A Quiet Struggle that Speaks Volumes.

In TIFF by Reina Cowan

“I think you’re trying to capture the audience. Not really trying to explain every bit of what’s going on in your mind, but to make them believe in that moment that you’re going through something. And that they went through that something with you, even without words or meaning. I think the purpose is to pass a message,” says Sheila, the young protagonist of the film Quickening. 

And that’s exactly what director Haya Waseem has done, expertly conveying a wordless message and visceral experience in her stunning full-length feature debut. 

Quickening premiered in-person on Sunday, Sept. 12 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. The hour-and-a-half-long film held five additional digitals and live screenings throughout the week. 

Talented newcomer Arooj Azeem is utterly compelling as Sheila, a Pakistani-Canadian university student trying to strike a balance between her roles as both a second-generation Pakistani woman rooted proudly in her culture and a young Canadian performing arts major, navigating the pitfalls of love, friendship, and self-belonging. 

Sheila feels stifled. Her Pakistani immigrant parents (played by actress Arooj Azeem’s real-life parents Bushra and Ashir Azeem) are loving but don’t allow her the freedom she needs for self-development while stuck between two worlds. In an early scene, we see how Sheila’s tension and blockage come across in the physical work she does in performance class.  “You can’t get away with absence,” chastises her teacher,  “You must be for all and it will show in your work. It will show in your body.”

At home, her parents aim to implement some sense of traditional values in their daughter. They have conversations and watch a film about the merits of coming from a “good family,” the dangers of university-aged women destroying their parents’ reputations while away from home.  

But bearing the weight of potential cultural shame doesn’t stop her from falling for Eden, a white student in her class with whom she develops an intimate relationship. Their eyes lock on the dancefloor at a house party, and soon they’re sharing a kiss in the lobby. When Sheila loses her virginity to Eden, she develops a sense of attachment to him. She’s willing to settle for less than what she truly wants from the relationship. But Eden’s commitment to her proves to be fleeting, as his eye is drawn to another classmate; this is hard for Sheila to bear. To make matters worse, her father is laid off from work, causing a rift between him and her mother. These family dynamics and shocking surprises push Sheila’s life into a tailspin. 

Quickening is visually stunning. Cinematographer Christopher Lew provides remarkable framing shots that give a visual nod to Sheila’s outsider status. In an early example, Sheila and her mother Aliya discuss Sheila’s place in the Pakistani and Canadian dual culture she inhabits through a small crack in the door. Many shots are similarly framed through doors and windows, creating a feeling of separation that parallels Sheila’s feelings. 

Sounds and light are big players in this film, where minimal dialogue is used to tell the story. In her performance classes, Sheila’s anxiety and feelings of tension are underscored by Jonah Blaser’s sound design and Spencer Creaghan’s slow, sustained and sensual original score, helping to heighten tension, mounting at times to coincide with Sheila’s growing alienation. As the pressures in Sheila’s life grow, the film is beautifully underscored through the use of choreography, breath, music, and light. These elements speak volumes where words cannot. 

Filmmaker Haya Waseem describes using Sheila as a vehicle to communicate some of her self-imposed feelings of outsider status.

Waseem was born in Pakistan, moving to Switzerland at age 10, and finally to Canada as a teenager. Her approach to storytelling and crafting Sheila’s character was, in part, a collection of things she went through during those moves as a young person. “It’s informed everything now,” says Waseem. “When I make films, all those little experiences, growing up in Pakistan or in Switzerland or the people that I met… those stories now have room to come out in what I write.” 

Lead actress Arooj Azeem is compelling. Many aspects of Sheila’s character were influenced by Waseem’s life, but the director says a collaborative approach to creating Sheila with Azeem allowed the character to become her own person entirely. “Even when I see Arooj on screen I’m like ‘oh, that’s Sheila.’ She’s become her own character. That’s how I strike that balance. It’s the emotions that I’ve filled this character with, but [she’s] her own individual at the end of the day,” says Waseem. 

Quickening is a cry to be heard among the many noisy elements of life. As Sheila grapples with her identity and sense of belonging, she undergoes a dramatic change to her mind and body, and her parents’ relationship breaks down synonymously. We see her lose touch with her Pakistani friends in the community as well as her Canadian schoolmates. 

At the film’s apex, when everything crumbles around her, Sheila’s family is there to console and support her, even if they can never completely understand. Young women of colour are less afforded screen time to experience messiness and mental health issues, but Haya Waseem gives Sheila the space to go through this in a way that is accessible and honest. Quickening is the story of how change and stress in life can manifest in the body. Which pressures are external, which are self-imposed? In Sheila’s story, we see the devastating impact that can happen when both types build up and overlap until it’s too much to bear. 

When the dust begins to settle, Sheila scrubs chalk drawings from her blackboard-painted bedroom wall. She wipes off all the doodles on the wall, leaving only her own name: “SHEILA” in big bold letters in the centre. Finally carving out a small space for herself among the chaos. 

Grade: A