Love, loss, language, sexuality, and families all feature in a tale of two women either side of The Channel, as filmmaker Khan talks identity and seeing things on screen we don’t see very often or at all…
ENTERTAINING, darkly comic in places, but above all culturally rich, ‘After Love’ is a film many people will love and admire.
Writer-director Aleem Khan is a talent to watch, and his debut feature film is a family story that is poignant, intelligent, culturally nuanced and so beautifully observed.
It is full of interesting, arresting and powerful insights into the very world many of us inhabit – between cultures, faiths and ideas.
Mary (played quite brilliantly by Joanna Scanlan), is a middle-aged white English convert to Islam, and has embraced the faith and culture of her long-time husband, Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia) who is of Pakistani heritage.
In the early scenes, there is a beautiful sense of stable loving domesticity but all that is shattered when Ahmed suddenly dies and sets Mary on a very different path. (Below is not a spoiler as it has been revealed in publicity material already).
Across the channel is another family that Ahmed was part of – his long-term French partner Genevieve (Nathalie Richard) and their son Solomon (Talid Ariss). Mary only discovers all this after Ahmed, a uniformed cross-channel naval officer, has passed.
Mary leaves her Kent home for Calais to find out more and what happens there lies at the heart of drama in ‘After Love’. It isn’t at all predictable and we will leave the details at that.
“The film is very specific,” Khan told www.asianculturevulture.com. “But what it is dealing with at its heart is very universal, it is about love and loss.
“It isn’t autobiographical, but is rooted in real things.”
Khan comes from a mixed race family himself – he has Pakistani heritage on his father’s side, while his mother is white English and bears some physical similarities to Mary in the film, he told us. He also has four sisters, and a brother. His parents are from Walthamstow in east London and met there, but moved to Kent after getting married and it is where he grew up.
“Growing up in a large family, I felt, ‘where do I fit in?’ I also think being gay and throwing that into the mix needs navigating.”
The subject of identity is at the core of this film, but one of its great strengths is that you can watch ‘After Love’ without having to be acutely aware of that.
There are two aspects to this, acv believes.
Firstly, there is the more overtly political one – that of this film skilfully unpicking stereotypes and misconceptions and recasting them in a way that feels authentic and real.
“We are living in a world where we are encouraged to fear the other or to fear someone who doesn’t look like us – a Muslim and I’ve seen it time and time again.
“It is a kind of fear that is encouraged – in films, the Muslim characters are very two-dimensional and this film is about unpacking the deeper senses at the heart of a person.
“There is a reality that is where our shared humanity is.”
Khan spent time in Calais, in the camps, where refugee and asylum seekers congregated as they sought to get into Britain, before the areas were cleared and said his experiences made him think about race, class and Europe – though immigration and asylum isn’t a subject that comes up very directly in the film itself.
Allied to this, ‘After Love’ has an acute sense of geography – Dover and Calais are very present – even the shots of the white cliffs are not just cinematic and visually appealing, but go to the heart of the film’s deeper purpose.
“They do represent Englishness, Winston Churchill and the Second World War – but it’s also really about how unstiff that identity is as a biological structure, it is constantly shifting, compacting, breaking down and producing new facades of itself.”
And secondly on a very personal level, this is precisely what is going on in the movie as represented by the lives of its three central characters, Mary, Genevieve and Solomon.
They are growing, changing, learning and developing – sometimes presenting a brave face, sometimes not.
Mary is hugely likeable, warm, empathetic – she has embraced her husband’s family’s way of life. She speaks Urdu, wears a hijab, is often in a Shalwar Kameez and is a pillar of the community.
We see her faith giving her strength after Ahmed’s passing.
“One of the important things for me was to present a Muslim at the centre of a story and have a character that is an older woman, larger framed who wears a headscarf/hijab.
“We just don’t have that kind of representation on screen – I wanted to see the full interior spectrum of a Muslim character.
“When we see Muslims (on screen) it’s always through a particular prism and for me there was real power – it’s almost transgressive – in presenting a Muslim being normal and having that everyday experience of losing someone that you love.”
You might think the story itself is a little contrived – but Khan researched and even met people who had been through this sort of experience of not knowing their father had another family – across the road, let alone in another country.
“I met someone whose Dad had another family in the next street and they didn’t realise he had kids with another woman and they were at the same school.”
Among the lighter but very memorable reference points are the music at the beginning, ‘Kabhi Khabhie’ and the bonding between Solomon and Mary, when she makes the boy, a Saag (spinach) dish and they converse in Urdu.
Khan talks about how he hopes audiences can connect and see themselves on screen.
“Through food and music – when we are away from our families and homes, there are things that we carry with us, and we take them everywhere – and so much of our identity is in the shared experience and the experience of sharing (of food and music).
“It is among my favourite moments (in the film), it’s really evocative and connect you back to those parts of yourself and there is a comfort in that and comfort in seeing yourself on screen.
“My parents have seen the film, yes, and they were really touched by it and proud their son had made a film.”
It’s not just Khan’s parents who will be proud or full of praise – this is a distinct and exceptional debut film.
Last year the film was all set for a world premiere at one of the official sections of the Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Critics), but the festival was cancelled due to the pandemic, and it screened first in Britain at London Film Festival (LFF) in October last year and has just released in cinemas nationwide.
‘After Love’ is in UK cinemas now… (from June 4)
Previously (review from LFF)
London Film Festival 2020: ‘After Love’ – Dance of secret past and present make for compelling family saga… (review) – Asian Culture Vulture