The AFI DOCS Interview: AMONG THE BELIEVERS Filmmakers: Jonathan Goodman, Mohammed Naqv and Hemal Trivedi
Within Pakistan’s borders a violent clash between ideologies has been ongoing between radical Muslim extremists and moderates that is shaping the path of the country’s future. Across Pakistan an organization called the Red Mosque runs schools that isolate young students from their parents and train them to dedicate their lives to jihad. The powerful film AMONG THE BELIEVERS gives unprecedented access to the leader of the Red Mosque, Maulana Aziz, and the chilling practices that turn children into radical jihadists who will pay any price for Allah.
We spoke to co-directors Hemal Trivedi & Mohammed Naqvi and producer Jonathan Goodman Levitt about the film, which is screening at AFI DOCS 2015.
How did your individual personal experiences influence the making of AMONG THE BELIEVERS?
Hemal: 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. 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.
Jonathan: When Hemal and I began discussing the project in 2009, I had recently finished shooting FOLLOW THE LEADER, a film about the political coming-of-age of teenagers who’d grown up in the wake of 9/11. Their horizons expanded later, but their initial blind patriotism and wholehearted support for the “War on Terror” had disturbed me. They’d grown up sheltered from the hard choices people in the Middle East often faced. They simply weren’t being exposed to competing worldviews, or to valid grievances people often had against America.
I’d become more familiar with these grievances from hearing personal stories in the wake of 9/11 myself, when my editing studio was in Shepherd’s Bush, London, a home to many first generation immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia. A year after moving to New York, what Hemal presented was an opportunity to develop a film with potential to share similar stories with Americans in particular, to create more nuanced understanding about the often harsh realities in Pakistan and the region.
Mo: For me, like many of the children in our film, reading the Quran was compulsory as a young person growing up in a religiously conservative Pakistan. And like them, I could read the script and sound out the words, but had absolutely no idea what they meant. 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. It wasn’t until I moved to New York and personally witnessed the 9/11 attacks, that was I forced to face my own religious narrative. AMONG THE BELIEVERS, for me, will always represent my path to reconnecting with God and my own spirituality.
How did you find young students, Zarina and Talha, and get access to their schools?
Hemal wanted to make a film about the ideological divide in Pakistan that followed students at madrassahs and regular schools, to analyze how education shapes their worldviews. Thanks to an expat non-profit that operates a secular school network in Pakistan, Hemal found a secular school in a Pakistani village. There, she met Zarina, a gutsy, charismatic girl who had recently escaped from a Red Mosque madrassah. Curious, Hemal also managed to sneak into a boys’ maddrasah, with the help of our Pakistani co-producers, Naziha and Musharraf. There she met Talha, a passionate Red Mosque student who would become another central character in the film.
Knowing the dangers of trying to film in an extremist mosque as a Hindu, Indian woman, we sought the help of Mohammed, a Pakistani, Muslim filmmaker. After spending quite a bit of time filming our young characters’ educational journeys, we knew we needed access to the powerful man shaping their destinies – Maulana Abdul Aziz Ghazi, chief cleric of the Red Mosque. After considerable efforts, Mohammed and our Pakistani crew were able to enter the lion’s den, where our access became increasingly intimate as months and years passed.
What dangers and/or obstacles did you face during production?
Throughout, we faced many dangers, from our teams being tracked by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies such as the ISI, to having our phones tapped, to receiving thinly-veiled threats – and at times not so thinly-veiled ones. Our initial access to Aziz, in particular, was developed by our co-producer Syed Musharaf “Mush” Shah. Mush essentially camped out with them for months, made “friends” among them, and was therefore instrumental in helping us achieve better access than we’d initially thought possible. For Mush personally, a major challenge on the project came following the December 2014, Taliban school massacre in Peshawar, where 132 young children were killed as retribution for the Pakistani military’s crackdown on militant groups. Mush lost four of his own nephews in this attack, which our main participant Cleric Aziz then condoned publicly. Remarkably, Mush was somehow able to maintain his composure while conducting the film’s final interview with Aziz shortly thereafter, in February 2015.
In making your film, what did you learn that you’d pass on to aspiring documentary filmmakers?
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.
We’d also encourage aspiring filmmakers to bear in mind that being a good documentarian is not about challenging your subject with tough interview questions right off the bat. Rather, it’s a careful dance between investigation and relationship-building. As such, you’re best served by connecting with your film participant at a human level. 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.
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, Hemal wanted to ensure that the edit was truthful. 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.
What is your goal for the film and how will screening it in Washington, DC impact it?
A central goal behind our film was always to be a catalyst for changes in the Western (and particularly American) approach in the “War on Terror” – in other words, promoting solutions that preference “books not bombs.” Screening the film in Washington, DC, brings it directly to the very people who could catalyze such a transformation. We hope this film will inspire more honest discourse about the way American policies, past and present, have impacted stability within the Middle East.
We hope it will lead to more nuanced discussions about the origins of terrorism, and the roots of Islamic fundamentalism. We will know our “books not bombs” message has been successful when Western policy makers turn their attention to directly aiding (or creating “channel factors” for) secular education in Pakistan as an alternative to the currently expanding madrassah networks throughout the country.