Documentary Highlights Challenges, Resiliency of Pakistani Student Moving to Arkansas

The movie will be screened at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival this weekend.

Pakistani woman taking a selfie with her parents

Leaving home to go to college can be a difficult transition for young adults. Imagine how much harder it would be if you had to travel to another country in the middle of a pandemic to pursue that education. 

That was the experience for Baneen Khan, a young woman from Pakistan who enrolled at a school in Paragould, Ark., and arrived stateside on Jan. 6, 2021, the day of the U.S. Capitol attack. Amman Abbasi captured this eventful period in his cousin’s life in the documentary short Udaan (Soar). The film will be screened at the 30th annual Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival this weekend.

Abbasi was raised in Arkansas, but the filmmaker is now based in Los Angeles. He thought his cousin would make a good documentary subject because she’s exuberant, outspoken and had a sense of self at an early age. Abbasi’s goal was to follow her as she prepared for her first year of college. As challenges arose, Abbasi says his cousin handled the situation well.

“Baneen is a very resilient individual so I thought she managed to be so elegant through the whole thing,” he says. 

While people may sometimes feel like their own difficulties are insurmountable, a documentary provides the opportunity to experience different perspectives and see the challenges that someone else faces, perhaps a classmate you’ve only met through an online class, Abbasi says. The film is relatable because it shows the hardships a student has to navigate to attend school.

“But beyond that, I think it provides a sense of hopefully compassion and empathy that now people can realize ‘oh, it’s much bigger than just my small town or whatever,’” he says. “It could be people who we see as foreigners or immigrants. Now you see the backside of the sometimes really challenging position just to get to that same place.”

The creation of the documentary was supported by the Hindsight Project. A collaboration between Firelight Media, Reel South and the Center for Asian American Media, the initiative is focused on supporting BIPOC filmmakers living in the American South and U.S. Territories. Six artists had their work backed by the Hindsight Project, including Abbasi who says there’s a lot of challenges for BIPOC filmmakers in the South.

“I love Arkansas, but it’s not built for individuals like me,” he says. “And I think it’s important to be honest with that because I think there’s a really great creative class, but I think there’s some segregation that still seeps through the surface, and maybe it’s subconscious or whatever, but I think that plays a big part in it.”

At the same time, Abbasi is grateful to be from Arkansas because he has a different perspective, one that he’ll be able to showcase this weekend at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. Abbasi is thrilled to be participating in the two-week event.

“I feel like that’s really exciting to give that platform not only just to a local filmmaker, but to someone who has a slightly different perspective, not what you would expect,” he says. “And I love that festival in general because it has such an esteemed reputation, so I’m very happy about it.”

The 30th annual Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival is Oct. 8-16. The longest running non-fiction film festival in North America will return to theaters with in-person screenings this year while also making films available virtually. 

Udaan (Soar) will be part of a screening highlighting the six films created through the Hindsight Project that begins at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at the Historic Malco Theater. A virtual screening window that begins at 10 a.m. Sunday will be live for 48 hours. 

More information is available at www.hsdfi.org.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is Editor-in-Chief of Arkansas Soul, the host of the Affirmative Action podcast and a Northwest Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts in Arkansas for nearly 15 years.