“The most influential people in my family have been the father figures.” Painter and filmmaker Sana Saif grew up in a loving Pakistani-immigrant household, watching her father and his brothers hustling toward a nebulous and hopeful American dream. In her documentary Uncle Zaman, she explores the life of her titular uncle and his determination to succeed in a constantly shifting, chaotic world.
Saif, currently a film student in her senior year at Savannah College of Art and Design, was selected in 2021 as one of the emerging filmmakers for The Sauce fellowship; created in collaboration by the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) and the New Orleans Video Access Coalition (NOVAC), The Sauce amplifies and uplifts rising Asian American creators living in the American South. Her experience as a South Asian in Houston, Texas, a city with a bustling brown community, shapes her storytelling as an artist, photographer, and director.
“South Texas is where it all started,” said Saif in an interview with WORLD. At the age of six, she migrated to Houston with her parents and was soon surrounded by her extended family. Here, she witnessed the expansion of her aunts and uncles’ small businesses, Including an uncle who began his flea market shop by selling bags from the back of his van. Her other relatives made their first investments into their storefronts with sweets by selling snow cones and candied apples in a small space.
Uncle Zaman, who owns three jewelry stores and two side businesses, is the one Saif admired because of the sacrifices he has made throughout his life. “Diabetes has been such a major component of his struggle…even a major problem like that, he’s just putting to the side and focusing on what he needs to get done for his family, for himself, for his future.” Thriving as a business owner and provider is what made him such an interesting character to follow” in her documentary.
Saif’s family did everything they could to fit into their new community—even sporting cowboy hats and boots as Uncle Zaman did—to show his enthusiasm for the South. “In a lot of ways, the South Asian culture and the South Texas culture [are] pretty similar in this need to find community and this tight knit sense of belonging that I think exists in both cultures because of how hospitable both are.” The documentary allowed Saif to get to know her family history and their connection with Texas. “There’s a lot of hospitality, a lot of love, even though sometimes we’re more used to hearing about the hate.”
Saif also contemplates South Asian representation in the media; she aims to reflect the lives of the children of immigrants who strive toward the American dream by telling her own story. “I truly don’t know any South Asian documentaries getting so personal and hands-on about what it’s like behind the scenes of watching somebody you love hustle so hard to give you everything that you have.”
There are also high expectations imposed upon minority communities in the South. “Living in the South puts more pressure on you to be absolutely perfect. You can’t mess up. There’s no other people representing what you’re doing, and so if you don’t do it perfectly, people are going to [say], “Oh, this is how they are.”
As an artist, Saif sees unity in every aspect of her identity. Her paintings and her documentary are a marriage of her dual perspectives as a South Asian and a South Texan. “We’re all linked together. It’s not just one person’s journey.”
Sophie dela Cruz is an author and poet with a passion for storytelling that represents their Asian and queer communities. Outside of their writing, they are an Integrative Biology student at the University of California, Berkeley. You can find them on IG @sophieandtheirstories and TikTok @sophrosyne promoting new diverse reads, sharing their outfits-of-the-day, and celebrating life in the STEM fields.