By Abby Ho
Edited by Kelly Lui
I recently read a memorable phrase on social media:
“disrupting the pattern, shaking the repetition.”
This phrase guided my ongoing ruminations of Mashal Khan’s work, She Doesn’t Need Your Saving, a film that takes viewers to witness the artist’s intimate exchanges with her mother. Through their relations, we witness how generational stories and experiences can trickle down in small ways, whether through passing conversations or the embedding of family gatherings and sharing of rituals in everyday life. What does it mean to capture these moments, materialize these conversations and put them into practice? How does one fully engage with that which initially appears small but can culminate into something larger? In particular, I am intrigued by the process of breaking old patterns and building new forms of communication. As such, central to Khan’s work is the articulation of recording and witnessing small acts of resistance.
“It’s her choice” (1:49)
The film opens with a quote from Edward Said about orientalism and the (faux) binary of east vs west (0:07). Khan responds by deconstructing his theory through the telling of her mother’s lived experience of an arranged marriage. This narration is accompanied by visuals of old family film photos, the artist donning traditional wear, and vignettes of the mother-daughter conversation during a car ride. Under a constructed pretense that the west (freedom, modernity) is everything the east (backwards, repressed) is not, the viewer must deem the choices her mother made as either “right” or “wrong.” As mother and daughter discuss what it means to desire marriage, have or lack access, and make choices for the sake of survival, the piece disrupts our perception pattern. We, the viewer, are led to confront our role, beyond spectatorship, to possibly become more empathetic in understanding the little acts of resistance. Such that we might bear witness to her mother’s choices to survive and resist within the imposed restrictions to find ways to exist and live lightly.
“What do you want to talk about?”
“No idea” (1:25)
The work preserves what could have been a casual conversation during a weekend drive. Using intimate family footage is a direct translation of that particular time, allowing Khan to repeatedly return to her mother’s story. While the way we hold our memories and family histories may change, the stories remain the same. As a result, this work questions which is more important: the way a story is held or access to the story in its initial moment?
Underlining Khan’s intentions in revealing her mother’s story through unscripted conversations and memorabilia is Arundhati Roy’s quote (1:05) that there is no such thing as the voiceless, simply the preferably unheard. She tells us: “My mother does not need you or me to speak for her, to victimize her, to save her. She can and will tell her story on her own terms. (1:12)” Adding theoretical framing, we are able to understand her mother’s act as an anti-example of Said’s faux binaries and a desire to be seen rather than unseen. Though the academic lens may not extend the self-determination of her mother in the retelling of her choices, I see this as an opening for conversation about the value of art. Is this value inherent (embodied knowledge) or added (contextual)? And, who does that process of meaning-making serve?
“Mashal, you can’t say one thing is good or bad,
without fully understanding the context.” (4:55)
There is a difference between speaking beside and speaking for. In this way, the film is as much a piece about Khan’s mother as it is a piece of and for Khan. As a viewer, we are acutely aware of the artist’s hand in telling this story, from Khan’s opening narration to the interview questions and filming focus. This is not to say one voice takes precedence over the other. Rather it denotes how the artist exists as both creator and conduit for her mother’s story.
The only time we are addressed is in the beginning when the artist directly says “you.” The film otherwise remains an intimate interaction between Khan and her mother. I recognize my substantial connection to the artist and the degrees of separation I have from her mother. Not once does the mother address the camera, choosing to look beyond it to communicate with Khan. Conversely, Khan looks directly into the camera when on screen and is the one who prompts her mother to conversation. By the end of the film, we still don’t know the mother’s name.
Yet, with the mother predominantly speaking throughout the film, I cannot help but notice how Khan’s artistic choices mirror her mother’s acts of resistance. Khan places us directly in her shoes, sharing family keepsakes and repeating gestures of putting on jewelry similar to her mother’s wedding portraits. This is as much an invitation for the viewer as it is a record for the artist. I’m left questioning if my own act of witnessing is simply a performed response to the artwork, or if that distance from her mother’s story propels me to listen closely to the unvoiced or to consider future or further acts of resistance.
“They can’t understand them, let alone how can they even think they can save them?” (7:19)
This documentary film can be seen as part of a process for the artist to understand the complexity and nuance of her mother’s story, therefore allowing her to consider her own position. Using a casual approach to record the conversation, Khan frames and formats the experience to be told, retold, and rewatched whenever. The beauty of found footage and family archives is that the story exists in this artistic context and outside of it, both in public and private spaces. It does not require viewership to equate to authenticity and it does not need to exist in a conventional format. Although film can be perceived as a finished product, it offers flexibility through editing to tell and retell stories within new contexts, adapting toward a never-finished product. She Doesn’t Need Your Saving indicates a specific timestamp of this particular moment for Khan and her mother. As we move forward from the listening posture of Khan, the work shifts and opens space for the evolving nuances of her and her mother’s stories.
“At least they are surviving” (6:59)