Beyond a doubt, Among the Believers is one of the most important documentaries to come around in a long time, with an honest, balanced look at the unreported war on terrorism that has been happening in Pakistan for the past few years. When I met filmmakers Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi (Jonathan Goodman Levitt pictured was unfortunately absent), they turned out to be just as sincere and outspoken as the film that they’ve made. Here they explain how the film got made, how vital it is to end the undue worldwide stigma against Pakistan and – only days after the attack in Lahore – the complete lack of media coverage given to Pakistan’s casualties of terrorism.
What inspired you to make this film?
HT: The film was conceived in 2008 after I lost a very dear friend in the Mumbai Terror Attacks. I was born and raised in Mumbai. After the attacks, like a lot of Indians I felt a lot of anger towards Pakistan, as the attackers had been found to be Pakistani. I had that same unreasonable, irrational anger that thought “Oh, they want to kill us, they want to destroy us.”
A couple of months later, I began to question my anger. It didn’t feel fair for me to judge a country so strongly about something upon which I knew so little. All I knew about Pakistan was through a glass provided to me by the Indian and American media. I’d never been to Pakistan, or read any Pakistani point of view on anything.
So then whilst living in New Jersey I began reading online Pakistani newspapers, I hung out in Pakistani-run mosques and madrassas and I began interacting with Pakistani journalists. After some time, I realised that there is a fringe minority of extremists who are trying to force their way of life on the vast majority of Pakistanis. Attacks like that in Mumbai are happening in Pakistan on almost a monthly basis. Pakistanis are actually the biggest victims of terrorism, far more than Indians.
Once I had this realisation, my anger turned to empathy and I wanted to make a film on the ideological conflict shaping modern day Pakistan. I also realised that this conflict runs deepest in the area of education, so I chose to follow children from the madrassa and from the regular school, and see how education shaped the different ways they saw the world.
I met Karina, the young girl in the film, and fell in love with her. I asked her about her life and she told me that she’d just escaped from a madrassa called “The Red Mosque”. At that time, I had no idea what the Red Mosque was. I googled it, and read about it on Wikipedia, but was fascinated by the idea that this girl had escaped from there.
My next aim was to get into the Red Mosque, but as an Indian Hindu woman, I knew this would be near impossible. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in Pakistani prison! Even if I didn’t end up in prison, I don’t think I’d ever get the access that I required, so I began actively looking for a Pakistani collaborator. And that’s when I met Mohammed Ali Khan.
MN: Hemal first approached me through a common filmmaker friend named Mereen Jabbar. I immediately thought: here’s an Indian trying to make a movie on the Red Mosque, so she must be a RAW agent or something. Pakistanis and Indians always have that initial mutual distrust of one another! But then she told me about the themes she wanted to explore and the story she wanted to tell, and that deeply resonated with me. I grew up in a Shia family in Karachi during the 90s, a time of great sectarian divide and violence, but moved to America when there was specific targeting happening towards members of my community. Extended family members were killed and my father sent me and my sister out to New York for two years of schooling.
The way that the War on Terror has always been portrayed as a West versus Islam schism, which is so intellectually dishonest and problematic. And here was a story that was actually showing that the biggest victims of terrorism happening today are Muslims themselves. Here, we’re featuring voices of Muslims – I’m not going to say ‘moderate’ or ‘liberal’ – just regular Muslims who are trying to reclaim their faith from lunatic fringe minority groups like those headed by this documentary’s figurehead Maulana Aziz.
Although the children’s stories were compelling in their own right, they were ultimately pawns in Maulana Aziz’s game. It became obvious that we needed to interview him. It was exciting but also scary, as I was coming face-to-face with someone who’d espoused intolerance and militancy towards people like me. I had to be prepared to divorce myself from my own personal narrative in order to meet him.
We had a two-hour interview with him in a nondescript middle-class house in a middle-class neighbourhood in Islamabad. Our entire team was escorted by these bearded men who took us into this place which almost seemed like it had been choreographed - Maulana Aziz sitting in the middle of the room with a very humble, kind expression on his face, and ironically standing behind him are ten guards armed with AK47s.
How did you manage to gain his trust and make him open up so freely?
MN: We were always very upfront with him, that we were showing the ideological divide in the field of education by showing a student from his school, and comparing that student’s experience with one from a state-run school. We promised him that we would represent his point of view as openly as possible. He’d already given interviews to several other media outlets already, so we weren’t special in being the first, but nobody had followed him in such detail for so long.
Compiling years of material, was there anything that you held dear that you had to cut from the documentary due to running time?
HT: Oh my God, there were so many darlings that we killed! We had 250 hours of footage filmed over six years. It was very important to me to achieve the balance in the edit as I wanted to make sure that everyone’s story had been told truthfully and in a balanced way.
One scene that we lost that I’m personally in love with involved Aziz indulging in his hobby of being a filmmaker himself. He and his friends go online and rip these very high definition videos from National Geographic about animals and science, he removes all of the audio background and replaces it with a narrated voiceover. “Look at this fish. This fish is called ‘starfish.’ Who created this starfish? Allah did. Look at the water that we’re drinking. It’s made with hydrogen and oxygen molecules. They united only with the help of Allah.” It is so hilarious!
Aziz would actually get angry with the amount of time it was taking us to make our film. He’d gloat that he makes his films once a month!
What do you feel may be potential solutions to the prevailing extremism in Pakistan?
MN: It’s about empowering the people who might be religious but don’t espouse hatred like Maulana Aziz does. It’s about stopping short-term solutions like revenge attacks that will just strengthen Maulana Aziz’s hold. Ultimately, this problem is an indigenous problem – we can’t defeat or destroy this thinking, but we can diffuse it and show it as irrelevant. We can have secular schools built and an infrastructure that allows social progress for Pakistan’s children.
HT: Books not bombs!
MN: On a global level, it’s worth changing the negative narrative of Pakistan. We’ve had so many years of foreign interference with the United States government strategically messing up our policies. And Pakistan itself has certainly been complicit in its own undoing, but there are voices within our own government who are trying to change that situation around. They should be supported instead of continually being shamed and abused. What they’re up against is no joke.
There’s such an anti-Pakistani sentiment around the world, and equally an anti-Islamic sentiment regarding why Muslim countries aren’t doing more to stand against terrorist groups like Da’esh. Do you hope that this documentary might hope to prove the contrary?
HT: In India, one girl was crying saying that she felt so guilty for hating Pakistan so much. She wishes she’d known what was happening there. When we screened at Beloit, a small town in Wisconsin, people were just surprised to see that Pakistanis are the biggest victims of terrorism. Unless that shift in mindset happens, Muslims will always be ‘them’ and not ‘us’. By demonising the entire society, you’re actually being counter-productive to conquering extremism.
Among The Believers is currently touring film festivals worldwide.
Find out more at www.amongthebelievers.com