What Will People Say was one of my favorite films at AFIFest this year. I wasn’t alone in my estimation of the work; it also won the Audience Award in the New Auteurs section. It is a powerful and engaging film in which two different value systems collide within the life of a teenager as she grows up with connection to two cultures.
Sixteen year old Nisha (Maria Mozhdah) is the dutiful daughter of Pakistani immigrants to Norway. Her family observes the ways of her homeland, and participates in the broader Pakistani community. But having grown up in the European culture, she is also a very normal Norwegian teenager. Her friends are Norwegian. She sneaks in and out of her bedroom window at night. One night her father discovers her boyfriend in her bedroom. He beats the boy. Police are called, and Nisha is taken into a shelter while she and her family try to deal with the situation.
Her father and brother then kidnap her and take her to Pakistan to live with family there and better learn the traditional values. She struggles to fit into this culture that she really doesn’t understand. She begins to adapt, but soon her teenage behavior causes shame to her Pakistani family which forces them to call her father to come get her. She is caught in the midst of trying to fit into cultural ideals that she really doesn’t understand or accept. But this is her family. These are people who love her and have raised her. But how can they tolerate behavior that goes against all they have ever known? And how can she adapt to such a world when she has been raised in a western ethos?
I’m sure it makes a difference that I’m watching this with western eyes. (And that it is made with a western perspective.) But even though the Pakistani ethos may seem harsh from our perspective, it is treated with the respect that it deserves. When Nisha’s parents worry about how others will think of them as a result of Nisha’s actions, it is because honor is so important in their culture. Even after years of living in Norway, her mother is embarrassed when her husband makes her dance with him with friends present in their home. Such mores are hard to escape. And in fact, because of what Nisha has done, the family is being ostracized by other Pakistanis. And even though they are hurt and angry, Nisha’s parents continue to strive to do what they feel is best for Nisha and her future. The connection between Nisha and her father is front and center in showing the loving, yet often hostile relationship.
The conflict arises when the western value of individual freedom (especially as it plays out in adolescence) is added to the mix. Nisha has been raised within this culture as well as her family’s culture. This is her natural environment. And in reality, part of the reason for her parents coming to Europe was for such freedom and the opportunity it provides for their children. It is not only Nisha who is conflicted over these values. Her father also has this struggle. But the gap between her first generation father and 1.5 generation Nisha gives each a different perspective.
The real question posed by the film is if these two different value structures—each valid within their cultures—can coexist. Is it possible for Nisha to live the life her parents want for her and the life that she has been told can be hers from the European culture? And if she must choose, what will the cost be? This is an issued faced by many immigrants from various cultures as then adapt to new homelands. It can also be a concern for families in any culture when there are changing value systems—and let’s face it, the world and its values are constantly shifting. Parents of each generation struggle to teach children the values they were raised with that may now seem passé.
It is hard to imagine an ending that is satisfactory for all involved, and the film doesn’t find one. Rather it sets in motion even more questions of how these lives will play out in a changing world. Perhaps freedom is not an ultimate good, any more than honor is. Yet both are worthy values to cultivate in people and in society.