo, it becomes clear that her mother is very much a driving force in her daughter’s oppression. When I broached this subject with Haq, she not only agreed, but added that her aunt was the worst enforcer during the year she spent in Pakistan.
Haq also explained that she was unable to find a Pakistani-Norwegian actress to play the role of Nisha. Maria Mozhdah, who took the part, and is painfully convincing, is a refugee from Afghanistan.
Iram Haq’s previous film, I Am Yours, which was Norway’s Oscar entry five years ago, was also semi-autobiographical and dealt with the themes of living in two cultures and searching for love.