The LINK Brings You Exclusive Interview With It’s Unique India-Pakistan Filmmaking Team!

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HEMAL TRIVEDI: My film Among The Believers charts the personal quest of charismatic Pakistani Cleric Abdul Aziz Ghazi, whose schools are training thousands of young children to take part in jihad (holy war).  Cleric Aziz is an outspoken ISIS supporter and a Taliban ally.  His ultimate goal is to impose a strict version of Shariah law throughout the country.

Alongside Aziz’s personal quest, the film also charts the coming of age stories of two of his students who are pawns in his ideological war. Throughout the film, their paths diverge: Talha, 12, detaches from his moderate Muslim family and decides to become a jihadi preacher. Zarina, also 12, escapes her madrassah and joins a regular school. Over the next few years, Zarina’s education is threatened by frequent Taliban attacks on schools like her own.

The film also profiles Aziz’s foil, a nuclear physicist named Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy. Throughout the film Dr. Hoodbhoy passionately opposes Aziz through his public appearances, lectures, and the media. Opposition against Aziz comes to a head in December, 2014, when Aziz insults a grieving nation by trying to justify the brutal massacre of 132 school children in Peshawar by the Taliban. The attack ignites a movement to end extremism in Pakistan’s mosques and madrassahs. Led by Hoodbhoy and others, Pakistan’s moderate majority focuses on Aziz and calls for his arrest.

RPD: How did you and directing partner Mohammed Ali Naqvi came up with the film’s concept – what did you want to explore at the outset and how did you come up with the big revelations that your film deliver?

HT: I grew up in an inner-city chawl (ghetto) of Mumbai, in a conservative Hindu Brahmin family.  There was a culture of mistrusting Pakistan and its people where I grew up. I defined the country by the violence and terrorism I saw it inflict on my homeland at the time. Then, in 2008, I lost a friend in the Mumbai terror attacks, a series of massacres carried out by Islamic militants. After the attacks my heart was full of anger and hate for the perpetrators of the crime, who were found to be Pakistanis.  To make sense of my anger I started digging deeper into the root causes of these attacks.

I came to understand that ordinary Pakistanis are themselves victims of this violence rather than perpetrators. Their way of life is under attack by this fringe minority who is forcing itself on the country’s vast, peaceful majority.  The same people who carried out the Mumbai terror attacks are attacking ordinary Pakistanis on an almost daily basis.  There is an ideological conflict that is reshaping modern Pakistan and causing it to implode.  And this ideological conflict’s most important battleground is the field of education.  Young minds are trained, militarized, and instilled with the most extremist brand of Islam in many of the country’s madrassahs (religious schools) and are used as pawns by certain militant groups for their own political agendas.

I travelled to Pakistan in 2009 to document the depths of Pakistan’s ideological divide. By then, my lifelong misconceptions about Pakistan had completely unraveled. My co-director on “Among the Believers” is a talented Pakistani Muslim filmmaker, Mohammed Naqvi, and most of our incredible crew are Pakistani Muslim, as well.  A Producer and the film’s Writer, Jonathan Goodman Levitt, also started to work on the film in 2010. Through this film, we hope to spotlight Pakistanis who are working to defuse extremism by providing the next generation of Pakistanis an escape from the cycle of militancy or poverty.

As a woman, a Hindu, and an Indian, I faced different risks during production. When we first started filming, I visited the Red Mosque several times disguised as a Muslim. A trusted contact warned me that, in doing so, I was risking my life. These realities limited my access to some of our shoot. During those times, my co-director Mohammed Naqvi stood in for the both of us. I was so fortunate to have a local Pakistani crew who were willing to risk their lives to shoot the footage for my film. This is very significant given the historical mistrust between Indians and Pakistanis.

This film took six years to make under touch-and-go circumstances at many points. Throughout, we faced numerous dangers, from being tracked by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies such as the ISI, to having our phones tapped, to receiving thinly-veiled – and at times more overt – threats.

Gaining the trust of Cleric Aziz to film as intimately with him as we eventually did was a major obstacle, and eventually a major triumph for our entire team on the ground.

In terms of our access challenges specifically, our Co-Producer Syed Musharaf Shah (Mush) speaks Pashtun fluently, as do many among Aziz’s primary guard detail. Mush essentially camped out with them for months, made “friends,” and was instrumental in helping us achieve better access than any of us had initially thought possible.

Once Mush enter the inner circle of Maulana Abdul Aziz, my co-director and my creative partner Mohammed Ali Naqvi took over the process.  It took Mohammed two more years to gain complete trust of Maulana Aziz.  With Aziz, Mohammed’s approach was to ask him genuinely for guidance about his own faith and spirituality. After building a personal relationship, Aziz trusted him enough to engage with questions about his controversial political and religious practices.

RPD: Have you been long exploring the issue of Islamic Fundamentalism?

HT: This is my first film on Islamic fundamentalism.

RPD: Tell us a little about yourself and your film partner Naqvi – what films you have done before – you education in film and so on?

Mohammed: Like many of the children in our film, reading the Quran was compulsory for me growing up in a religiously conservative Pakistan. And like them, I could read the script and sound out the words, but I had absolutely no idea what I was reading. What I knew of Islam was filtered through Maulanas (or Clerics), and I found their teachings limited and shallow. Ultimately, as a reactionary stance to the ideological force-feeding, I compartmentalized my religious upbringing and made my way to the U.S. for college. It wasn’t until I moved to New York right after college – and personally witnessed the 9/11 attacks – that was I forced to face my own religious narrative. For me, “Among The Believers” will always represent my path to reconnecting with God and a spirituality that I had abandoned long ago.

Each of us has previously worked in different capacities on multiple award-winning documentaries coming out of Pakistan in recent years. Hemal edited “Outlawed in Pakistan” (Sundance, PBS Frontline, Emmy-winner), “Saving Face” (HBO, Oscar and double Emmy-winner, including one for editing), “When the Drum is Beating (Tribeca, HotDocs, Independent Lens), “Flying on One Engine (SXSW, IDFA), “Laughter” (BBC).  Hemal produced and directed “Beyond Mumbai” (Odyssey networks, Webby Award nominee) and Shabeena’s Quest (Al-Jazeera, Witness). Mohammed directed “Terror’s Children” (Discovery-Times Channel), “Shame” (Toronto, Showtime), and “Pakistan’s Hidden Shame” (Channel 4, UK) and Shabeena’s Quest (Al-Jazeera, Witness).

RPD: The film has been well received internationally as “must see” – how have you found the reaction from audiences, critics and more importantly back in Pakistan to the film?

HT: Completed just 36 hours prior to its first press screening, Among the Believers premiered with five sold out screenings at Tribeca Film Festival in April, 2015. It was then invited to Sydney International Film Festival and Washington’s AFI Docs. Since then the film screened or will be screening at 21 film festivals in five continents between April, 2015 to December, 2015.  At Vancouver International Film Festival the film is going to have its Canadian premiere.

Among the Believers debuted to a wealth of press attention and near-universal critical acclaim. BBC’s Owen Gleibermen said, “I found it alarming, but most of all I found I illuminating.” It received a rare “A” rating from Indiewire, which called it “remarkable” and “an intricate and frightening look into the microcosm of our world’s biggest international issue.” The Washington Post deemed it “a must for anyone who wants to understand how fundamentalist Islam manufactures zealots who become suicide bombers and otherwise kill to glorify God.” Internationally, India’s Rediff called it “one of this year’s most important films.”

The filmmakers spent five years building relationships with the film’s participants, allowing them to gain what Variety called “unprecedented access” to Cleric Aziz and two students within his Red Mosque network. Despite the controversial subject matter, the team worked painstakingly to maintain objectivity, and ultimately created what Reel News Daily called a “beautifully balanced” film. The Wall Street Journal noted that, “Despite the hot-button nature of their material, the filmmakers strive to keep their tone even handed.” Crafted with rigorous journalistic integrity, “Among the Believers” also features “enough cinema…to set it a step above solid respectable investigation,” according to Screen Daily. “Production values are excellent – sometimes elegant – for a subject that has put cameramen and a lot of Pakistan on the run,” the review continues.

The audiences reaction has been phenomenal so far.  In fact some of the biggest fans of the film are Pakistanis themselves.  They felt that this was the first time that their internal struggle was so accurately depicted. A lot of audience members were drawn towards tense ideological divides that fuel much of the conflict in the region.  They found the narratives of Zarina and Talha most valuable.  They were particularly drawn towards the pain and struggle of the two children who are really pawns in Aziz’s ideological war.

A lot of our audience members were actually shocked to learn that Muslims themselves are the biggest victims of the war on terror.  Nobody had seen Muslims being the biggest targets of extremism.  And that realization caused a shift in their heart towards Muslims in general.

A lot of audience members felt that the film was beautifully balanced.  It was rendered with a lot of care and sensitivity – despite its hot button issue. The film was perceived as complex and nuanced – rather than simplistic.

There were some audience members who were seriously disturbed and unhappy about the ideological perspective and approach to the material. They felt that the film serves to perpetuate stereotypes against Muslims. They felt that we filmmakers were exploiting the extremes.  These audiences were in a minority – but it was interesting to have those perspectives as well.

We have not shown the film in Pakistan yet.  It is going to be shown in India sometime in November and we are hoping that we would show it in Pakistan early next year.

RPD: Did you accomplish with the film what you had set out to do?

HT: Absolutely.

RPD: Describe for us briefly the creative process of creating this documentary and some (lot) of the challenges you faced?

HT: During the production of the film, we learned the importance of maintaining emotional distance and impartiality, even with a subject as provocative as Cleric Aziz. As we recognized during production, you also have to be self-aware, and careful that what you’re projecting doesn’t hinder your subject’s own revelations. It would have been easy to simply vilify Aziz, and to pass judgment on his character given his “extremist” views. Instead, we tried to illuminate Aziz’s worldview, while investigating his motivations. This approach made for a more honest dialogue with Aziz.

During the edit of the film, we tried to achieve the same balance and impartiality. Each and every scene of the film was carefully crafted for months. During the edit, we wanted to ensure that the edit was truthful and clear eyed. No matter who looks at the film, be it Aziz, Pervez, Zarina or Talha, each should feel that the film has presented their point-of-view truthfully. Creating the meaningful dialogue that we aim to inspire around our film is best served by our participants’ own truths, rather than an unfairly manipulated reality.

RPD: What do you hope the film will achieve globally and in Pakistan – will it help to quell the rising tide of fundamentalism or is that a beast that will never be tamed?

HT: Since 2001, the U.S. has fought two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and spent an upwards of $6 trillion dollars on its ‘War on Terror.’ Despite this, the Taliban and Al Qaeda still exist.  ISIS has emerged as the largest terrorist threat to the US and the world.

In the past 15 years the ‘War on Terror has led to:

115,000 terrorist attacks worldwide.

Over 4 million (mostly Muslims) dead.

Over 18 million (mostly Muslims) people displaced.

The ‘War on Terror’ has clearly made the world a more dangerous place.

Terrorism and the ideology that fuels it can’t be destroyed by American military interventions.  Such interventions in fact set the stage for a disastrous backlash.  They empower and embolden the reactionary radical groups.

If the West is serious about winning the ‘War on Terror’ it must realize that ultimately, the fight against militant Islamists has to be led by Muslims themselves. Terrorism cannot be defeated with violence, or by America dropping more bombs. Instead terrorism can be slowly diffused by empowering people like Tariq, whose school is helping children gain skills that will make them employable in the future.  I feel that it is through books and not through bombs that Pakistan can emerge out of its current precipice.

AMONG THE BELIEVERS – Showtimes: Oct. 03 06:15 pm at International Village #9;

Oct. 05 01:30 pm at International Village  #9

http://www.viff.org/festival/films/f16191-among-the-believers

Co-Producer/Co-Director Hemal Trivedi and Co-Director Mohammed Ali Naqvi will be in attendance.