Sana Saif's 'Uncle Zaman' Finds Links Between South Asia and South Texas

By Sophie dela Cruz, Center for Asian American Media

'Uncle Zaman' is now streaming as part of The Sauce series.

"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's experience as a South Asian in Houston, TX, a city with a bustling brown community, shapes her storytelling as an artist, photographer and director.

"South Texas is where it all started," she shared. At the age of 6, she migrated to Houston with her parents and was soon surrounded by her extended family. There, 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 film.

Saif's family, she said, 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 a tight-knit sense of belonging that I think exists in both cultures because of how hospitable both are. There's a lot of hospitality, a lot of love, even though sometimes we're more used to hearing about the hate."

Through the film, Saif got to learn more about her family history and their connection with Texas while contemplating 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 to watch somebody you love hustle so hard to give you everything that you have," she said. "Living in the South puts more pressure on you to be absolutely perfect. You can't mess up. There are 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," she said.

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