'Abu' Review [2017 Fantasia Film Festival]

That Abu could be made the way it was made verges on miraculous. The wealth of footage it has required a father and family who took a keen interest in home video many decades before camcorders and smartphones were ever-present. The editing required a son who grew into a career in filmmaking, and who was willing to sift through countless hours of footage to find just the right scenes to tell the story of his life. And, of course, the story required that he muster the courage to do so.

Abu is an autobiography by way of documentary film. It shows us life as it was for director Arshad Khan, a Pakistani boy turned Pakistani-Canadian man. We see some of the hardships he endured growing up gay, the difficulties he faced as an immigrant in a time of lesser diversity and inclusiveness. It chronicles the ways in which time, place, and origin change a person, offering us as evidence the diverging paths taken by Arshad, who grows into the more liberal lifestyle typical of Canadians, and his parents, who find themselves drawn to a type of convervatism that speaks to their country and culture of origin, and which clashes with the developing lifestyle of their son.

Khan's titular Abu (Urdu for father) holds a place of particular significance in the film, playing a double-duty role of supporting and opposing his son - a family dynamic that will surely be familiar to many viewers. The development of their relationship, and the place it arrives to upon our reaching the end of the film, is one of the more emotional threads within this picture.

As the story of Khan and his family, the film largely succeeds. Abu depicts the best qualities of its characters just as well as their lesser ones. It allows the people in Khan's life to inhabit a realistic space in our minds and hearts, and garner a fair measure of affection and sympathy. Little artistic twists, including several animated sequences that offer colour and a shift in perspective, do also add to the experience of this film, offering a mystical aspect to the world on display.

That it accomplishes these elements well makes it perhaps especially unfortunate that the film does not carry itself to a place of greater artistry or meaning.

Khan's story unfolds in a way that is rarely surprising, with some of the most difficult moments of his life spoken of only in a just-the-facts tone that surely does not represent the true depth of his feelings. That the film allows us insight into a particular kind of life experience that is uncommon in our society is a true and valid point in the film's favour. However, it is an expressive piece that expresses only what one would suppose it might - outlining how it was difficult to be a Pakistani person in Canada, how it was difficult to be a gay man in a Pakistani family, how it was difficult to be both at the same time - but says nothing new on these topics, and says nothing with enough heat or emphasis to be memorable. This leaves the film in an awkward artistic space where the truth of Khan's struggles as they are related just doesn't quite feel like enough.

We live the lives we live, each of us with our own tragedies, difficulties, and moments of joy, and none of them are invalid or inferior to any other. To transform them into art that speaks to something deeper, that invites reflection and feeling and growth, however, requires more than just the facts. It requires novelty, or passion, neither of which are in great supply in this film.