Haya Waseem on her short film 'Shahzad'

Haya Waseem is a Pakistani born Canadian raised in Switzerland. A Sheridan College graduate in Media Arts, her short film SHAHZAD about an 11 year old Pakistani boy who moves to Toronto with his father and how he builds a home in a foreign land, premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. We spoke to Haya about the making of Shahzad and her own immigrant experience. 

Q) How does it feel to have TIFF as a platform to showcase your film?

It’s great. This is the first film that I have at TIFF. I made the film a year ago so it’s kind of like a resurrection of sorts of the film that I made. I am obsessed with making films. I made four films last year and I’m already on fifth and sixth now. Shahzad was the first film I did. It’s great in a way that its reminding me of where I came from and what that means today. I’m developing a feature for Shahzad now so the timing couldn’t be better. Everybody is getting to see the film and I’m surprised hearing about the film I made that I didn’t have any expectations for, it was just something that was personal to me and I put it on screen. So this is like the biggest gift. 

Q) Making four films in the span of one year is quite a feat. How did you pull that off?

My boyfriend is my cinematographer, he has a great eye and I’m lucky to have him. The two of us are very, very passionate. That is all we think about, that is all we do. It started with him purchasing a film camera and me wanting to transition into directing and telling my own stories. Those two things year and a half ago kick started our first project, which was a documentary shot on film. I come from the doc world so that was a natural beginning. We finished the film and it was something we were both proud of. Immediately after I thought okay now I want to write something. So I wrote Shahzad and we pitched it to BravoFACT, they gave us the grant. We went right into Shahzad. When Shahzad was finished, we had film left over and I said let’s shoot another. We had enough savings to put towards a film and we just kept going from thereon. Our biggest strength is we trust each other and each other’s ideas and are eager to do so we just do it. We don’t wait for funding or this and that to go through. If that comes through great, if it doesn’t we are already taking steps towards making it ourselves. I edit, Chris shoots, I direct so between the two of us we can make a film and we have for the past year and a half. 

Q) Where did the story idea of Shahzad stem from?

I collect pieces everyday; I don’t how they will all come together. I saw a photo in a magazine, of a man with a goatee but he had blue eye shadow on and he was looking straight into camera. It was striking image that stayed with me. I moved a lot when I was a kid, now I’m by myself and feel independent. I thought to myself I’ve never really thought about what my parents went through when we were doing all those moves because I was so focused on what I was going through, how I was feeling. Now that I am a bit more stable, I began thinking about what they went through and that opened up a base for imagining what a parent could be going through in the periphery of the point of view of a kid, that’s how Shahzad came about. I thought if I take Shahzad and I’m looking through the tunnel vision of his experience, who could be the father on the sidelines and that image just popped in there so those two things became Shahzad. I like repetition and how rituals can change and indicate the growth of a character. I juxtaposed the same dinner the father and son go through and what the son is going through at school.

Q) How was the process of casting for this film like?

Yatharth, the actor who plays Shahzad was really easy to cast. I saw a headshot of him and immediately I knew it was him. I am a very instinctual person, out of all the faces I saw his stuck with me. He was great to work with. He understood how to be subtle. He was very much like that in real life too. He had a stillness to him. Saad, who plays the father him and I connected really well. He had a similar experience as a child, moving to New York and his relationship with his father, so we connected on themes and bones of the film. Then I just trusted that they would be able to carry the film. For me it’s important when I cast a film to connect on those levels, maybe not necessarily the plot itself. 

Q) You were born in Pakistan, raised in Switzerland and are now based out of Toronto. How has that informed you as filmmaker?

I believe it has led to an openness and love for any type of person that is a part of my DNA. I always see something very loving about each person especially those that it may be difficult to understand why they are the way that they are. I find a huge pleasure when I am able to connect with someone. Moving so much all the time forced me to connect with people and see beyond what the guard might be when you first meet somebody. It contributed to who I am, seeing people for who they really are and the beauty in every person. All my films are not happy films but the tragedy in them maybe that people don’t know how to express their love. That can be tragic but it’s beautiful at the same time, because the love is in them but they haven’t had the right opportunity to bring it forth. Shahzad has an element of that too, it’s two characters that love each other but can’t express that but I see in them. I find satisfaction putting those kinds of characters and stories on screen. 

Q) Shahzad is in part about the immigrant experience. What to you is unique about the Canadian immigrant experience, being a Canadian immigrant yourself?  

From my point of view, I had a great experience moving here. I had no trouble making friends, I didn’t have any bullying or any sort of racism that I experienced myself. I wanted to highlight that for Shahzad’s story. A lot of people say ‘oh he had it really easy at school, he made friends so quickly,’ so I asked why wouldn’t he? For me it’s more so how do the values that you bring here with you that might not necessarily fit the society that exists here, how does that affect you as a person? I’m more interested in that side of the immigrant experience, the balance between where you are from and where you are what does that look like for a character rather than you’re a foreigner and you don’t understand me.  I don’t think that displays my version of the immigrant story. I am more aware of finding the balance of okay I am Canadian and I am Pakistani, what does mean? What is my version of my morals and ethics and my cultural values.