By Sonya Rehman
Having been screened in over twenty countries and subsequently picking up numerous awards, Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi’s hard-hitting documentary, Among The Believers was recently axed by the Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC) in Pakistan.
In a notification issued by the CBFC, it stated that “the [production] contains dialogues which project the negative image of Pakistan in the context of the ongoing fight against extremism and terrorism.”
To be showcased at a film festival in the capital, the documentary was banned along with Besieged In Quetta (a production about the persecution and plight of the Hazara community in Pakistan).
Having been filmed over the course of five precarious years, Among The Believers follows the infamous Pakistani cleric and ISIS supporter, Abdul Aziz Ghazi, in light of a country on the precipice of acute religiosity and rising sectarian violence.
“We’ve watched as the film catalyzed vital conversations about the roots of religious violence,” stated Trivedi, speaking about the documentary’s international screenings, “Many audience members told us the film completely changed the way they viewed Pakistan. We believe the Pakistani government should be embracing this vital counter-narrative of the War on Terror.”
Even though Among The Believers shines the spotlight on radicalism in Pakistan, Trivedi says the documentary also shows the other side of the picture: the fight against extremism by moderate Pakistani Muslims, “a story rarely depicted in Western media.”
Speaking about the filming process, which no doubt included high risks for the team, Trivedi mentions that their Co-producer, Syed Musharraf Shah was able to swing an interview with the cleric after befriending Aziz’s guards. But this didn’t happen overnight. Shah, Trivedi says, had to “[camp] out close to the Red Mosque for weeks in secrecy,” before they could make any headway.
“The first day we shot with Aziz, we arrived at a non-descript house in a middle-class neighborhood of Islamabad,” Naqvi reveals, stating that after his first interview with Aziz, he and his team started receiving phone calls from unidentified numbers. “They demanded to know who we were, who we worked for, and what we were doing.” Another time, Naqvi mentions, while shooting in the capital, the team were followed by three men who filmed their faces before speeding off in a vehicle.
“For the next two years we tried to get deeper access to Aziz’s world, under touch-and-go circumstances at many times. Throughout this period, we faced numerous dangers, from being tracked, to having our phones tapped, to receiving thinly-veiled – and at times more overt – threats,” Naqvi stated, “By 2013, Aziz finally felt open enough with us to give us access for a much more intimate shoot. Aside from Aziz’s own attitude, there was also a major shift in my approach to Aziz. Prior to meeting Aziz, I had looked at [clerics] like Aziz with distrust. But in order to get Aziz to be open and honest, I learned that I had to build my own relationship with him. It wasn’t about challenging Aziz with tough interview questions right off the bat. Rather, it was a careful dance between investigation and relationship-building. Essentially I had to connect with Aziz at a human level. My approach was to ask Aziz genuinely for guidance about my own faith and spirituality. After building a personal relationship, Aziz trusted me enough to engage with questions about his controversial political and religious practices.”
Currently waiting it out in the hopes that the ban on their documentary will eventually be lifted, Trivedi declared that in case it isn’t given the green signal from the CBFC, the team would push for the production’s release on television, including releasing it online.
“We believe, more than ever, that the fight against extremism in Pakistan cannot be won by more tanks and bombs from the West,” she states, “The battle against extremism must be led by the Pakistani people, and it must be led peacefully by improving school and job opportunities for impoverished families and strengthening civil society. Our film shows some of the brave activists on the front-line of that battle. We hope it is given the chance to inspire more Pakistanis to join them.”