Why you should care

What Will People Say was Norway’s entry in the 2019 Academy Awards.

The ride to the airport was fraught with tension. Fourteen-year-old Iram Haq’s father seethed while her brother silently drove. Haq didn’t know it at the time, but she was being kidnapped by her parents, because they had discovered she had a boyfriend. The long flight to Islamabad was also traumatic for her: She had never been to Pakistan and didn’t know anyone there. Her parents had immigrated to Norway from Pakistan years earlier. “It was pretty scary,” Haq recalls. “It was a different world.”

In that world, she says, “I grew up very fast.” But the memory of that painful time never left her. “To write the story was a big journey for me,” says Haq, now 43. “I knew one day I would tell the story in my own way, but it took me a while.” That story became her second feature film, What Will People Say (Hva vil folk si), Norway’s official entry in the 2019 Academy Awards best foreign language film category (it did not make the short list for Oscar consideration).

Loosely based on Haq’s experiences, the film follows a Pakistani-Norwegian teenager named Nisha who is kidnapped by her parents and sent to Pakistan to live with conservative relatives. The harrowing and poignant film — The Hollywood Reporter called it “intelligent” but also criticized it for lacking subtlety and nuance — generated debate in South Asian countries where honor killings and forced marriages are a given. The phrase “What will people say?” in Urdu “is used to control women,” Haq says. “I felt this was so important to tell this.”

Recently, Haq showed friend Hilde Hagerup the correspondence between the Norwegian Consulate in Islamabad and the concerned parents of Haq’s friends after the kidnapping. “It was shocking to see how little the government officials were willing to do to help a very vulnerable young person,” says Hagerup, a writer who has known Haq for several years. “Seeing those letters made me realize that this story could so easily have had a different ending, and probably did for others in similar situations.”

Haq remained in Pakistan with relatives of her father for a year and a half because her parents feared the influence Norwegian teenagers might have on her. She realized early on that she would not be allowed to live a regular teenager’s life — for example, she wasn’t allowed to talk about parties or boyfriends at home — so she lied, navigating a life between two cultures.

A brief romance with one of her cousins sparked outrage among her relatives, who then asked Haq’s father to take her back to Norway. After her return, Haq grew up in foster families and youth shelters in Oslo, away from her estranged parents. “It wasn’t an easy life,” she says. “I chose to be a free person; I chose to have a voice.”

Haq’s relationship with her parents started improving when her father, who had been diagnosed with cancer, told her to tell her truth. On his deathbed, Haq recalls, her father said: “You have to make the film. It is important to show how evil people can get when they are scared.” That gave Haq the hope and courage she was seeking. “Initially I wanted to give the script to someone else. I even was questioning if I should write this,” she admits.

For someone telling dark stories, Iram has a sense of humor about her, and a gentleness.

Ekavali Khanna, actor

Haq’s first feature film, I Am Yours, which was Norway’s entry in the Academy Award’s foreign language film category in 2013, was also loosely based on her life, exploring how she struggled to balance single motherhood (she gave birth to her son, Leon, at age 20) with her acting aspirations. Haq studied at the Westerdals School of Communication in Oslo and started out as an actor before transitioning to writing and directing. “Iram is never afraid to explore difficult or controversial topics in search for the artistic truth,” Hagerup says. “This search is what drives her and what makes her work so true and important.”

Ekavali Khanna, who plays the mother of the teenage Nisha in What Will People Say, thinks Haq tells difficult cross-cultural stories with empathy and insight. “Her stories are real and believable,” Khanna says.

Haq has also worked in theater and television. Old Faithful (2004), a short film that she wrote and starred in, was selected for the Venice Film Festival. She made her directorial debut in 2010, with Little Miss Eyeflap, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and won several awards.

Besides the criticism of What Will People Say by some reviewers, there are those in the larger Pakistani-Norwegian community in Oslo who have accused Haq of fabricating the story. She counters, “It was what happened.” The bigger question for her emerging career: Can she tell stories that are not about her own life? Haq believes she can and is waiting for a compelling tale to come her way. “I want to tell stories that are important,” she states. “I want to challenge myself.”

Most of all, she hopes her films make people reflect. Of the father in What Will People Say, she says, “He is a man who is struggling. He is acting out of what people expect of him. You have to imagine what kind of pressure that can be.”

Her personality doesn’t entirely match her work. “For someone telling dark stories, Iram has a sense of humor about her, and a gentleness,” Khanna says. “She gets human beings.” Among her friends, Haq is known as a glamorous geek, “spontaneous and fun,” says Khanna.

For Haq, who never married and is currently living with a partner, the pressure has eased. “I am at peace now,” she says. “It is good not to be angry anymore.”

5 Questions for Iram Haq

  1. What was the last book you finished? Tante Ulrikkes vei (Aunt Ulrikke’s Way, by Zeshan Shakar).
  2. What do you worry about? I think a lot about the world we live in and our health in terms of the environment.
  3. What’s the one thing you can’t live without? Music and love.
  4. Who’s your hero? Malala [Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist] is one of them.
  5. What’s one item on your bucket list? To open an orphanage in India for girls.

Read more: From schoolteacher trainee to Oscar buzz: Meet Yalitza Aparicio.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Haq’s marital status. She never married.

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