With the kind of attention Islamic extremism gets in today’s news, one of the quickest ways a filmmaker can invite debate is to point a camera somewhere, anywhere, in the Middle East. Whether it shows the Third World living conditions of regular folk, follows moderate Muslims who don’t associate themselves with fundamentalists, focuses on the subjugation of women’s rights, or tracks down the strict Muslims who live by the teachings of the Quran, controversy can be stirred by way of implication. One wouldn’t be wrong to assume, then, that a documentary like “Among The Believers” (a title inspired by V.S. Naipaul’s 1981 book of the same name) has the capacity to push some untouchable buttons by pointing the camera at a notoriously controversial institution. Filmmaking duo Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi get unprecedented access to the Red Mosque, the most prominent educational institution (“madrassah”) in Islamabad, which acts as something of a breeding ground for future holy warriors. Trivedi and Naqvi go for the ideological jugular, cast their net wide to portray contemporary Pakistan, and depict real-life heroes and villains that will likely enrage and dishearten the viewer. But, in what turns out to be something of a disappointment, “Among the Believers” fails to move the needle in this ongoing debate.
The documentary looks at the Red Mosque from four different perspectives. There’s its leader, Maulana Aziz, a man who hides deep-rooted vitriol behind a gentle smile and meek exterior. Pitted as his direct opponent is Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a professor of physics who can’t sit idly by and see his country changed and “hardened” by Islamic fundamentalism. The two remaining key figures, who unequivocally tug at our heartstrings, are Zarina, a girl who escaped Aziz’s madrassah because of its extreme principles and joined a local school in her village; and Talha, a boy who has been thoroughly assimilated into the Red Mosque’s education system. I say, “assimilated,” but by the documentary’s midway mark, it’s heartrendingly clear that the correct term is “brainwashed.” Waking up half an hour before dawn, the children of the Red Mosque (and the tens of thousands of similar madrassahs in Pakistan) are forced into memorizing the scriptures of the Quran until 9 PM, rinsing and repeating until they grow up prepared to die for their faith. They are tested on how well they’ve memorized the verses, not their meanings, with promises of direct entry into Heaven. In the prologue, a young boy delivers a chillingly hateful declaration about destroying the “infidels” in the name of jihad and impresses Aziz, who goes on to give a similarly fervent speech to a mass of believers, claiming that the doctrine of Islam will dominate the entire world. Yikes. But, don’t we already know all this?
It’s strange that a documentary with this kind of access still feels so intellectually barren by the time it ends. Viewers who follow current events, and know how the U.S. aided the Red Mosque and its affiliates during the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s, aren’t privy to any new or profound information. Spending time with Aziz and his delusional justifications, and following Dr. Hoodbhoy around Islamabad, successfully paints a disheveled picture of a divided country, but little else. So, for those curious about the moral and political divide in Pakistan, they’ll find much to sink their teeth into in “Among The Believers.” But if you’re looking for an examination of the religion of Islam, the crucial differences between the Quran, Sharia law, and the Hadith, and the complex reasons behind a delirious anti-American attitude, “Among The Believers” won’t help. But, it has a refreshing take when it comes to the perspectives of the two children, especially Zarina’s. Through her story, we find out how the madrassah’s actions can have far-reaching consequences extending way beyond what’s reported by the media. Tahla’s story is similarly heartbreaking, especially once we learn about his family’s background and how he entered the school in the first place. In this way, the documentary succeeds as an emotional passion project, one punctuated by a title card at the end that connects one of the doc’s producers with the Peshawar school massacre last December.
The passion behind the documentary is clear, and for many members of the audience, will be enough to satisfy. Trivedi employs some slick editing techniques, and the directors make good use of an effectively ominous score by Milind Date. Without an element of true discovery, however, “Among The Believers” is a cinematically, and artistically, flat result. By pointing their camera at the Red Mosque, Trivedi and Naqvi add surprisingly little to the conversation. There is an undeniable sense that a far more illuminating piece of work can be found in the moments spent with Zarina, Tahla, and other various minor characters that make up the vast majority of the Muslim world. [C]