'What Will People Say' Director Tapped Into "Every Corner of My Anxiety" for Norway's Oscar Submission

Iram Haq drew on her past for a poignant drama about a woman at odds with her tradition-bound Pakistani father.

Oslo-born and -raised filmmaker Iram Haq was 14 when her parents kidnapped her and forced her to leave her native country and live in Pakistan with relatives for more than a year. This dark point in Haq's life served as the inspiration for What Will People Say, a gripping father-daughter drama that follows Norwegian teenager Nisha, who is forced to live in Pakistan after her father catches her alone with her boyfriend.

The 42-year-old filmmaker spoke with THR about the challenges of tapping into "every corner of [her] anxiety" to craft a film that is at once highly personal and fictional, and how working on the script ultimately brought her and her father back together.

What Will People Say is clearly a very personal story for you.

Writing this story was a struggle because in the beginning I wrote it as an angry young woman, and I didn't know how to write the father figure. While I was writing, my father and I were not in touch with each other, but he fell sick, and I felt that I needed to go see him in the hospital because I didn't know if he was going to live for long. When I went there, he said sorry for what he did, and we became very, very close. It was an interesting thing for me personally, but also as a filmmaker because it gave me the chance to understand him without being so angry. I learned to understand his fear, who he was, why he acted the way that he did. And he wasn’t that proud man anymore, so I could ask him a lot of questions. And that helped the script a lot because it gave me a bigger understanding of why he was doing these things. Even if it wasn’t right, I could see where he was coming from.

So why was it so important to tell this story now?

When I grew up there was no one to guide me or tell me what was going to happen, and it surprised me so much that this is still happening to our girls and they don't have really a voice out there. And I felt like I should be that [voice]. And I was super afraid before releasing it of how people would react toward me. In a way it’s very controversial but on the other hand it’s so important to give these girls a voice and also to talk about social control, how that works, how that puts young people down. And also living in between two different cultures, what kind of issues you’re dealing with there.  

What were some of the challenges of making this film?

I tried to give it away to someone else to write because it was hard for me to dig into my old problems and pain and to go into every corner of my anxiety and to write it out. But it was very good for me. And also how to balance a not-black-and-white story, how to try to understand both the parents and Nisha.

You’ve mentioned that you didn’t want the protagonist to appear as just the victim and you didn’t want the parents to appear as just the villains. Do you think you’ve accomplished that?

Well, you can see that there is love between the father and the daughter. It’s a story especially about these two people. And I feel like throughout the film you see slowly that the father, especially In the scene where they are marrying his daughter off, you see that the father feels like this is wrong. He has dreams that his daughter is going to choose what she is going to do [career-wise], and marrying her off to this guy in Canada [means] she would not work and [instead] stay home. And when he looks at his daughter he can see that she’s not happy. I really wanted the parents to see that they had to work on themselves and not put that pressure on the young people. 

What type of conversations do you hope this film will generate?

I hope that this film opens some doors for these girls, that girls who get kidnapped and almost get killed can get a voice out there so they can get help. I hope that social workers and those around them can be more helpful to these girls. For instance, in Norway when I was speaking about this film many people didn’t know how to handle these things because they were afraid to be called racists if they did something [wrong] because they don’t know enough about other cultures. I hope that this film can open up [conversations] so we can start to discuss, take away taboos, have more open conversations about these kinds of problems and questions so we have a future where we see more strong women who feel safe and can follow their gut feelings and not follow what people expect from them.

A version of this story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.