Minhal Baig is a writer/director whose feature-length film, “Hala,” about a Pakistani-American teenager that uncovers a secret that threatens to unravel her family, premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and released on Apple TV. She is currently a co-producer on “The Magic Order” and previously served as a story editor on Netflix’s “Bojack Horseman” and staff writer on Hulu’s “Ramy.” In 2017, she was chosen to participate in Ryan Murphy’s Half Foundation Directing Mentorship. Her screenplay for “Hala” landed on The Black List, the annual list of most-liked, un-produced screenplays in 2016.
Tara Karajica caught up with her at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where “Hala” screened in the Contemporary World Cinema strand.
How did the film come about? Why did you have the need to expand from the short and why was it important for you to tell this story the way you told it?
Minhal Baig: The genesis of the story came to me a couple of years ago before the short film. I started writing about these experiences in my childhood and was largely just collecting them and, honestly, the reason why I started writing is that my father passed away in 2013 and I was at home with my family, spending a lot of time with them and, as you do when you spend a lot of time with your family, you start thinking. It was around that time that I was writing these vignettes, which then later, became the first draft of Hala and I think it was not until then that I felt honest enough to write that story because I think there was always this fear of being judged and this fear of people watching the film, eventually if it would ever get made, that I was bringing scrutiny to my life in the way how I related to my family. But then, I just had the courage to write the script and, obviously, it’s very different from the final film, but I took that script and I went to Los Angeles and I thought: “I’m going to make a proof of concept, a short film, that explored one of the relationships in the movie.” And the one I focused on was Hala and Jesse’s relationship because I felt that was going to be the most accessible way into this story about someone whose perspective is not usually in the center.
So then, I raised the money on Kickstarter and shot it over five days and had a lot of friends from AFI help me make the film and then, when the short was released, we put it online, we submitted it to maybe three or four festivals and we didn’t get in anywhere and I just thought: “Look, let’s just put it on Vimeo and see what happens.” What was really amazing was that there was a really big response to the short. I was surprised because, usually, anything longer than five minutes doesn’t get as many views because people’s attention spans are short, but what was amazing about the response was that people were really interested in and wanted to know more about Hala’s relationship with her parents. So then, when I was looking at the script, I started to foreground that relationship because it was clear that it was the less familiar part of the story that they hadn’t seen before and wanted to know what that was like. And the story shifted from being mostly a love story between these two young people to a love story between Hala and her mom. And that was a big shift in the storytelling, which, I think, was really important and helped distinguish the film from the other types of coming-of-age films because I think that was the surprising part of the film; that it starts out one way and later becomes about something else.
Indeed, her parents are a very big part of the story, and it’s something we don’t see a lot of in coming-of-age stories; it’s something that is not as developed as it is in Hala. Can you talk about that?
M.B.: When I watched a lot of these coming-of-age stories, my reaction when, sometimes, the young people are doing really crazy things was: “How did the parents feel about this?” because I grew up in a pretty conservative and sheltered background in Chicago and my parents are immigrants from Pakistan, so they knew where we were going and they knew a lot about what we were doing. So I find that it was really hard to relate to those films at times because I didn’t feel like the family dynamic that was in my own house was represented on screen. And so then, in making this film, it was a big part of the story because that just felt honest to my life. I couldn’t just go out somewhere without answering twenty questions and knowing exactly when I was leaving and coming back and my parents were very closely monitoring us. I think that’s just a cultural difference in how I was raised and I think I was very much yearning to see that in a film: how do you deal with going out and searching for your own identity while also honoring your obligations and the expectations that are placed on you by your parents and your family? And on top of that, also wrestling with your culture and your faith, which you don’t want to lose – you want to keep these parts of yourself alive even as you’re living in America and your identity is going to be shaped by your peers. But that was a struggle that I wanted to showcase in this film as it’s not black or white; it’s very complicated, and the parents were going to be a big part of that.
How much of you is there in Hala and how did you write Hala? How did you actually build her with Geraldine Viswanathan?
M.B.: Well, she’s a fictional character and it’s a fictional story, obviously. And a lot of things are dramatized. She’s going through a lot of things that I have not, but there’s a lot of lived experience in the film. I don’t think I could’ve written the film without it. It was important to ground it in an emotional truth and that the details of it, the plot beats, were going to be dramatized and they would be what made sense for this character to go through. With the cultural backdrop and the religious backdrop, the texture of the story would very much be real. And then, building the character with Geraldine, was a very unexpected and rewarding process because this character that I’d written on paper was very self-serious and I was looking for someone who could embody all these things about Hala and one of the most important being someone who could very much visualize this internal conflict, and what Geraldine brought was that and also this levity to the character. That was surprising to me because I didn’t necessarily know to look for it. But when she submitted her tape, it was very clear she has so many layers, but at the heart of this, she is still a teenage girl and she needs to feel like that. She can’t be too wise beyond her years. Otherwise, she doesn’t feel like the young woman that she needs to be.
You bring a very layered female perspective to this coming-of-age story and it’s also something we don’t see a lot of in this particular genre. Can you comment on that?
M.B.: In the construction of the story, I was always centering her perspective. Everything had to start and end with Hala in the scenes. I was always thinking about where she is emotionally and the camera would often rest on her and stay with her even as other things are going on because I realized that so much could be communicated by just staying with her and that we didn’t need as much dialogue to communicate that she’s going through something difficult. But then, the other part was that the focus on the mother-daughter relationship was was crucial in it being something I hadn’t seen before. I mean, there are films now that I feel are embracing that relationship like Ladybird that did a really good job on that, but I want to explore the world of women and how women relate to each other, because at the beginning of the film, Hala puts her father up on a pedestal and she is really kind of marginalizing her own mom in her life, and by the end of the film, she starts to see things from her mother’s perspective. She hasn’t really understood that her mom is probably going through a lot that she’s not voicing and part of that is cultural. I think the female perspective is centered more because the central relationship is a female relationship. Even my relationship with my mom is very complicated. When I was growing up, I just didn’t really understand her strengths. I didn’t get that she had a very quiet power and she was, in many ways, a different kind of parent than my dad was, who was an intellectual and very educated and had American friends. My mom and my dad could not be more different, but they were bringing different things to the table. And when I was young, I kind of was drawn to this intellectual piece of a parent who just understood what it was to be American, whereas with my mom, it was always this challenge of: “She doesn’t get me. She’s not coming looking at it from my perspective” and I was never willing to meet her halfway. And so, in the making of this film, being able to not only show Hala’s journey, but also her mom’s parallel journey was great because by the end the film, she’s made some big steps. That was how I kept it focused on a female relationship and kept going back to what the women are doing, thinking and feeling all the time.
Her mother is also a very strong woman and she also she wants freedom, which she gets by taking a stand and embracing the American side at home by getting a divorce and it becomes a parallel liberation of both Hala and her mother that brings them together.
M.B.: To me, the parallel coming-of-age is that she’s starting to define herself outside of being a mother and a wife. She’s starting to see that there are things that she wants to do and she hasn’t pursued them for a whole host of reasons. But, for me, it was important that their liberation not be about freeing themselves from their faith or their culture because I feel like that’s not exactly what it is; it’s that she gets the practice of men often using the culture and the faith as a justification for their own patriarchal purposes. So when her father is saying: “I’ll take out the Koran to have you swear on it,” he’s using it like a tool to keep his daughter in line. It’s not the faith itself that’s preventing Hala from living her life; it’s the way in which her father is exercising it in that moment to keep her in a box in the same way he is keeping his wife in a box. It’s like he doesn’t want his wife to stand up to him. It’s not about her having done anything unislamic. It’s that she’s starting to assert herself. So the film is also about patriarchy – patriarchy that manifests itself in cultures and in a way that has very often times very little to do with the faith itself.
In most coming-of-age stories, girls are kept asexual and are kept away from boys, but in Hala, you embrace all of this. It’s very honest and very relatable.
M.B.: I recognized that for a lot of people, there’s this expectation that women of color have to be perfect and that representations of them have to be perfect. They can’t be these complicated beings that sometimes make mistakes and have sexual agency and, in some ways, are sexualized without doing anything. I think, in this story, it was very important to embrace Hala’s sexuality as a thing that she’s exploring and maybe the first experience is not great or perfect, but that’s just one step of it and that I shouldn’t shy away from that. Part of me was very much considering: “Is this an important part to show on screen?” So we join her afterward, but if I fear this thing, if I don’t show the image of it, then in a way, I’m censoring it and I’m saying that’s not a part of her life when it very much is. Whenever I was writing, I was thinking about what are the things I’m scared of and scared to put on paper because we didn’t talk about sex in my home, ever. And so, writing it down on paper was terrifying and then, shooting it and directing was terrifying, but I think, ultimately, if young women can see the film and feel less alone, then the film is doing its job.
I also like the way that there is a platonic, intellectual love story that’s going on with poetry. That’s so nice. And also there’s the other part that is also so true and honest about sex. You show a different way around it because it’s either sex or objectification or nothing else.
M.B.: Yes, I wanted both. I wanted her to be drawn to him from an intellectual place, but that the sex was also going to be a part of it. It’s like sometimes one thing can be great and the other thing, the other part of someone, is not good and it doesn’t work. It’s not always compatible.
It’s very refreshing because what we see on screen is not necessarily what happens in real life and I think that young girls and boys think that it’s what they’re shown and what you’re showing in Hala is so honest and so real.
M.B.: Thank you!
Moving on to a slightly different subject. There has been so much talk about women in film these past two years. What do you think of the situation? Where do you see yourself in this discussion?
M.B.: I feel like a lot of road has been paved by female filmmakers that I admire and some of them are even here with films now. I think about when I watched Céline Sciamma’s films Water Lilies, Tomboy and Girlhood, so much of her filmography has influenced me. Also, Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsey, Debra Granik… And I feel very fortunate to come up in a time where I have very successful examples of female filmmakers in my life. And I think they’ve done a lot of work to open up and broaden the spectrum for what is possible in film from the female perspective. When I think what I am also grateful for now, is that people are understanding that there is an underserved audience for films by women about the lives of women and that they’re not necessarily going to be the same stories as by of men or by men, but that doesn’t make them less valuable. I think sometimes there’s this stereotype that women stories are quieter and less dramatic whatever it is, but I think women are viewing and experiencing the world in different ways because they are women and so, their lived experience of the world is different. So they’re putting them into films not to say they can’t write about men – I do think that they can absolutely do that – but I do think that now, there’s an audience who is ready for that and excited to watch more films by and about women. Because it’s different. I do feel like there’s a new wave of female filmmakers, especially at Sundance where we had a female majority in the U.S. Dramatic Competition lineup. It was amazing to be in a room full of peers, to feel like all of our stories are now finally supported not just in a hallow sense by words or encouragement, but financially because you need money to make films. It requires convincing people who are in positions of power that our perspectives are important and necessary and that they can be commercially successful too.
In that sense, you were one of the firsts with the Inclusion Rider, right?
M.B.: Yes, the producers and I were very much on the same page about hiring very diversely across the board and in the process of doing that, we hired all female department heads on this film and then, they hired under them and they took their cue from us that this is something that’s very important to have persons of color and LGBTQ crew members on our set, and have a diverse group of people working on the film not just because it looks good, but because it’s important to have their perspective even in below-the-line positions. For me, if I’m making film about a young woman’s coming-of-age, then I would like to have a female perspective across the board, from costume design, from an editor’s point of view, from a cinematographer because it enriches the film in ways that are often intangible. I feel very lucky that I was in a position to be able to do that and I had support for my producers. There was never any friction about what is the best for the film.
And how did Jada Pinkett-Smith come on board?
M.B.: Well, a couple of years ago, when the short came out, she watched it and, even though the specifics of the story are not like her life, she found something very universal in Hala’s story about reconciling her identity with her culture and her faith and she related with it. It was very resonant for her and then, I met with her and I pitched her the feature film and having watched the short and hearing what the feature would be, she decided to put her resources behind the film. She felt that, as an individual with more power, she was going to use that to support someone who would otherwise not get their film made. Because even four or five years ago, when I started working on the film, it was still very hard to convince people that this is a story that we need and that it’s very different from other coming-of-age films and that there will be an audience for it. But then, having the proof in the short film, which was very warmly received, I think she saw this underserved audience I was talking about and was like: “Yes, we should make this movie. It’s important.” She supported me throughout the process of making the film and was involved in post-production when we were talking about the cuts and was there at Sundance when we were selling the film and has been this very supportive presence throughout. I think she finally felt like: “I’m going to put my energy in these voices who are having a hard time getting money and getting their movies of the ground.”
You mentioned earlier some of your favorite female filmmakers. Do you have any other favorites? And a favorite film by a female filmmaker?
M.B.: I think it’s really tough. It’s hard because it’s sort of between Fish Tank and Ratcatcher. They are two of my favorite films because I think that they are perfect films from start to finish. I like films that are portraits that explore one person’s subjective experience; something happens in their life, a new sort of external force and then they’re forced to reconcile with it. And I remember when I watched Fish Tank in 35mm in Los Angeles with Andrea present. I had watched the film before, but it was different to watch it in a theater with her in audience and feeling even more moved and seeing more layers in the film than when I had seen it first. Having seen those films, I felt like I could see that they are these strong voices in cinema and that they’re necessary voices and I felt very much empowered to make films, seeing successful role models. I saw successful female filmmakers doing the thing I wanted to do.
And what are your next projects?
M.B.: The next project is a period film set in the early nineties, in the public housings of Chicago and that’s all I can say for now.
This interview was conducted at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
Photo credit: Luis Mora for TIFF x Samsung Studio.