We catch up with Pakistani-Norwegian director Iram Haq, recipient of the Femme du Cinéma Award at Les Arcs European Film Festival (December 16-23).

Her second feature What Will People Say, winner of the Audience award in Lübeck, is screening at Les Arcs’ main competition, ahead of its national release in France via the high-profile ARP Distribution.

Inspired by Haq’s own experience, the film is both a complex story about growing up between two opposite cultures and a father and daughter relationship drama.

You will receive at Les Arcs the ‘Sisley Femme de Cinéma award, given out to a female director with a strong voice in European indie cinema. What does this mean to you?
Iram Haq: I really appreciate it and it makes me want to make more films. My two first films I am Yours and What Will People Say were personal and important stories for me to tell, but with universal themes like identity, belonging and shame, relating to women around the world. So many women of different ethnic origin in our Western world, are afraid to speak out. I want to be a voice for some of them.

Nearly 500 Norwegian and 600 Swedish actresses have joined Facebook groups to denounce sexual harassment in film and theatre. Have you also experienced it?
Yes I did, when I was a young freelancer, but people told me hey, this is how it works. Shut up and get over it! It’s horrible to watch powerful people being abusive and feeling immune because nobody says anything. Now I’m thrilled to see so many women, feeling empowered and not having to carry their shame anymore.

How did you develop your taste for filmmaking?
IH: My father loved telling stories, so did I. My family originally from Pakistan, didn’t have much money so I used to hang out at the library in Oslo where I could read for free. I always wanted to write and tell stories. It’s only when I was in my late 20s that I did some acting for fun. But I’m totally self-taught. Then I started to write short films, played in some of them, I wrote/directed the short film Little Miss Eyeflap that won several awards and then my first feature I am Yours [Norwegian Oscar entry 2013].

What Will People Say is the biggest Norwegian arthouse film of the year, with nearly 100,000 admissions, which is more than the Oscar entry Thelma (62,459). You must be over the moon…
IH: Yes the release is going really well. I’m so pleased that it’s crossed over different demographic groups, attracting young and older people likewise, from different backgrounds. Perhaps most importantly is the fact that the film has created a lot of debate in the public sphere. The film came out at the same time as a book –Skamløs (‘Shameless’) written by group of young women of migrant background [Nancy Herz, Amina Bile, Sofia Nesrine Srour]. Their book discusses being shameless and social control, just like my film, so it’s been a fortunate coincidence.

The film is inspired your own experience. Could you tell us about it?
IH: Yes the film is inspired by my own story. I grew between the Norwegian and Pakistani cultures and when I was 14, I was kidnapped by my parents and forced to live for more than a year in Pakistan. I struggled a lot with this experience and did not see my family very much for 25 years. It’s only when my father got ill that I could be reunited with him. This trauma helped shape who I am today.

The film is very nuanced, portraying 16-year-old Nisha’s ordeal as she is forced out of Norway and her father’s own dilemma, pushed to make difficult choices because of social pressure, honour and tradition…
IH: It was always important for me to tell the story from the parents’ point of view as well, not to make them one-dimensional, as mere villains vs the good daughter. I wanted to focus as well on the complex family bond.

You’ve done two features based on your own life experience and script. Do you feel ready to work on other people’s films and stories?
Absolutely. I want to write other stories and other people’s stories and take on new challenges, whatever the format, be it for film or television. What Will People Say was shot in Sweden, Germany, Norway, India, with an international crew, therefore much more ambitious in scope than I am Yours. I was keen to challenge myself to handle such a bigger project.

Do you pay attention to what people say?
IH: I used to do when I was young. I was very nervous about other people’s opinion. But now, I believe in being myself, and doing whatever I really want, it makes me free.