Cutting straight to the chase, this is without a doubt one of the best documentaries to come around in a long time. Meticulously researched, shot and edited, the film never once feels like it’s manipulating us into a set agenda, but gives us an impartial bird’s eye view into the routine occurrences at Maulana Aziz’s Red Mosque – a religious education system that caters towards 10000 students in madrassas all over the country – and how it comes to loggerheads with the Pakistani army.
Full credit to filmmakers Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi for gaining intimate access with Maulana Aziz, the inconspicuously dangerous leader of the organisation, who also makes for a very intriguing character. Though he never arms himself with a weapon, he surround himself with heavily-armed bodyguards wherever he goes. His words of hypocrisy provide a sense of black comedy when he talks directly to camera of how he condemns senseless suicide bombings in the name of religion, yet then asks a young pupil to repeat lines from the Koran that do quite the opposite.
Thankfully, the film doesn’t focus completely on Maulana Aziz, but gives a well-rounded perspective of the situation from secular spokespeople like nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy who explains how the Red Mosque preys on the poor and needy by offering their children what the government haven’t been able to: free housing, free food and a free education.
Once the children begin being taught at the madrassas, the chances of leaving are unlikely due to fear indoctrinated into them that God wants them to be there. One of the most heartbreaking scenes in the documentary is of a father who has sent his son to the school, but after discovering that the only education his son is receiving is of a religious nature, he plans to remove him but his son chooses to stay. Another plot sees a young girl barely past her teens who runs away from the madrassa to pursue a proper education, but begins to be pressured into an arranged marriage by her family due to financial problems.
The only part of this story that made national headlines over in the West was when the Taliban retaliated a government attack on the Red Mosque and killed 132 schoolchildren. When this was reported in 2014, the average person saw this solely as a typically sadistic Taliban attempt to invoke terror, but from the madrassa’s point of view here, the viewer gets a fuller picture of both sides of the story.
With ‘The War On Terror’, the main complaint that is often heard in conversation is why Muslim-ruled countries are doing so little to work against extremist parties like ISIS and the Taliban. As a hugely important and timely piece, Among The Believers shows that unreported battles are taking place, and the sordid results that are being reaped.
This is a must watch.
AMONG THE BELIEVERS premiered in the UK as the Benefit Gala Screening of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on March 9th at the British Museum.