My parents emigrated from Pakistan to America over thirty years ago, with the hope of starting a new, better life. They had hoped they would keep their cultural and religious legacy by raising their children with the same principles and beliefs as the ones with which they grew up. In Pakistan, my parents lived in political unrest and economic instability. My father, realizing his only way out of a country that aims to keep its citizens uneducated, headed to university and studied genetics. After graduating, he married my mother and brought her to America. Their immigration was made possible because of his educational background and work credentials. They formed a family in a small home in northwest Chicago; my parents were pioneers venturing into an unknown land—one which they’d only heard or seen in American films or television.
My parents raised my siblings and I in Chicago. My family felt an obligation to uphold a cultural and religious legacy, fearing it would otherwise disappear . As I reached adolescence, there was a growing rift between my parents and myself. I began to question the faith and the social conservatism with which I had been raised. Why were Muslim men allowed within scripture to marry non-Muslim women, but the inverse was not also true? Why were women expected to wear hijab to keep from attracting male attention (even though males were similarly expected to lower their gaze)?
These questions led me down a path of self-discovery, which included sexual exploration and eventually, self-love. My experiences—clashing with my parents, keeping a secret boyfriend and even eventually leaving home to go away to college, despite their wishes—all inform Hala. In my extensive research, I have not found another film that explores a Muslim-American female’s sexual experiences and/or growth. While many other films, including Blue is the Warmest Color, It Felt Like Love, Margaret, A Teacher, Palo Alto, explore sex and adolescence, no films have explored this experience from a Muslim-American and female perspective.
Hala is a universal story, accessible and relatable to a wide audience — those who love coming-of-age stories, in addition to cinephiles and lovers of independent film who can appreciate a story from the perspective of an underrepresented demographic. I want an audience to experience the ennui of youth, which they’ve likely felt themselves, how adherence to faith and sexual exploration can coexist, and how the search for telos or purpose is a lifelong one.
As an aggressively visual experience, Hala is a burst of feeling—full of life, color, and rich detail; a sexual awakening through an intimate and subjective perspective. Hala’s friends, family and romantic liaisons will all be depicted through her lens. Much of the film will be absorbed through close-ups; if ever there was a film that could be told through the history of a face, it would be this one—the manner in which emotions wash over Hala’s face alone suggest the narrative arc of the film. Hala is spare and economical in dialogue; sound design, rather than dialogue, will play a major role in conveying the mental state of our protagonist. Is she sad? Does she feel like disappearing? How does she escape her life at home? My approach will utilize long takes with a constantly searching handheld camera and minimum dialogue. Hala is as much about the silence as it is about the sound—what is unspoken, or the negative space between the words, is as meaningful as the words themselves.
In its tone, Hala borrows heavily from modern Iranian cinema. A Separation is a major inspiration for the family dynamic in Hala. In each act of Hala, I aim to present an ethical dilemma and irreversible decision that catapults our protagonist to a place of no return. The emotional stakes are high even when the subject matter is adolescence. To reiterate, the film’s namesake is our protagonist, a sixteen-year old Muslim-American teenager. This is a story of a person, and of a life lived.
My hope is for Hala to be shot on a small budget, so that I can take the emotional and creative risks my story necessitates. The goal is to shoot the short film this fall, workshop the feature script early next year, revise the script, raise equity financing for the project and enter production either in late summer or early fall with the goal of completing post-production by that winter.
As with my first feature, One Night, I am determined to make the film with the minimum budget necessary to execute my vision. I expect the project to be eligible for grants—for women/minority directors, as well as for its subject matter. Hala is essential for my growth as a filmmaker, to share the experiences that have informed my human condition through this deeply personal story.