Director Minhal Baig’s new feature, coming-of-age story “Hala,” took Sundance by storm and became one of the first films ever acquired by tech giant Apple. On the ground in Toronto, Baig spoke with Variety about showing the film, about the identity struggles of a Muslim teen girl, to diverse audiences around the world. Also serving as screenwriter and producer, Baig’s story centers on Pakistani-American Hala (Geraldine Viswanathan), whose modern sexual and emotional awakening brush up against the deep-seated values of her faith and culture.
TIFF is her last stop before Apple rolls out the film (the plans, like many of Apple’s other filmed content, are shrouded in mystery).
You’ve been on the road with this for a while. How has your experience been since your Sundance sale?
We’ve had the opportunity to take this to a few festivals, in San Francisco, Seattle and Italy. Sitting in some of these audiences, I wondered how the film might translate and it was gratifying to see people laughing at similar times and having other reactions like that. I feel like I made a movie that has the ability to cross cultures and hopefully will have a universal, emotional resonance.
What separates “Hala” from other coming-of-age stories?
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The coming-of-age story is familiar, but what I think is new is that it presents a perspective that is usually not front and center. It’s getting to see the inside of diaspora experience, seeing someone who is growing up in America having to balance both parts of the old world, your current culture and your faith. The things that are not disposable. We’re seeing these experiences coming onto the screen now, partly because the kind of people who are making these movies are at an age where they can speak to those experiences. At least for me, that’s true I got a lot of inspiration from other filmmakers, especially Asghar Farhadi speaking specifically about the cultural context of Iran. And also grounding the film in the emotional reality of one person. “Hala” doesn’t speak for all Pakistani-Americans, they’re not a monolith. They’re very different people. I’m talking about one shade in a palette of many colors.
Jada Pinkett-Smith is an executive producer on this. How did she come on board?
She watched a short film that I wrote and directed in 2015, and that was a proof of concept that I used to secure financing for this feature. She watched it and what she responded most to was the story of a young woman going through the challenges of young womanhood — but from a perspective we haven’t seen before. Jada wanted to support and put resources behind a filmmaker who otherwise would not get that movie made.
There’s been a lot of praise for your leading lady Geraldine Viswanathan. What about her spoke to you for this part?
I went into casting hoping for someone who could have all these emotional layers, someone who could project all of that without a line of dialogue, [Geraldine] submitted a tape, and it was immediately clear that she could visually communicate that internal conflict. She also has charisma and levity, and could give lightness to a self-serious character. Teenagers can be self-serious.
What do you hope American audiences take away from “Hala?”
I really want people to have empathy for Hala and young women like Hala. I want people to create space for women of color, Muslim women, to have sexual agency, to make mistakes, be imperfect and live their lives. I want us to hold compassion for Hala, and extend empathy for people who may not look like us. There are many people navigating the world with identities that are fluid and evolving, in a way that can make sense to all of us.