My big break was a movie about my dad. Then he died

This first-person chronicle is written by filmmaker Ian Bawa. For more information on CBC’s First Person Stories, please see frequently asked questions.

When I was a child, my father sometimes bullied me. He would be my mother’s “bad cop” who played the role of “good cop”. When I was 20, my mother died suddenly of breast cancer, and my father and I had to learn to live with each other’s tempers and grief.

I continued to live at home with my father for another 10 years, where our relationship grew into a co-dependent friendship. When I finally moved out, I stayed close to my dad and started to incorporate him even more into my life by having him in my movies.

Ian Bawa’s art and much of his life revolved around his father, Jack. (Submitted by Ian Bawa)

In August 2019, I asked my father to act in my short film, strong son. The movie was about a South Asian dad, played by my dad, as he tries to give life and marriage advice to his bodybuilding son at the gym. The film was a three-minute narrative portrait of my life and my relationship with my father. I wanted to make the film for me because it was about me.

Once finished, I didn’t know what to do with the film. It didn’t seem like a movie anyone would want to watch since it was about our relationship and my insecurities. But after showing it to a few trusted friends, I decided I should at least try to get it seen by more than my inner circle and started sending it to film festivals.

WATCH | Ian Bawa’s Strong Son movie trailer

In July 2020, my film was accepted into the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

It’s hard to put into words what happened next.

Friends and strangers alike began reaching out to celebrate what my dad and I had accomplished and a film that incorporated diversity, family, and vulnerability. Critics and film critics praised strong son as a festival favourite. It made my dad and I feel like celebrities and gave my career and life a boost.

Ian Bawa recreated the photoshoot he did with his father in 2020, alone in 2021. (Daniel Crump)

But then my father died. I found him dead in his room. A failing heart, according to the medical examiner.

I ghosted the world. I was embarrassed. I was crushed. A movie I made about me and my dad was going around the world and around the world, and now everyone knew he was dead. I felt the pity of the world. The movie seemed dead too. So I hid from the world.

I didn’t see or talk to anyone, and felt the need to focus my trauma and devastation on something I could mold and shape. So I started writing a new story. It was about a South Asian father and son who begin to see the shadow of their beloved wife and mother on the walls of their home after her death. This story was still about my father, but told through the experience of loss and depression. The story would be called “My son is silent,‘ and is being made into a short film.

Ian Bawa stands outside his childhood home, which he sold after a year of gutting and collecting artifacts from his father’s life. (Daniel Crump)

I love my parents. I love them so much I feel like it kills me inside some days. When you lose a parent, you break the foundation. When you lose both, you destroy the house.

So here I am, about a year after my father’s death, still living alone (even though I’ve adopted a pet dog), still in my grief (though I’ve been told I’m now in the process of mourning), and try to write.

I learned that writing and making films about my parents, especially my father and our relationship, was therapeutic for me. It’s the subject I know best at the moment because it’s my constant state.

WATCH | Ian Bawa wrote a song for Father’s Day

I learned that you should always be vulnerable in your art because that’s the only way people will react and connect with you and your film. But once you’ve opened the doors of vulnerability, you have to be ready to talk about it.

I’ve done this more than once in my filmmaking journey and am now blessed (although some would say cursed) to regularly share and speak about my father and his death. At this point, he feels more than dead. He is part of me and my stories. He is my shadow, my muse and my best friend. I miss him.


Ian Bawa is a filmmaker from Winnipeg. He is best known for his films Offline, The Champ, Imitations and Tapeworm. His latest short film Strong Son premiered at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, the 2020 Vancouver International Film Festival and the 2021 Aspen Shortsfest. Bawa is currently adapting Strong Son into a feature film and is in the process of producing his last movie, “My Son Went Quiet”.

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