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Haya Waseem’s Quickening is part of a new wave of immigrant films from Canadian filmmakers telling first-generation tales of having to choose between freedom and family duty in a new and strange land.
“It’s a coming-of-age story, but the character comes of age in Canada,” says Waseem, who was born in Pakistan and raised in Switzerland before immigrating to Canada at age 16. Quickening combines YA angst with an immigration tale, told from the perspective of a 19-year-old woman in a Canadian Pakistani household in Toronto.
“To me, Canada is a very neutral environment. The benefit of being Canadian is that you can come from any background, and no one questions where you’re from,” says Waseem, who has since moved from Toronto to be based in Brooklyn, New York, as a filmmaker.
Quickening tells the story of Sheila (Arooj Azeem), who has room to grow in Canada beyond the expectations and constraints of her family home. That narrative is in part a product of Waseem’s own upbringing, as the script for her debut feature came about after long conversations with her friends, extended family and Pakistani community.
The result is an exploration of a young woman of color coveting romance and acceptance in a new country, only to face heartbreak and her family unravelling due to financial problems.
But adding the layer of a Pakistani family coming from a part of the world not as liberal as Canada serves to torque the dramatic tension in Quickening. “The conflict comes from what you’re used to as suppression, and a form of being oppressed and being used to that, and suddenly having this veil lifted and told, ‘You have freedom, you don’t have to worry about how you’re dressed and how you’re behaving,’ ” Waseem explains.
Nearing the end of her first year at college, Sheila has to contend with the reality that her family is living well beyond their means, occupying a big house they can’t afford and headed toward a financial cliff. “In the Pakistani house, it’s about hosting and having the appearance of wealth and generosity, and in Sheila’s family, the father is not necessarily generating a house that’s large and opulent for the community. He falls short,” Waseem says.
Sheila also begins to see her life unravel when, after losing her virginity, her young lover suddenly breaks up with her and she feels even more estranged from her friends, family and community. But Waseem leaves Sheila’s intimacy mostly to the imagination, as her camera reveals some embracing — but certainly no nudity.
“It’s because I’m going further than I can bear to go telling this story,” she says of an onscreen coyness reflected in her name, Haya, which in Urdu means shyness and a sense of modesty.
In Pakistan or Bollywood, explicit sexual content and nudity is rarely shown onscreen. “It’s too vulgar,” declares Waseem. “It’s shameful. In fact, like Bollywood movies I grew up with, it would be comical because you’d see two characters embrace and then you’d see flowers. I kind of became inspired by that.”
She adds that Quickening strikes a balance between what felt truthful to the director and what proved too daring to the point she’d “break off ties from what I’d been taught.”
The Canadian director insists she’s trying to keep the gravity of the film’s bow in perspective, while feeling the usual pre-premiere jitters. “I try to think it’s still home where I would chase around [TIFF] programmers at 19, and now at 30 I’m invited based on a film I worked very hard on for 10 years,” she says.
Waseem’s film has its world premiere Sept. 12 at Bell Lightbox, on the opening weekend of the Toronto International Film Festival.
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