What Will People Say: Cultural Conflict and Emotional Weight2 July 2018
What Will People Say (Hva Vil Folk Si) is a Norwegian coming-of-age drama written and directed by Iram Haq. It follows the journey of Nisha (Maria Mozhdah), an Oslo teen sent to live with family in Pakistan by her emigrant parents Mirza (Adil Hussain) and Najma (Ekavali Khanna).
This is Iram Haq’s second feature after her well-received debut I Am Yours, also following a young Norwegian-Pakistani woman. Knowing only that, it’s clear that Haq draws heavily on personal experience in her filmmaking, but What Will People Say is marketed more overtly as a semi-autobiographical film. I haven’t been able to narrow down exactly how much of the events shown on-screen actually took place aside from the kidnapping to Pakistan, but they’re sufficiently horrifying that I can only hope it’s fictional. You can consider that your warning. While What Will People Say is technically a coming-of-age drama, but it is neither warm nor easy to watch.
I have no personal experience with which to equate or compare what Nisha goes through. I never emigrated anywhere, never lived as a minority or a woman or dealt with cultural practises anything like what’s shown, and I felt beaten down by this film. Coming-of-age has never been this dark, and I can’t really imagine what people with those experiences might take from it. It isn’t that the film doesn’t allow you to recover after something jarring or confronting happens, it’s that it does—enough to maintain the narrative flow without becoming bogged down, and enough to slowly drain the audience and maximise the effect of each emotional blow.
The core of the film is Nisha’s relationship with her family, specifically her father Mirza. As each acts, the other reacts, and the story is carried forward. Nisha is repeatedly beaten down by her circumstances and actions in reliable 20-minute cycles—allowing just enough time for the audience to recover before the story progresses with a new layer of emotional weight. The camerawork, lighting, and score were all professional but unremarkable in-and-of themselves; it felt like the technical aspects of the film were made to supplement the emotional delivery. This wasn’t a flaw however; the singular focus provides needed clarity.
Similarly to the technical elements, performances were all-round solid but largely subdued, leaving adequate room and lending support to the central relationship between Nisha and Mirza. When the writing occasionally bordered on cliché, Maria Mozhdah & Adil Hussain kept me thoroughly invested and convinced. Hussain in particular gave unexpected depth to a role he could have easily phoned-in. The film never explicitly asks you to sympathise with Mirza after the horrific things he does, but Hussain’s nuanced performance and a handful of clever scenes provide just enough for some much needed cultural and social context: a perfect counterpoint to Nisha’s adolescent perspective.
The mounting tension and devastation can largely be traced back to their interactions, and the relationship pays off brilliantly. Family drama is so-often reliant on overplaying the mundane to be more than what it is, but like Hereditary (also in cinemas now and which I highly recommend), What Will People Say raises the stakes to levels far beyond anything healthy or typical and brings them to a fulfilling conclusion.
Throughout my life I’ve heard a number of vague stories about family kidnappings, repressive cultural practises and the like; always in vague terms and always from second or third-hand sources steeped in hearsay and without context. What Will People Say sets out to provide that context through a singular story told from an authentic cultural voice and with practised cinematic expression. I can’t vouch for its factual authenticity, but that isn’t the focus. It’s the emotional narrative that carries the film and which allows an outsider audience to appreciate it. For anyone ready to see it, I highly recommend What Will People Say.
Go in: braced and sober.
For fans of: emotional storytelling, foreign-language & Scandinavian film, and coming-of-age/family drama.