BFI London Film Festival: Abu

Directed by Arshad Khan
Screening at LFF October 13th, 14th, 2017

by Joanna Orland

Abu is an ambitious documentary detailing filmmaker Arshad Khan’s life, as well as serving as an ode to his late father. Arshad’s background is rather complex, having faced the challenge of growing up gay in a Muslim family in Pakistan, later immigrating to Canada. Using footage of home movies alongside various film clips, Arshad’s narration is overlaid, recounting his entire personal history. There is so much to discuss it feels as if his story is actually too grand for an 80-minute documentary that’s supposed to be focused on his father, a subject from which it mostly strays.

There is much interesting, relevant and universal content to Arshad’s story as he discusses culture clash, immigration, homosexuality and systemic sexual abuse, as well as his relationship with his father. It’s hard to fault the filmmaker as all of this has made him who he is, and all of it important on an ubiquitous scale. But, Abu merely touches upon many things without true insight or commentary on any specific aspect, least of all the relationship between him and his father.

I can actually see Abu working better as a dramatized feature film about a narrower aspect of Arshan’s story, using subtext to touch upon the rest. Taking Arshan’s voice and personal closeness to the subject out of the film could give it a more pervasive appeal. Arshan’s narration, while very intimate, somewhat detracts from the universal matter of this story. Arshan’s deadpan delivery lacks a bit of empathy, whereas the story itself has it in abundance. The content is merely skimmed over when I longed for it to dig deeper into nearly every facet of what was being shared. In spite of hearing Arshad’s supposed entire life story, I feel like I hardly know him at all.

Criticism comes from caring, as there are so many wonderful ideas to Abu, and the story is quite harrowing once you go over it again in your mind. Such a personal story is overly ambitious for any documentary filmmaker to tell; revealing himself to the world, not wanting to paint his family in a bad light, all the while creating a tribute in the name of his late father. Abu is certainly a good starting point, and ideally Arshad Khan develops his story further; writing a novel or creating a dramatized feature would be the fitting tribute his father, and Arshad himself deserve.


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