A Gay Muslim and his Father
Gay filmmaker Arshad Khan examines his troubled relationship with his devout, Muslim father Abu as he explores his struggle with his identity. The word “Abu” is the Pakistani word for father and we are with Khan as he shares his childhood, memories that are joyful and gentle in the family’s native Pakistan, where the children thrived and celebrated in a beautiful home with a lovely garden. As a young child, Khan remembers being something of a gender outlaw, relating to the girls more than the boys, cross-dressing and acting out in a way that left some family members unnerved. Then due to economic circumstances, the family moved to Canada just as Khan was hitting puberty, and he experienced severe alienation in his high school because of racism and homophobia.
When Kahn realized he was gay, this didn’t go well with his parents, especially because his father became more and more preoccupied with living his life as a devout Muslim. There were inevitable conflicts. We see Khan’s inner emotional world while he reflects on his family’s struggle to reconcile with modernity making this documentary at times emotionally challenging to watch.
In 2010 after his father died and while preparing for the memorial service, Khan came across beautiful photos and videos and even though he had seen them many times before, he realizes that he now saw them differently and understood how he could use them. He had already made several short films and was now facing a challenge about himself and his sexuality. In making “Abu” he would explore every aspect of his childhood even those that were uncomfortable. He remembered being sexually abused at a very young age by a friend of the family. His family thought that he was making a film that would glorify his father and he thought that he would be able to tell an objective and impersonal tale about migration and sexuality and its challenges but he realized that he would have to be honest.
Khan’s voiceover and interviews with family members are interspersed with video footage and bits of Asian pop culture. He noticed that captured images on film give clues into people and he then began to trust his own instincts and decisions.This is a very intimate film that does not compromise the integrity of the film or the characters and the subject matter. In an interview with his mother, we see her condemn him because he is gay. She feels a great deal of shame for herself and the family because of his decision to be out. He thought a lot about how his father would have felt if he were still alive. The film is a kind of posthumous collaboration of he and his father due to the use of the videos that his shot and photos he took. Khan believes that his father have liked the fact that he brutally honest and did not compromise anyone’s integrity.
This is a story tale that was painful at times for both son and father, but by the time the final credits roll, we appreciate and understand what a cathartic experience the film was for Khan in that his family was not able to know about and share his story. Khan was born in Pakistan into a wealthy middle-class family. His father was an army engineer who loved the latest technical gadgetry, and they were one of the very few families to actual own a video camera in the 1980’s. His father left the Army, made a fortune, and then lost it and so decided to try for a new start and emigrate to Canada. Because he was effeminate, Khan never made any friends on Pakistan and thought that a new beginning again in a more liberal culture where he was totally unknown, would be perfect for him.
He was wrong about this and he bullying continued. He tells us that being gay in his culture means that there are more repercussions than usual and his mother would have to deal with the burden of shame for her if he ever decided to come out publicly.
Liberation came at the University when he found an actual LGBT community and his voice and calling as an activist. The trouble is that it all coincided with his father’s decision to become more deeply religious, and after 9/11 he became ultra-conservative and insisted the entire family revert back to traditional Pakistani rituals.
Khan had long held back secrets from his father even as a very young child when he was habitually sexually abused by other male family members, so now not being able to share his new life not different for him. His father once said that homosexuality was no different than being a drug addict or a murderer. Khan uses this documentary to enable him for once in his life to be completely open and be himself in a way that he never could do when his father was alive. Khan’s story, beautifully told, is very intimate and personal and is totally relatable. We can only hope that it will help others in similar circumstances begin the journeys of coming-out and self-acceptance.