What Will People Say
Powerful film explores the clash of cultures faced by some Pakistani Norwegians
As a New Yorker, I have been surrounded by multiculturalism since I can remember. Everyone in the neighborhood was a hyphenated American: Norwegian-American, Irish-American, German-American, Italian-American, etc… But when I traveled to Norway, I always found it pretty homogeneous and those from other ethnic backgrounds seemed exotic, in the sense that they were a rarity.
Things have changed, and Norway’s large Pakistani population is now dealing with what Norwegian emigrants to America experienced in the not-so-recent past, how to bridge two cultures.
This balancing act is not a new issue and has been addressed many times in literature. For example, author Ole Edvart Rølvaag’s famous book, Giants in the Earth, about Norwegian immigrants in the Midwest, poignantly describes the phenomenon of what those who bridge two cultures face as “the divided heart.”
Pakistani-Norwegian Film Director Iram Haq has used her experience with the issue in a powerful film, Hva vil folk si (What will people say). The film pingpongs between the Urdu and Norwegian languages and our main character, 16-year-old Nisha, navigates effortlessly through each.
But Nisha takes on a task much more difficult than just straddling two languages. She explores the question of how to respect the culture of one’s parents while living in a society that is the polar opposite at its social core, especially in relation to the role of women.
The film begins with a group of teens hanging out, doing what teens do. They are multi-racial and get along without any slurs or insults, very kumbaya.
However, cultural tensions do exist, and they emanate from the adults surrounding our main character. Ironically, it is not the Native-born Norwegians who are stirring the pot, but the Pakistani immigrants. Nisha’s father, Mirza, and her mother expect her to live by traditional Pakistani mores. Some guys who are friends with Mirza and hang out at his grocery store add fuel to the fire. When a Norwegian customer, a regular, stops by to chat with Mirza, the Pakistani-born customers call him “the white guy” in Urdu, in earshot. Nisha’s extended Pakistani family warns that she will go crazy if she follows European values.
One gets real insight into how social services operate in Norway in this film. When Mirza discovers Nisha’s Norwegian boyfriend, Daniel, in her bedroom, his reaction is to pulverize Daniel, punching him brutally and repeatedly in the face. As a result, Nisha is pulled out of the home and Family Services gets quickly involved with a true sensitivity to Nisha’s predicament while still respecting the family unit.
Mirza has a solution: that Nisha should marry Daniel, the man he believes Nisha slept with. Although Nisha denies this allegation, her father doesn’t believe her, and either way the Pakistani neighbors are watching, judging, and gossiping. Interestingly, Mirza is comfortable with Nisha marrying a Norwegian man and doesn’t seem to care that he is neither part of the Pakistani culture nor Muslim religion. But Nisha had already broken up with Daniel before her father had come to this conclusion. So, now, what should he do with his daughter who he believes has shamed the family?
A harrowing scene follows, as father and son take Nisha for a non-consensual car ride, ignoring her questions and carrying on a conversation about automobiles, as if all is well and Nisha doesn’t exist. Her terror is palpable. At one point, she jumps out of the car and runs down the highway. Unfortunately, her father quickly catches her, dragging her back into the car.
She is whisked off to the airport and put into the line traveling to Islamabad. Here she is left with relatives she has never met, in a country she has never lived in. She is quickly told “you have to learn to adapt.” One cannot ignore the hypocrisy. Shouldn’t her family who live in Norway be doing the same?
Misogyny pours down on Nisha, supported by the females. Sneaking out one night for a secret rendezvous with her cousin, Amir, they hide in the town’s shadows, kissing, and are surprised by three local police officers, who attack them. The brutality to both lovers is a gut-wrenching scene to watch. Their abuse of power, the lies told to their family, and thrusting all the blame for the situation onto the female encapsulates that society’s shame-based core, where female behavior is seen as a reflection of the family, thus reducing women to property that needs to be strictly controlled.
Nisha’s father’s comes to Pakistan, and his solution is to have Nisha marry her cousin. When he asks Amir if he would like to marry Nisha, Amir states that he will follow his own father’s wishes. The family in Pakistan refuses to have “the bitch” who seduced their son marry him or even remain in their household or town.
Mirza again puts Nisha in a car with no explanation. Things get worse, and the film ends with two choices that will have an irrevocable impact on the family. You will have to see the film to see what those decisions are.
Maria Mozhdah is wonderful in the role of Nisha, able to navigate two disparate cultures with a heightened sensitivity to nuance. She brings us into the depths of Nisha’s despair along her journey from a popular, independent, fun-loving Norwegian teen to a downtrodden woman.
This story’s authenticity is even more powerful when one discovers that its director, Iram Haq, who was raised in Norway by a Pakistani family, had experienced much of what is shown, including being sent against her will to Pakistan. She has created a heartbreaking, revelatory film.
Hva vil folk si may be hard to get a glimpse of, as there is no major U.S. theatrical release planned. At this time, your best bet is to catch a screening at your nearest international film festival. But I do recommend that Norskephiles view it. It will unveil an entirely current and probably new side of Norway for most of our readers.
This article originally appeared in the August 24, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.