At 10-years-old, Amair Javaid went back to his home country of Pakistan and the village of Tapiala Dost Muhammad – located just off the four-lane Sialkot-Lahore motorway, on the outskirts of Sheikhupura, Punjab. He visited his two uncles who were huge film fans, which Javaid always found interesting considering how conservative his family was.
“My uncles had a home theatre system set up,” Javaid says. “I remember we went there and they had a bunch of blankets and beds set up in front of the TV, and we watched The Matrix and Jurassic Park on that night”.
Those films and that night were a big influence on who he is today.
“[The films] really made me think about the existential topics, but at the same time I really like films that have a huge appeal. So those films were really formative.”
Javaid is now a filmmaker, with his work focusing on the difficulties immigrants experience. He hopes his films, which also focus on Pakistani culture, will help to break stereotypes, showcasing the realities of being a South Asian immigrant.
Javaid’s own immigration experience happened when he was three-years-old, arriving in Canada from Pakistan. Because of his young age, his perspective of Canada was different compared to his parents.
“I didn’t come here with the [typical] Pakistani mindset, I looked at Western people fresh and thought this is what I could be,” he says. “I looked at, for example, the white kids. I’m like ‘Oh, they’re playing around, they’re doing all this stuff. I could do that too.’”
Javaid goes on to say that at home, things were different. His parents were more traditional and possessed a strong sense of their cultural identities. He, like many other Desi Canadians, did not have that as part of his cultural identity.
“The best way I could describe it is just a huge amount of dissonance throughout my childhood. I didn’t really know where I fit in,” he continues. “Should I act more like Western kids or Eastern kids? I’m not exactly this, I’m not exactly that.”
He explains that he spent a majority of his life trying to figure out where he belongs. Only within the last few years did he comfortably settle on an identity. Partial credit for this would have to go to his film work.
“I realized that the movies that I make have to be more cultural, like I have to explore my cultural background to become a better artist.”
Before filmmaking Javaid dabbled in writing, composing music, photography and video editing.
“It was all the right stuff that goes into a film, but it was all over the place,” he says.
His brother, Omar, helped him to focus those skills.
“He was like ‘can you write a couple of pieces of dialogue for me for this assignment in my drama class?’ So I wrote a bit of dialogue for him, and I’m like this is cool!” Amair says.
Amair explained that writing for his brother’s class sparked some memories for him about how much fun he’d had in the past shooting videos for school. Then he started shooting a couple skits for fun and realized that filmmaking was what he wanted to pursue.
Hafiz is Javaid’s first feature film. It follows the life of a Pakistani immigrant waiting for his letter of approval to practice as a doctor in Canada. Getting anxious, he calls his mother in Pakistan to help him cook a traditional dish: ‘Chicken Jalfezi.’
“It wasn’t based on any specific person, but stories you hear of people, with their degree, that come over here and now they’re working as a taxi driver.”
Javaid wanted to showcase the immigrant struggle: the anxieties, homesickness, financial stress and especially the isolation of moving to a completely new country.
“That isolation that people feel when they come over here. I really kind of stuck to that theme because, you know, anybody can relate to that. Like me personally, like everybody experiences isolation. So I found that a really good avenue to connect their experiences with mine.”
Javaid wants his films to resonate one way or another. Taha Akram, an actor and producer on Hafiz, related to the film as he is a second-generation Canadian; his mother was born in Canada but his father is an immigrant.
Akram says, “This film really helped me understand what my dad went through as an immigrant. He had to learn English, restart his education, find a way to fit into society and build a life here.”
Akram goes on to say that being born Canadian comes with immense privilege. Growing up with English as a first language, he didn’t have to struggle to fit in with Canadian society the way his father did.
“After showing this film to my dad, I finally had a deep genuine conversation with him about his struggles and it just made me appreciate and respect him even more,” he says. “My relationship with him has gotten a lot stronger and I can’t thank this film enough.”
Omar, who played Hafiz (the titular character) and helped with the script’s writing, says he personally felt it was important for his character to speak Urdu and Punjabi to accurately depict immigrants and combat the Hollywood interpretation of what South Asians sound like.
“Films like Hafiz are important because they authentically display the immigrant experience. Many films do not fully explore the extent of the struggle and suffering many immigrants go through,” Omar says. “So, it’s important for a film like Hafiz to be seen.”
The Javaid brothers and Akram both believe in the importance of film that accurately depicts real life.
“I just want people to be more empathetic towards people,” Amair says. “That when you talk to people you aren’t just talking to them in the moment, you’re talking to them and all their previous experiences combined (baggage).”
The film was met with many positive reactions after its debut, which the three didn’t anticipate. Hafiz started as a low budget passion project, and ended up being nominated for two CSIF (Calgary Society of Independent Filmmakers) Stinger Awards in 2019: Best Film and Best Performance. Recently the film was streamed for free as part of the Coalition of South Asian Film Festivals.
Javaid’s next film Charsi has recently been nominated for four CSIF Stinger Awards: Best Editing, Best Performance, Best Score and Best Overall Sound.
Javaid hopes to continue telling the stories of immigrants and challenges within the South Asian community itself, but also the “human experience” in general.
“I would hate if I stayed the same throughout my entire career,” he says. “So I hope to keep learning and continue to evolve (as a filmmaker).”
Hafiz is screening live on YouTube through the FILUMS – International Film Festival, from Nov. 27- 29.