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Eliza Taylor

Abu Documentary

Filmmakers are adept at the art of disguise, especially when it comes to their own stories. Sometimes it merely involves a change in name and location – Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy is premised on the director’s real-world romantic encounter – though sometimes it involves experiences being filtered through a lens of genre. Loneliness tone-poems Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola) and Her (Spike Jonze), for instance, arguably reveal themselves to be companion pieces on the duo’s failed marriage when viewed back-to-back.

There’s no better visual exploration of this facet of storytelling in recent years than Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals. Ford’s sophomore effort sees author Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaaal) deal, perhaps pettily, with the emotional trauma of witnessing his wife’s infidelity through a car windshield. Sheffield pens a rural rape-revenge novel in which protagonist Tony Hastings (also Jake Gyllenhaal) witnesses physical trauma through a similar window. While Ford’s film cuts incisively at the often-juvenile heart of this disguise and its misuse by many straight male storytellers, the film’s early moments also feature a closeted gay socialite (Michael Sheen) walking around in the ill-fitting visage of a heterosexual. Disguise, as Ford posits, isn’t just a storytelling tool, but a necessary mechanism for survival. What then, one wonders, begins to take shape when a filmmaker strips away both the secret language of visual narrative – an often obfuscating cipher – as well as the walls guarding the secrets of their own life?

Arshad Khan, director and narrator of Abu, is all too familiar with hiding in plain sight. A gay man from a conservative Pakistani background, his family immigrated to Mississauga, Ontario in 1991 when Arshad was just sixteen – too young to have found his footing yet, but too old for a childhood do-over. The film itself comes packaged as a first-person tale about a boy and his father. “Abu” is a loving term for fathers in Urdu, and the film features “Papa Kehte Hain Bada Naam Karega” (“Father Says I Will Make Him Famous”) from Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, the rare Bollywood father-son songs, immediately following its haunting animated opening. However, Abu spans the breadth of a lifetime of experiences, both personal and collective, both hilarious and heartbreaking, as Arshad Khan bears his soul via lyrical voiceover and personal home videos spanning several decades. Read More »