“I literally just got an email this minute,” Mim Shaikh says, excitedly pointing at his smartphone screen. His eyes sparkle with the prize of recent self-discovery. “It’s from someone who heard about the documentary. He says he didn’t see his dad for 23 years,” he continues. “I grew up feeling like I was the only person going through this. Now I’m learning that there are so many people out there with the same story.”
Mim and I are sat in a French bistro in Battersea, South West London. It’s that time in the late-afternoon when the outer-city calms down before the melee of rush hour. Autumnal sunlight pours through the window; we’ve stopped to have a drink after walking around the grounds of a local housing estate, whose roads and alleyways branch-off from the high street. They are the very same paths Mim frequented as a child, when he lived here in a first-floor council flat with his mother and grandmother. Back then, he was young enough to access the purity of innocence: having his yo-yo stolen by the boys his gran would pay £5 to walk him to school, whilst she was busy financing their household and caring for his mother. But he was also old enough to lean on the railings, peer over the car park, and think to himself: Where is dad?
“I lacked confidence, I felt lost, and less ‘masculine’ in the conventional sense. I’d look at my friends and their dads and wonder what it must feel like. I always knew I wanted to go on this journey, but I recently decided the best way for me to process it would be to make a documentary,” Mim explains.
The BBC Radio 1Xtra presenter, actor and spoken-word commentator describes his new documentary, Finding Dad, as the “most life-changing thing I have ever done.” Directed by filmmaker Lottie Gammon, it is an open, moving exposé of a young man navigating his way between complex familial ties, languages and continents in search of his father.
Mim’s quest starts with him opening an envelope containing photographs of his dad, and the viewer is invited on his descent into the emotional depths of his family history. He tries to make sense of the injustices his mother faced after his birth, in Birmingham, as a vulnerable young woman forced to marry an abusive older man. When Mim was six months old, with the support of his matriarchal grandmother—the unquestionable heroine of this story, like so many of those which remain untold about first-generation immigrant family members—his mother left her husband to start a new home in South London. Mim lived across different households throughout his childhood, including foster care residence, as he faced an adolescence without a father figure.
I ask him what he would like the impact of the documentary to be for people watching it.
“We had a screening in Birmingham recently and there was a Q&A afterwards. People came up to me and started telling me about their own experiences. One person said: ‘I had the same experience, but it was with my mum; I’ve never met her—what do I do!?’ And it felt like that person had never communicated it to anyone ever before. Everyone’s situation is different, so people go through these things in their own way. But if that type of interaction can be amplified, and if it creates a discourse around fatherlessness so people start to understand it more as an issue and see what impact that has on a young person growing up, then job done.”