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Interview with Haya Waseem, Director of QUICKENING

April 19, 2022

The 11th SDAFF Spring Showcase is excited to spotlight QUICKENING, Haya Waseem’s directorial debut feature. The coming-of-age film follows a young Pakistani-born woman as she navigates being a newcomer to Canada while exploring love, heartbreak, and family turmoil. Haya Waseem is a Pakistani-Canadian filmmaker, raised in Switzerland and living in Brooklyn. Constantly adapting to new environments and people, Haya developed a keen sense of observation that she weaves into her work. Haya’s intuitive sensibilities absorb the undercurrent of a moment and concentrate them into singular frames, creating a dreamlike, sensory experience.

SDAFF’s Social Media Intern, Medha Upadhyay sat down with Haya to get to know more about her work and inspiration.

Medha Upadhyay: In Quickening there are themes, of course, of immigration and the duality of living in the western world with your traditional customs. I wanted to know how your childhood and upbringing influenced you to make films like this?

Haya Waseem: I was born in Pakistan, and I’m actually in my childhood home right now—I’m in Lahore right now. I’m Visiting my grandma with my mom, but I’m currently based in New York. I’ve been moving pretty much all my life. I was born in Pakistan, and I lived here until I was about 10. And then we moved to Switzerland, so my teens were spent in Geneva. Then I moved to Toronto when I was 16; I lived there for about 10 years, and then moved to New York as an adult for work. So I’m currently in Brooklyn, but I got there, through Toronto through Switzerland, and started off in Pakistan. That’s kind of been the force for everything that I’ve written. Like growing up in Geneva had its own influence on how I see things and and the sensibilities that it kind of fostered in me, and then that continued in Toronto, because that’s also such a multicultural city. I was also moving at very pivotal times in my life: at 10, at 16, at 26, at 28.

MU: What inspired you to make films? It’s a pretty unconventional path, I would say, especially for the children of immigrants.

HW: It’s true: it is unconventional. I mean, I don’t have any filmmakers in my family. But my family is quite creative so it was always something that was encouraged. I remember when I wrote a poem at school in grade school, and my mom was like, “No, did you write this?” She was just so amazed that I had this interest in creative writing and expression. And with my cousins, I would do home movies, bringing everyone together and directing them and then editing. I was always up to something creative, and I had an interest in theater growing up. But in high school, when it came time to pursue something in post secondary education, I didn’t want to do theater necessarily. But I knew I wanted to do storytelling. So film kind of came into the picture at that point, because I thought it would be a technical craft where I could learn how to operate a camera or do some editing. So that’s why I chose to explore that even though I was not a film buff growing up. I watched a lot of Bollywood actually, that’s what I grew up on. It wasn’t until I went to film school that I realized that my peers were fans of directors and had this film knowledge—I didn’t even have any of that so it kind of forced me to catch up and really pay attention to what I like and develop my taste. Essentially, film came quite late in the game, but I always wanted to tell stories.

MU: There’s a lot to unpack there! But I think I can start off with the support that you got from your parents and your family. In Quickening, there is a strong emphasis on the South Asian community that surrounds Sheila. She has her family, but also her family friends, with that unique blend of “oh, they’re my friends, but they also know my parents,” and the delicate balance she has to maintain there. How was your “safety net” as you were growing up? What influenced you to show that tight-knit community onscreen?

HW: I always felt secure in my family: my mom, my dad, my sisters, my aunts and uncles, my grandmothers were all very supportive.I felt very protected in their presence. My parents always made an effort to involve me in my community; even when we moved from Pakistan, we would visit as often as we could, and then also go to cultural events within family and friends. Whether that was Eid celebrations or just dinner parties, that that was always a part of my life growing up. I was also very involved with my school and my friends who were from international backgrounds. When I was in Switzerland, I went to an international school, so I was introduced to people that were from all parts of the world. And then Toronto was a very multicultural environment as well. But I did find that although I felt very comfortable with my friends at school and with the Pakistani community, wherever I lived, I never quite felt like I could completely let myself be open and let my guard down. I think part of the reason for that was because I moved around so much. Since my identity was constantly in flux, I kept a lot of things internalized rather than sharing them with people. I think that’s where film came in and writing came in, especially because anything that I couldn’t express as openly or wasn’t feeling comfortable sharing with with others I would write, or kind of reflect on personally. That was the balance that I tried to strike. I wasn’t aware of it then, but it was a struggle of “Who am I? What do I care about? What are my values?”

MU: That idea of keeping parts of yourself locked away or internalized—that’s a somewhat universal experience, especially among second generation immigrants. I think the quickening itself can be seen as a manifestation of Sheila’s guilt for doing something that might disappoint her parents. And I was wondering: did you ever go through something like this? It seems like a pretty well thought out storyline, so I wanted to know if it was inspired by something personal?

HW: Absolutely! It was very inspired by my experiences going from my teens into my early 20s. And, like you said, that guilt—even though I didn’t feel like I’d done anything wrong. For example, I would observe other girls in my community from Pakistan, who, it seemed to me, had derived quite a quite a clear line between what was shared with their parents and with their community, and what was their personal life. For me, because my parents had allowed me so much freedom, I didn’t want to keep things from them. I wanted them to be aware of what I was interested in and what I wanted to do, and for them to permit me to do that. I think that’s where it became challenging because I can’t change my parents’ values and I can’t expect them to just accept and approve of everything that I do. That’s where that guilt kind of came in, because I couldn’t quite keep those things separate; I wanted everything to be balanced evenly. Over time, I learned that sometimes you have to favor one side over the other. That’s the balancing act. So yeah, the guilt was definitely present at that stage of my life, while I was discovering my identity. Now I feel like I’m able to reflect on why I felt that guilt and transform it into something meaningful.

MU: I definitely feel like there’s this added layer in Quickening about Sheila’s family struggles and the way that her relationship with her parents, and even her siblings, changes very dramatically throughout the course of the film. Sheila finds herself shouldering more responsibilities, having to step up to the plate. We’ve been hearing a lot recently about the eldest daughters of immigrant households, but we’re only just starting to see real and nuanced depictions of it onscreen. It’s a very unique and interesting kind of situation that not many people can relate to, so why did you choose to highlight this family dynamic?

HW: I mean, I’m the oldest in my siblings, and actually Arooj Azeem, who plays Sheila, is also the oldest sibling. So we both related in that way of being the firstborn. Our parents were young when they had us, too. Now I’m at a certain age, and I don’t have a family yet, but my mom had me 10 years before where I am now. So there’s a closeness that forms, especially between mothers and daughters. Also, being the oldest child of a second generation immigrant family, you get exposed to a lot of what your parents might be going through as well. And so, the daughters—the firstborn daughters in particular— want to be doing more for their parents. They want to be sitting at the adults table and shouldering some of the burden that they observe. We just don’t know, at that time, that we’re also young, and we’re children. I agree, that it’s quite a unique point of view for a character to have, but for me, it felt quite natural because that was my experience growing up as the eldest of the family.

MU: You touched on Arooj and her parents, so I’ll come to that right away. It’s a very unique point of this movie, getting to see the bond between the three of them who are also family in real life. It’s such a perfect fit; it seems like kismet! How did this happen? What was the process of finding and casting them?

HW: It was a stroke of luck. I met Arooj when she was about eight years old, but then we lost touch. She’s a family friend—my dad knows Ashir, Arooj’s dad. I had approached him originally because Ashir’s quite a well known filmmaker and actor in Pakistan. He was in a hugely popular TV series in the 90s. When we were casting for the parents roles, there were very few submissions. It was very hard to cast for those parts. So I’d called Ashir to try and convince him and his wife to audition for the parts of the parents, but it turned out that Arooj was also on that call. I’d completely forgotten that she was, now at an age that was very close to Sheila’s age. As I was describing the story to them, they were all able to relate to it in their own ways. And when I heard them talk about the movie, it just instantly clicked. I was like, “now they can come in and fill in the gaps where I might have missed anything in the script.” And of course, their chemistry is just inbuilt. Although their real personalities are different from the characters in the film, their bond, and their relationships were just invaluable. When I came across them, I just knew that it would make the film that much stronger.

MU: The concept of the film—quickening—is so out there. It’s fun, it’s fresh, it’s new, it’s unique. Where did you hear about this? It works so well, but did it seem strange initially?

HW: I first heard about phantom pregnancy because I met a psychologist, just by chance, in Pakistan while I was visiting. And she told me about a patient who was going through a pregnancy delusion. When I asked her what that entailed, she said, “you have every symptom of a pregnancy, but you’re not actually carrying a child.” I became fascinated by that. I did some research and found out it’s more prevalent in developing countries because of certain pressures that young women face in terms of childbearing and that responsibility that’s put onto them. It got me thinking about the fact that maybe I don’t feel that direct pressure necessarily, but it’s built into us in our culture. I was already hoping and kind of musing about a character who’s at that cusp of teenage into adulthood and discovering their identity and coming up against boundaries. And then I thought, pregnancy delusion is just such a perfect companion for that. Because, you know, what’s our limit? It’s either you can’t be in a relationship or don’t get pregnant or this very distinct rule that’s put onto young women. So I thought, what if she exists in this space where she feels everything that a pregnancy might bring, but she’s not pregnant? What does that mean? How far does that push a character? So that’s how the concept came about. Ultimately, it gave me something to propel a character portrait. It also gave me something to contain an emotional experience within a narrative

MU: The tone, or at least the cinematography and lighting, of this film is rather dark. It’s a pretty jarring departure from the colorful South Asian movies that we tend to see in the west or even most mainstream Bollywood films. Usually, it’s really happy, really celebratory. You chose this more grim, dark, kind of somber tone for this film—Why?

HW: The movies that I related to emotionally are all very serious and very deep and very thoughtful, the pacing was also slow, the cinematography was muted. From an emotional perspective, I resonated with those movies, but the subject matter wasn’t that close to my experience. But then, like you said, if I related to the subject matter from a South Asian perspective, the film was very bright and colorful, or often comedic. I wondered, why those two things couldn’t be brought together, because I wanted to investigate themes that deal with isolation, that deal with a crisis almost, of identity. I think that when you’re in between cultures, you kind of fall into a crack and that place can be very isolating. What tends to happen is that you start to internalize a lot of those things. And that’s why the metaphor of the psychological and physical experience of a pregnancy delusion felt so fitting because she’s brewing everything in her belly. Anything that she can’t put out in words, she contains within her and she almost becomes attached to this sensation. Cinematographer Christopher Lu and I have been working together for almost 10 years and we’ve developed our visual language together. When we were talking about Sheila, it became very clear that she’s not going to use words to express herself very well. She’s not going to necessarily speak her mind in very clear, definitive ways. That’s the whole structure of this character. So one way to make the cinematography a companion to her emotional experience is by getting very close, trying to get hints from her expression; for a character that’s pretty closed off, there’s always something brewing underneath the surface even if she might not let on that there’s something that’s wrong. Another way is by being very very distant and observing a character who’s among other characters, especially in the Pakistani world, where there’s glittering clothes and of laughter and music, but she’s not necessarily of the same spirit in that moment. So we chose that language because that’s how I want to observe and reflect and communicate and express my experience. I want people to have the time and the patience to understand the subdued nature of what I’m trying to express rather than some high energy colorful spectacle. I wanted to kind of confront and really sink into the mud of what I was experiencing.

MU: You talked about the camera lingering on Arooj’s expressions; those shots are mesmerizing, especially the close ups of her eyes. You don’t see that as much as you should; the camera taking its time to show you South Asian women, giving them screen time, watching their face closely. It was really a joy to watch. I’ve been having a blast marketing this movie, South Asian dark academia. But even the ending of the film—it’s perhaps hopeful?— but I don’t think it could be classified as happy per se. What are you hoping that the audience will walk away with after watching this movie?

HW: I think it leaves on a on a hopeful note, in the sense that the character is on the other side of the experience that she entered the film with. Her family sticks by her, her friends seem to continue to stick by her, and she’s survived quite a pivotal moment in her young adult life. But all the answers don’t come from a single experience; I think this is just one of many pivotal experiences that this character would have. Sheila’s still not very expressive; she’s not going to switch so quickly. But I think she’s matured from that experience and it might take some time to unpack everything that she’s gone through. So for me, it was more so a permission to allow for the space and time for whatever reflection that might occur after this experience that the character went through. I think there’s beauty in that, in giving time and space. I think that’s what Sheila is craving. Is she going to get rejected? Is she going to be abandoned? Has she been a bad daughter? Has she been a good daughter? Is she happy? Is she sad? I think we are rather quick to put labels on how we fee and what our state of mind is. Even in the film, her parents are constantly asking, “are you happy?” or “are you okay?” and I think these are difficult questions to answer. For me, the concept of happiness, or being good or bad, are very fluid. The more we concentrate on them, the more obscure they become. That’s where I wanted to leave it off, at this moment, where she’s feeling a certain freedom and a certain lightness. And that’s enough for now.

MU: Sheila goes through a lot of growth, from the beginning to the end of the film. And a lot of this is wrapped up in going to university. Not only is it a story about her rebellion, perhaps, against her parents, but it’s also her own coming-of-age story. Personally, as a college student, I thought it was very well done; I related to quite a bit of it. I was wondering about your college experience: did you feel that it was this huge pivotal moment in your life?

HW: For me, I really looked at college like my ticket to adulthood. In high school, you’re still with your family, and I still considered myself as under the guardianship of my parents. And then college is the time where you move out of your house, you make new friends, and you have another chance of defining yourself. All of these things were kind of percolating in my mind; a lot of that comes from media as well, like the promise of college. I loved my time in college, because it did offer part of that: meeting new people, focusing on something that I love, and becoming more independent. I really enjoyed that time. I was lucky because I also had a pretty intimate environment for my schooling; I wasn’t too far from home, but I was also independent enough. I made some good friends, fell in love with the work that I do, and really built the foundation for myself there.
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MU: What was the experience like, working with so many South Asian actors in Toronto?

HW: All the Pakistani scenes were inspired by my real experiences in the community, and a lot of the actors are family or friends that I approached. It was really a Community effort. I remember one of the last scenes in in our shooting schedule was the family parties, and it was very emotional for me, because we were kind of recreating those memories that I had growing up. The one thing that the aunts and uncles of the of the community wanted was to be part of movies. Shahid, who does that musical number, he would sing songs for us when we would all get together. It felt really nice for me to not only film them, but then, watch them see themselves on a big screen. It just felt like very special to be able to do that together.

MU: The authenticity just really comes through. You also mentioned that you grew up on a lot of Bollywood, which is like the opposite: really filtered down to every nitpicky detail. As you were growing up, which artists inspired you and who do you see today paving the way for the next generation?

HW: Ooh, great question. Growing up, I was actually quite inspired by music, especially Pakistani music, and I tried to bring that into the movie as much as I could. I mean, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is just iconic. Even as a young kid at 10 years old, I would feel like I was transported to another place when I would listen. In terms of film, my inspiration fluctuates a lot; still, I can always count on Terrence Malick to inspire me and bring me back to a place where I’m reflecting on life and seeing beautiful images. Recently, Chloe Zhao is also kind of a descendant of Malick and beauty and cinema and humanity so I’m very inspired by her and her career so far. I also think Alfonso Cuarón had a huge influence on me because of the humanity of his characters and the sensibility there. Andrea Arnold is also just an incredible inspiration for bold filmmaking and I just can’t imagine how she makes her films. They will always be my forever inspiration because they opened the doors for me to what cinema resonated with me.And then, in terms of in terms of nowadays, I’m really excited for Bassam Tariq, who is shooting the next blade marvel movie after shooting his independent feature Mogul Mowgli with Riz Ahmed. I’m just blown away by his talent and what he’s doing. I also think that Minhal Baig is very inspiring; her first feature Hala had a subject matter that was very close to her experience. I related to it deeply, and now she’s going on to make more films, and of course she’s a very accomplished writer. There’s a lot of really exciting filmmakers, especially from South Asian backgrounds, that are doing incredible work. I really feel like we’re turning a corner and new voices are showing us what’s possible in cinema.

MU: We’ve definitely turned over a new leaf; it’s so exciting to see all these amazing talented diverse artists telling their stories! Congratulations on Quickening! It was amazing, and I’ve been telling everyone about it, and I know they’ll all love it as much as I did!

Watch QUICKENING during Spring Showcase on Tuesday, April 26 at 7:45 pm. Get tickets here.

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