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How Sundance’s Hala Made Minhal Baig an Honest Storyteller

February 5, 2019

Minhal Baig is the writer and director of Hala, a movie which, up until its Sundance premiere, she kept secret from her mother.

 A first-generation Pakistani-American from Chicago, Hala is a deeply personal character for the filmmaker. Because of this, Baig feared what her mother might think.

While many artists would share that their work was accepted to Sundance the moment they found out, Baig waited until after her film’s premiere to call her mother and deliver the news — in front of a few hundred audience members.

“I thought I was going to tell her while I was in production, then when we finished the movie, then when we were editing it … but every time it was terrifying to do the phone call,” she said.

“So I was like, ‘Well, [the premiere] is as good as time as any.’ Now I have a lot of explaining to do.”
According to Baig, keeping quiet about the film was a way to set aside worry about her mom’s thoughts on it, even if temporarily.

“I needed to incubate, make sure I tell the stories honestly and authentically,” she said.

Today, it seems impossible to keep a secret from anyone. Still, Baig pulled it off with the help of her mom’s technology-related habits.

“My mom doesn't have a smartphone, she doesn't use the Internet, and she doesn't watch American TV or movies,” she said.  

Even though her mother is now aware of the film, Baig isn’t sure she wants her to see it.

“I would love her to see the movie and not know that I directed it. If she knew, I feel like she would start to see herself in it too much.”

Because while the film is not based on Baig’s life, there are bits of dialogue that are “verbatim” from conversations the two have had.

“The story is fictional but the emotions are true,” she said.

Those emotions started several years ago, when Baig was a senior in high school and the relationship with her family “really changed.”

Years later, Baig’s father died and she returned home to be with her family.

“He was the glue that held us together. We were learning how to be a family again,” she said.

While at home, she started to write the script, eventually making a short film the feature would be based on.

In writing the feature, Baig learned a valuable lesson: Do not protect protagonists.

“I learned how to be vulnerable and write things that scare me,” she said, noting she was “comfortable” with much of the first draft, which left nothing at stake for her.

“And if there’s nothing at stake for me, why would there be for the audience? That was a change in my process. I didn’t wrestle with those questions before this.”

Some of the most painful scenes in the film to watch are some of the most personal to Baig.

“The scene where Hala is sitting in the car with her mother … there’s one line very much pulled from my own life,” she said.

“My mom was saying, ‘One day you’re going to be alone, your father isn’t going to be here.’ Writing that hurt me so much because of what I’ve gone through, but I had to write it. I kept trying to take those lines out. But I was like, ‘I can’t protect my protagonist, it’s hurting the story.’” 

There is a noble intention behind this movie, which clearly means so much to its creator.

“It’s important now for audiences to see protagonists that are introspective, to experience life in their shoes, and to feel that they are not so different,” Baig said.

“People are scared of the unknown, but when the Muslim-American protagonist becomes familiar to us, then that group and that community is not terrifying. I just want people to feel not alone.”

Apple has officially picked up the rights to Hala, meaning more audiences than those at Sundance will have a chance to experience Baig’s unique vision.

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