A Life of Hard Truths Explored in “I’ll Meet You There” | SXSW 2020 Review

A Life of Hard Truths Explored in “I’ll Meet You There” | SXSW 2020 Review

Thanks to South by Southwest festival sending screeners I was finally able to view and now review writer/director Iram Parveen Bilal’s I’ll Meet You There, a story of Muslim life in American. The film begins by swiftly and comprehensively demonstrating  the normalcies of Pakistani life in the United States, between Pakistani dance, street markets and music. The generational constructs show what someone from that culture may experience. The older generation is more pious whereas the younger generation is more likely to be jaded toward cultural traditions, while the middle-aged can go either way depending on how open they are to what America means by “freedom”. Does free mean to stay as devout and a part of your culture while living in a country that’s partially separated from religious belief? Does free mean to separate yourself from the rules of your family’s religion and explore what else life has to offer? Or does it mean to have the opportunity and choice to do either? The story follows Pakistani-American police officer Majeed in Chicago, Illinois and his American influenced college-age daughter, Dua. Their lives are interrupted suddenly by the appearance of her grandfather. Upon seeing his grown granddaughter, he gifts her a religious garment to wear around her head which she immediately repurposes as a skirt.

Relationships are based on truths as much as they are on secrets. That isn’t to say all secrets are based on lies, just that there are things we choose to keep from each other. And the truth is what we choose to share. Dua’s grandfather, played brilliantly by Qavi Khan, is aware she hasn’t been as devout as he would like, but not that she has a job teaching dance, something he would frown upon. Through Khan’s performance you see his struggle in him: he has desire for her to be more integrated in Pakistani life yet he also has understanding that she did not grow up where he did. Secrets become a theme first through a domestic family perspective, something everybody of all backgrounds can relate to. Then the film brings it to an almost national level when Majeed is asked to go undercover at a mosque to investigate possible terrorist related money laundering. This investigation leads to the whole family attending mosque together. It’s clearly Dua’s first time, evidenced by her almost going through the men’s entrance. It’s also her first time truly experiencing a deep part of her family’s culture. Her lack of knowledge led her to want to learn the Kathak style of dance, which is popular though not exclusive to prostitutes of Pakistan, and which her deceased mother had studied. Her distance from her Muslim heritage is partially due to her father who wants her to be American in America, but what exactly does that mean? What freedoms is she allowed to enjoy?

The majority of the film is shot hand-held, allowing us viewers to be more involved in the tensions that are arising in their life. Stillness is often used for smaller character moments, such as when people set their differences aside to speak to each other as humans. The perspective is often hand-held when following Majeed on his investigation. He’s bothered by how he’s obviously been picked for this assignment due to the color of his skin. But the possibility that his own community could be involved in such activity perhaps bothers him more deeply. He would not want to find a justification for the intolerance expressed around him and his people. Bilal balances the themes very delicately. Between the national emergency of terrorism and the embracing of one’s background, almost every social issue is brought up: from racism and sexism to xenophobia in American ignorance and how it’s expressed in the generational divide.

The story takes a shift about half way through into the self-doubt that inevitably must come from the pain the characters endure. There are consequences to actions, some greater than others. But we all suffer sometimes. The film explains the truth behind actions as “all actions are based on intentions”, a teaching of the prophet Muhammad. The intentions of the characters are justified when seen from the audience’s perspective. In real life people are normally on one side or another, but when you watch a film you see the whole picture and might gain a different perspective. The nuances of life are often set aside in order to take a side: Republican or Democrat, young or old, Pakistani or American. It’s a never-ending battle that makes life a game instead of something to be enjoyed by every living being.

The messaging in I’ll Meet You There is important, touching and timely. I believe we are always in need of a reminder that this is a shared country and that everybody should have a chance at a normal life and the pursuit of happiness. Filmmaking is about finding truth in both the ugly and beautiful sides of life and Bilal is a filmmaker who is not afraid to be honest. As the film reminds us, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” – Jelaluddin Rumi, 13th century.