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Filmmaker Ian Bawa gets personal with short film ‘Strong Son’

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How do you define success?  For some of us it might be in the things we own, or the dollars in our bank account.  For others it may be about the accolades we receive, or hopefully still the happiness we feel.  For filmmaker Ian Bawa, his life path was shaped by this very idea – of understanding what success and greatness meant to him and also what it meant to those around him. 

It’s a kind of introspection that many of us might never accomplish, but Ian was forced to face it early when his mother suddenly passed away due to breast cancer.  Upon her death, his father told him, “That the only way to make her proud was to be ‘successful.’”  Equating that success with money, Ian set his goal for what he thought would make his parents happy – law school.  He poured himself into activities to bolster his resumé, volunteering, writing for the school paper, and eventually heading to University where he graduated with a degree in political science and criminal justice.  

He was ready to go to law school when he found out he just couldn’t do it.  Speaking via e-mail, Bawa notes, “I was not excited by law school or the thought of being a lawyer. In fact, I suffered from panic attacks from even the thought of it. I decided to go back and have a ‘one year break’, and take something fun like film studies.”  

Three years later he graduated, and now he’s here.  With a short film Strong Son traveling the festival circuit and a feature film based on the idea currently in development, Ian Bawa can certainly consider himself a success.  He says it took a while for his dad to come around to the fact that his ‘break’ from law school was a permanent choice, but Ian followed his instincts to something that brought him his own sense of greatness.  While family is clearly one of the biggest influences in Ian’s life, he profoundly remarked in a 2018 presentation he made in his native Winnipeg, Canada: “Live the life you would live if your parents were not around because they won’t always be.”

This sentiment of familial influence is something that is threaded through the filmmaker’s three minute and thirteen second short Strong Son.  The film looks at an elderly father and his son, the latter going through his arduous workout routine as his dad looks on and critiques not only his exercise choices but also his life choices.  The film stars Ian’s real life father, Jagdeep Singh Bawa, and body builder Mandeep Sodhi, who plays what Ian describes as an extreme version of himself.  Ian notes that upon dealing with his dad’s passive commentary when he was an overweight child, he grew to become a man obsessed about exercise and health.  

These sorts of struggles with his dad played a big part in how Strong Son was shaped to bring forth commentary around toxic masculinity, body image, and even the pressure to uphold cultural traditions.  In the film, the dad makes comments specifically about the son needing to be strong in order to attract a partner, to be popular.  That being strong means a stable home.  That home means that the father can finally move into the ‘big room’ and feel secure as he ages.  His son will be strong enough for the both of them.

Jagdeep Singh Bawa and Mandeep Sodhi in ‘Strong Son’

Even with its short run time, Strong Son also manages to bring into focus an issue that worries many of us – our aging parents.  “It was only after the fact, when the film started its festival run that I realized how many people could relate to the film and the idea that as millennials our parents are getting older and we’ll have to take care of them one day,” Ian says.  “The fact that this is a universal theme has helped relieve some of the stress of taking care of my dad. I know now that people understand when I talk about my problems with him or if I have to change plans and take him to the doctor.”

More short films

Strong Son, is the last in a trilogy of Super 8 films centring around Bawa’s father (previous shorts include Trevor’s Turban and Missing Toes).  The idea came to Ian after a bad breakup shook him emotionally, on his birthday no less.  When out with his dad the next day he broke down crying, feeling hurt by the situation.  “He told me to ‘stop crying,’ ‘be strong’ and to ‘be a man,’” he recalls.  “I felt embarrassed that I had just cried in public and in front of my dad.” Later, his dad handed him a birthday card.  In it was written, “‘Happy Birthday, Ian – Time to settle down,’” Ian remembers, “and I began crying again. A few days later, I wrote the script of what would be the short version of ‘Strong Son.’ This was just my way of venting in a sense.”

A dialogue seems to have opened up between the two men since Ian started focusing his films around his father.  “Over the last few years, my dad and I have been able to talk about a lot of these insecurities and pressures he puts on me,”  Bawa admitted.  While he has now moved out of his childhood home, where his dad still resides, he spent a lot of time living alongside his father.  “The only way for us to survive was to communicate and not chew each other’s heads off. I’d say as of late we’ve had more open dialogue about my concern and worries, and vice versa,” Ian notes.  “I’ll be honest, these dialogues with my dad, despite being emotional sometimes, are one of the greatest gifts I have. I never realized that we spoke so honest and well until late, when other friends have pointed it out.”

With Ian currently working on the script to the full-length version of Strong Son, his feature directorial debut, and a number of other directing, producing, and writing credits under his belt, it would be hard for either Ian, or his father, to deny that filmmaking was the right choice for his own path to success.  Strong Son was even selected for the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, a feat considering the festival was markedly pared down this September.  Bawa says, “TIFF only took around 35 short films this year, so to actually play in such a prestigious festival really is special.”  While the festival played mostly online due to COVID-19, something Ian describes as initially feeling “bittersweet,” the format change also meant for greater accessibility.  Ian admits it, “Allowed for more people to see my film, more press, and more recognition. It’s been amazing overall.”

So, as Ian embarks on the next big project of getting his feature version of Strong Son off the ground he seems dedicated to making sure the themes of the three-minute version are amplified.  “The feature takes a deeper look into the themes of male toxicity (i.e. men shouldn’t cry), and how poisoning that can be to grow up with; and how at a certain age, parents can no longer take care of themselves and how their children need to start taking care of them,” he explains.  “The main challenge is writing something so personal.  I really have to unlock my mind and open up to actually write the damn thing.”  Somehow, based on what we’ve seen so far, there’s no doubt Ian Bawa will manage this as well.  Perhaps in finding such success through inner strength he will prove to himself that he already is, in fact, the Strong Son.  

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