Talking and discussing issues openly is the only way to solve them, change them, reflect on them. That’s precisely what Iram Haq tries to do with her latest film, El viaje de Nisha (What Will People Say), a film about a Norwegian teenage girl with Pakistani parents who is trapped between these two very different worlds. After getting caught with a guy in her room, her father decides to send her back to Pakistan. A striking film about survival, female emancipation, teenage rebellion, family relationships, shaming culture, and change.
Nisha is, just like you and me, a young girl who likes to hang around with friends, fall in love, listen to the latest music on Spotify, and buy beer and cigarettes without their parents’ knowledge or approval. But she comes from a conservative Pakistani family that doesn’t want her to be careless and free. So, after the incident with a Norwegian guy in her room – and her father beating the shit out of him –, she’s sent to Pakistan so she can learn how to behave properly.

That’s exactly what happened to Iram, the filmmaker behind this moving film. She’s wanted to tell this story for a long time, but according to her, she “needed more courage”. So, as time went by and her relationship with her father got better after he got cancer, she’s gained confidence and a new point of view to understand both sides of the story. Now, with a wiser perspective, she’s dared to tell on screen one of the most traumatic experiences of her teenage years in hopes that it will open a conversation that will lead to a major change. Today, we talk with her about the importance of freedom and hope, discussing issues in order to solve or change them, family values, and the #MeToo movement.
After your debut film, I Am Yours, you are now presenting El viaje de Nisha (What Will People Say). Both of them have autobiographical references. Is your own life the main starting point when thinking of a new film?
(Laughs) No, but it’s easy to find stuff from your own experience and then use it as inspiration to write. I wanted to tell this story from a very young age, I just didn’t know how. I was sure I would do it but I needed more courage. I Am Yours was a different journey. I was looking for what I wanted to tell and then I looked for inspiration in myself. So they were two different ways of starting.
You were kidnapped by your own family at the age of fourteen and they brought you to Pakistan for a year and a half, just like Nisha. You’ve said you couldn’t tell this chapter of your life until now because you’ve found a balance to tell – or, at least, understand – both sides of the story. So what changed? Why are you telling this very personal story just now?
First of all, I needed more courage, I needed to dare to tell it. And that’s key with age, of course. I also wanted to understand my parents (especially my father) and their views in order not to make just a black and white story about this poor girl who gets kidnapped. My aim was to show why do they do this, to dig deeper into that, to tell it in a wiser way – which was really a challenge. I kept writing and writing to get into the story and tell the father’s point of view as well, but I was always an angry young woman. So I waited.
My father fell ill. We were not in touch by then but I went to the hospital to visit him. He said he was sorry for what he did to me when I was young, which was very surprising. From then on, we started having a closer relationship, we became friends, and I got the chance to know and understand him better – who he was, why did he act that way he did, etc. He emigrated to Norway in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s; he found the new world scary and he was even more afraid when he saw that his daughter was a part of it. He felt like he was losing control. Also, he belonged to a very small world, the Pakistani community there and his family; their way of thinking was very conservative.
For me, it was very important to understand their point of view. And I understood that in these types of oppressive family structures, everyone – both the parents and the children – is in this kind of jail because they are all more focused on what other people may think instead of on doing what’s good for them. So it was key to know that – as well as not being angry – when doing the movie.
“Some may think I did a bad portrait of the situation, but that’s not my purpose. I just don’t want to hide an issue that is so big in this community and that affects so many.”
By the way, did your father get to see the film?
He had cancer and died before.
Oh, I’m sorry…
Thank you. One day, I went to his place and told him I wanted to make this movie and that I wanted to know his thoughts about it. He said he believed it was important for me to make it, to show how evil people can be when they are full of fear. That really surprised me. He was very open about it and wanted to come to the premiere.
What about the rest of your family?
I was also very nervous about their reaction. But they all watched it and were so proud and got a better understanding of my situation and my emotions. So, surprisingly, it all ended very well.
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While in Pakistan, Nisha suffers a lot of oppression: she has no phone, no passport, no money (and no possibility to earn any) and lives the boring life of a housewife (but not even having a husband). Nevertheless, her spirit keeps her alive and hoping for a brighter future. What kept you fighting day after day? What gave you hope back then?
We want to survive; I wanted to survive, Nisha wants it too. Back then, there was no Internet, so I didn’t know if I would even get back to Norway. I tried to fit in as well as I could, but at the same time, I was also trying to find my way out of Pakistan. Honestly, it was hard, really hard to live in that kind of situation. I had been there just once before – when I was a little child. It was not my own country, I grew up in Oslo. They were two different worlds.
Nisha is based a bit on yourself. So I’m curious to know how do you create or build a fictional character who goes through some of your past experiences. How is this process?
I normally start to write from a very personal point of view and then slowly keep developing and changing the script to turn it into fiction more and more. If I told my story as it is, it wouldn’t be so interesting on screen – it could even be easier to misunderstand. I start with myself and then it’s like a journey. I put the character in different situations to bring up some emotions that give a better understanding of the story.
What would you say are the main similarities and differences between Nisha and you?
I would say that, when I was young, we were pretty similar. I loved life, wanted to hang around with friends, fall in love, etc. I didn’t tell many things to my parents because I knew they would punish me – I was smart enough to understand that. But many young people do that! So I would say both Nisha and I were/are just normal teenagers.
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There’s a moment in the film in which the parents tell Nisha to not follow what ‘white people’ do, or either she’ll go crazy, and that she must follow the Pakistani traditions because they’re their own. I assume you were educated similarly. How did you balance your divided upbringing between Norwegian and Pakistani education?
Of course, there are good and bad things in every culture. But I was born in Norway, so I couldn’t totally agree with my parents on many things. I didn’t want to live a parallel life, I wanted to be part of the society I was growing up in, which I find very beautiful. So why shouldn’t I? Just like Nisha, I wanted to please my parents. I understand their traditions and culture, and I totally respect them, but that’s theirs, not mine.
You are also a mother. What have you taught your son about Pakistani culture? What values, traditions, or rituals do you think are worth keeping/transmitting?
My son is twenty years old now. What I mainly offered him from my parents’ tradition is the great food; I love Pakistani cuisine! (Laughs) Another thing that I find very beautiful in that culture is the way they take care of each other – although I think it should come natural in every culture to behave nicely with others, right? Well, these are the two main things I taught him. But besides these, I would say I didn’t teach him much of what my parents told me.
My way of thinking isn’t, “I’m Norwegian, so I must follow this”, or “I’m Pakistani, so I must follow that”. No. I taught him what I found best in life according to my own experience. He’s received a lot of love and a lot of freedom to choose the way he wanted to live his life. I’ve always respected him for who he is and what he wishes.
Actually, I’ve read that one of your main goals with this film is to build bridges between different cultures and generations, to open up conversations and discussions about the existing gaps or differences between people. So far, how is it going, according to the feedback you’ve received?
So far, I think it has been good. Many girls with Indian, Pakistani or South-Asian backgrounds have been contacting me. Of course, all types of young people, but especially these. And a lot of them need help. I wish more parents watched it but it’s hard for them to go and see something like this, I guess. Some may think I did a bad portrait of the situation, but that’s not my purpose. I just don’t want to hide an issue that is so big in this community and that affects so many. Young people are suffering because of this shaming culture and I think it’s important to talk about it so we can change it. This movie alone can’t change the situation and solve the problem, but it’s a start. It ignites conversations, debates, discussions.
“Of course, what my father did, what Nisha’s father does is wrong; but we have to try to understand the reasons why. That’s the only way we can, maybe, change things.”
Maybe it’s because I’m still in my twenties and have always done whatever I wanted with my life, but I got very angry at Nisha’s family and, generally, the Pakistani society’s beliefs of having to care 24/7 about other people’s opinions. When watching the movie, I couldn’t stop thinking: if I were her, I would’ve escaped already or denounced my family to the social services. Do you fear your film might have the opposite effect of building bridges and actually make some people think we shouldn’t tolerate this behaviour?
Of course, it’s a danger; people can react like that. But when you watch the film, you see the father is also trapped in this kind of jail. He loves Nisha but he does everything wrong. Their parents do things differently because they’re not well integrated, which brings us to a bigger discussion. If Nisha’s father, or for instance, mine, had been more integrated into Norwegian society, he wouldn’t have been so scared of his daughter hanging out with Norwegian friends – especially guys.
My father worked a lot and he barely had contact with Norwegian people, he barely developed relationships with them. Nevertheless, I think integration shouldn’t be one-way, it must be reciprocal. People who go to other countries must try to fit, but also, Norwegians should take care of the people who come to their country and include them in a wider sense, if you understand what I mean.
Yes, include them in the bigger conversation instead of treating them like second-class citizens.
I think it’s very important to understand why do some parents do these things. The question we should be asking is, what can we do differently so they will act differently? Instead of just pushing them away. Of course, what my father did, what Nisha’s father does, is wrong; but we have to try to understand the reasons why. That’s the only way we can, maybe, change things.
Another striking moment for me is when Nisha’s older brother talks about becoming a doctor and maybe even going to Poland to study, while they are also discussing if Nisha should be home-schooled so she doesn’t have contact with anyone else from the outside. It’s so frustrating to see.
It was like a prison for her to be followed like this, yes. But again, I must say the brother is also pushed into a situation where he tries to please his parents. He’s trying to do something that is expected of him; he’s doing what he thinks they will like. He’s in the same jail as Nisha.
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You’ve been working in the film industry for a while, and your movies, so far, talk about women’s oppression and struggles. What’s your opinion on the #MeToo movement and the overall film industry in general, from your personal experience?
I think it’s been good, it’s very important to have a movement like this. We need to focus on this subject because there are many women who go through the experience of sexual harassment, especially when we’re young. If we don’t talk about it, men can keep behaving like this forever. Just like in my film, I think it’s important to talk about things in order to change them and get rid of the bad ones. When I was younger, I also lived this harassment and received many comments, so I felt insecure. Nobody took me seriously because I was a young woman. But hopefully, we will be able to change this.
Just to finish, any plans for the future? Are you working on another film or are you still touring to film festivals with this one?
I’m writing a TV series based on a famous novel here in Norway, but it’s on an early stage. I’m also writing a script of my own but it’s really, really early, so there’s nothing to talk about. And yes, the film has been to many festivals and is still travelling a lot: Los Angeles, New York, Germany, Sweden, Italy, France, Switzerland, etc. It’s won several awards as well, I think eight or nine. I’m super proud and I feel fantastic!
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