PORT TOWNSEND FILM FESTIVAL 2020

FAITH, FAMILY, FILM: Iram Parveen Bilal’s latest feature is ‘the opposite of escapism’ | PTFF

Luciano Marano
lmarano@ptleader.com
Posted 9/23/20

They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

But that’s OK, because Iram Parveen Bilal does.

Raised in Nigeria and Pakistan, Bilal is a physics Olympian turned filmmaker known …

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PORT TOWNSEND FILM FESTIVAL 2020

FAITH, FAMILY, FILM: Iram Parveen Bilal’s latest feature is ‘the opposite of escapism’ | PTFF

Posted

They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

But that’s OK, because Iram Parveen Bilal does.

Raised in Nigeria and Pakistan, Bilal is a physics Olympian turned filmmaker known nearly as well for her public speaking, mentorship, and activist work as her movies — the sort audiences do not often see coming out of Hollywood these days. Intimate dramas, tales of familial tension, coming-of-age stories, socially conscious political thrillers — with nary a recognizable franchise or costumed superhero in the lot.

Clearly, though, it resonates, capes or no.

Her 2013 film “Josh (Against the Grain)” was reportedly Pakistan’s first film to be available on Netflix and is now in the permanent selection at the U.S. Library of Congress. Her latest, “I’ll Meet You There,” was one of 10 films in the narrative feature competition at the 2020 South by Southwest festival, where it premiered, and gathered great buzz.

Then, COVID.

“It’s kind of a bummer,” Bilal said, speaking from her home in Los Angeles. “I finally have a film that is collecting a bunch of laurels and I can’t go anywhere.”

Coronavirus precautions and pandemic restrictions gutted the film festival circuit, Bilal said, cutting her movie’s momentum off at the knees and leaving many a working filmmaker flailing.

“Nobody knew what was going on,” she said. “Everybody was just waiting for some sort of predicable pattern.

“It was heartbreaking to say the least. But we’re here.”

Here is having her latest movie made widely available for the first time through the Port Townsend Film Festival.

“I’ll Meet You There” is an ensemble drama about Majeed, a Muslim cop tasked with a dangerous undercover assignment, Dua, his teenage ballerina daughter caught between the traditional values of her religion and love of dance, and his visiting staunchly devout father Baba.

“It’s really about how do you stay true to yourself and still belong to a family,” the director said. “What is identity, frankly, in the word that we are in? What are the different facets of your identity?”

Many of the film’s elements were taken straight from the director’s own life and observations, even the painful and complicated ones.

“It started with the character of Dua and me being a dancer,” Bilal said.

“My sister, who taught me how to dance, is now a born again Muslim and she thinks dancing is not appropriate. And then there was the idea that four or five years after 9/11, I was at a community event and saw this very orthodox Muslim, in terms of his appearance ... and he was in a cop uniform. And it was very interesting to me and I just kept thinking, Oh wow, given the sort of passive-aggressive, racist Patriot Act motions happening I’m curious how this guy is dealing with that.”

In her film, eager for a raise, Majeed agrees to go undercover in a mosque for a special assignment. Shortly after, his long-estranged father shows up unannounced from Pakistan. Majeed uses Baba as an excuse to reenter the mosque after a lengthy absence. But soon, much to his chagrin, Dua and Baba take to each other, though Baba urges Dua to question her passion for dance in the name of religion.

“In a lot of ways a lot of the conversations between Dua and the grandfather are conversations I’d like to have with my sister,” Bilal said. “Family conflict is just such a ripe space because everyone connects to it and we all have those issues of certain secrets or certain parts of ourselves that we’re not necessarily keen on sharing or that everybody has a view about.”

Ultimately, the film’s family explores new truths about their present, past, and future, until everything comes to a head in a surprise bait-and-switch by the feds.

The story, like much of her work, is, Bilal said, in a way “the opposite of escapism.”

“Maybe that’s also why it’s difficult for some audiences to watch, because it becomes very personal,” she said. “It’s obvious that people who use cinema as an escapist popcorn money-making machine will not go to family drama, but if you look at it, in a lot of those superhero movies, there are elements of family.”

In the past 15 years or so, Bilal said, such stories have migrated to smaller screens.

“A lot of that has moved onto television,” she said. “That’s also why there’s all this conversation, especially with COVID, about cinema and what are the films that are going to get a theatrical [release]? People say these tentpole, big computer graphics, large-scale productions, whereas the actual sort of human drama, human emotion stuff is going to just land on streaming and television. In some ways we have just decided something that is more intimate and requires a little more attention shouldn’t be on the big screen.”

But in a world where even prestigious new releases are coming first to people’s living rooms and cell phone screens, size doesn’t look the same. And in such an environment, intimate realistic stories may quickly becoming king once again.

“As a storyteller you’re always intrigued with the intersection between conflict, circumstance, and evolution and growth,” Bilal said. “That’s what we’re trying to do as storytellers; we’re trying to tell a story but we’re also trying to show the growth of a character.”

Regarding the landscape of suddenly digital-only festivals, Bilal has mixed feelings. For the industry of filmmaking, she said, it’s unquestionably a blow, as festivals are often as much about networking as they are showing movies.

Also, she misses the crowds.

“You do this because of passion,” she said. “The people who do this are crazy, frankly. I think we’re all crazy. That’s why we’re obsessed with stories. We’re obsessed with the high of engaging with audiences, which is why this has been so depressing. I’m the sort of person who doesn’t care about awards; what I care about is a line around the block of people who want to watch my film.”

Ironically, the cast of “I’ll Meet You There” is just the type to draw such a crowd.

It was the director’s first time working with the movie’s star trio. Nikita Tewani (Dua) is a newer face, best known for appearing in several television series. Faran Tahir (Majeed) was in “Star Trek” (2009), “Elysium,” “Iron Man,” “Escape Plan” and is, Bilal said, likely “the best known Pakistani-American actor.” Muhammad Qavi Khan (Baba), meanwhile, is something of an icon to those in the know.

“The guy who plays Baba is like a legend in Pakistan,” Bilal said. “He’s won a lifetime achievement award — been on radio, television, film, theater, everything! Even getting him here on an indie budget was really difficult because we wanted to do things the right way. We could have brought him here on a tourist visa and just shot, but we wanted it to be a proper professional shooting visa, which meant we had to do this whole process of proving to the U.S. government that nobody here could play the role.”

Early reactions have been vindicating, the director said, and she is hopeful for the future, even considering the lingering presence of COVID-19, of her industry, film festivals, and her movie, about which she is even now in discussion with potential distributors.

“It’s a slice of life,” she said. “People are supposed to come and engage and enjoy and cry and laugh. At the end of the day, I feel like it is an emotional film. I think it moves people, it takes them on a journey. People have said, ‘I learned so much.’ People are like, ‘Oh my God, I want to call my grandfather’ or ‘Wow, I see myself on screen!’

“Some people will connect with the cop; some people will connect with the ballerina. It’s been kind of heartwarming and I cannot wait for the film to be out there.”

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