Many second-generation immigrants live double lives. Caught between the old world and the new, they're tasked with navigating allegiances to their parents and assimilating into their native culture. For Iram Haq, this experience was a singular and traumatizing one. More than a decade later, she's still recovering.

A major step toward healing came in the form of filmmaking. Haq's harrowing second feature, What Will People Say, is the autobiographical story of her kidnapping—perpetrated by her parents. Maria Mozhdah plays 16-year-old Nisha (a fictionalized character based on teenage Haq), a vibrant young girl who deftly navigates the chasm that divides her identities. On the one hand, she's a regular Norwegian teenager, caught up in boys and her friends; at home, however, she's a dutiful Pakistani daughter who respects her family's traditions and is studying to become a doctor.

The delicate balancing act comes crashing down when Nisha's father, Mirza (Adil Hussain), catches his daughter with her clandestine Norwegian boyfriend. She has no say in what happens next: her parents force her into a car, drive her to the airport, and ship her off to Pakistan, where she will live with relatives she has never met in a country to which she's never been. 

"I had been traumatized in my teens in Pakistan, and I didn’t want to go back to shoot there."

Once there, things go from bad to worse. Nisha discovers that, as a young woman, she has little to no agency in the patriarchal society. Very quickly, her dignity erodes. Her voice falls upon deaf ears. Despite recognizing the hypocrisy in Pakistani men's attitudes toward sex and women, there is nothing Nisha can do about it; their indignance runs deep, driving some to humiliate and abuse Nisha. Meanwhile, Nisha must attempt to reconcile the very complex nature of her situation, which Haq takes care to address: her parents love her, yet they are perpetuating her oppression and endangering her.

What Will People Say is a difficult watch. The camera remains tight on Nisha throughout, creating a sense of mounting claustrophobia and a front-row view of the girl's learned helplessness. But as the gravitas of the circumstances intensifies, Mozhdah's performance becomes stronger and more nuanced; in the absence of words, the actress relies on body language, and the vérité-style cinematography by Nadim Carlsen becomes ever more expressive. 

No Film School briefly caught up with Haq before her film's New York premiere to discuss the difficulty of the writing process, why she decided against shooting in Pakistan, and more.

NFS: What Will People Say is a very personal film. Can you tell me about the process of writing the script? You have previously said that it "took years to develop and be ready to tell this story."

Iram Haq: It was a very long process. This was a story I wanted to tell since I was a very young girl. I just knew that I needed to have more courage. I wanted to transform my own story into a fiction in a way that would give myself and the audience a better understanding.

I started to write the script in full in 2015, but it was really hard. I tried to give it away to other writers, but I ended up doing it myself so I could understand the story well before shooting it. It was a hard journey. In the beginning, writing the script almost felt like throwing up. At that time, the script felt like it was something written by an angry teenage girl. I was really struggling. 

During the process of writing, my elderly father, who I was not in touch with for many years, fell ill. I knew I needed to see him because I wasn’t sure if he would be alive for very long. He said sorry for everything he had done to me, which I never expected. We became very close and I finally got the chance to understand who he was and why he acted as he did. All his love for me and the fear of losing me has influenced the script and the movie.

Whatwillpeoplesay_1280'What Will People Say'Credit: Kino Lorber

NFS: What was the most challenging element of production, and how did you tackle it?

HaqSeveral phases were challenging. First, it was finding the money for production. Then, it was finding the right actress for the main character. After that, it could be challenging every day while directing on set and in the post-production. But every day was exciting making the movie.

NFS: How did you talk with your cinematographer about the aesthetic of the film, both creatively and technically?

Haq: We had a very interesting journey finding the right look for the film. It was a challenge to film in so many countries and I was afraid we would make totally different looks—which we did, in a way, because we were shooting both Norway and Pakistan. The contrast between Norway and Pakistan is good because it shows how big a gap it is for Nisha to go from one part of the world to the other and try to fit in.

Aesthetically, we tried to follow Nisha’s emotional journey and at the same time tried to keep things the way they look like in real life.

25_betacinema_what_will_people_say_copyright_mer_film'What Will People Say'Credit: Kino Lorber

NFS: Where did you film, and why did you make those choices?

Haq: I filmed in Norway, Sweden, Germany, and in India for Pakistan.

The film takes place in Norway, and the drive where Nisha gets kidnapped is the same route as I traveled when I was young through Sweden and Germany.

We chose to film in India for several reasons. We met a good film producer in India that we collaborated very well with. Also, I had been traumatized in my teens in Pakistan, and I didn’t want to go back to shoot there. It might have been too much to handle for me.

NFS: What about working with your production designer? There were some interesting choices in terms of juxtaposing Norway and Pakistan.

Haq: I worked with one local production designer from India for the Pakistan portion of the film, and worked with one Norwegian production designer for Norway/Sweden/Germany. I chose the same approach for the costume designer. That made those worlds more authentic. They could help me to make the world appear as close as it looks like in real life.

NFS: What was the most rewarding element of making this film?

Haq: This is not just my story. It is a story about many young girls around the world that experience social control by their family and their community. I am very satisfied that this film has maybe given these girls a voice out there. Hopefully, this will be a step towards ending social control.

For more information on 'What Will People Say,' click here