The film charts the personal quest of a firebrand Pakistani cleric whose schools are training thousands of children to take part in jihad (holy war).
Now what’s it REALLY about?
Pakistan has often been branded as “The World’s Most Dangerous Country” and, arguably, it has lived up to this title. The massacre of school children in Peshawar last December is one of the most recent examples of an ongoing ideological war that’s claimed more than 50,000 Pakistani lives in the past ten years. Multiple members of our team have lost people we loved in terrorist attacks.
In our film, we show how the way of life of the silent Pakistani majority of peace-loving citizens is threatened by a fringe minority who want to take over the country. America’s “War on Terror” has not solved the problem of militant religious extremism – and has in some sense made the situation worse by painting it in such black and white terms. In fact, religion may not be as important in the overall equation at all. It’s really a battle of ideas that is being fought for poor children’s minds. As we argue in the film, this war cannot be won militarily, but it can be diffused by major reforms in education across Pakistan, not to mention elsewhere. Books, not bombs, are the key to ending the cycle of poverty and extremism.
Tell us briefly about yourself.
Hemal: I was born and raised in an inner-city chawl (ghetto) of Mumbai, India, in a conservative Hindu family. Growing up, I wanted to join the Indian army and defend my country. And that’s why I was a part of the student division of the Indian Army (NCC) for three years. Several years after moving to the U.S. to become a filmmaker, I lost a friend in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. After this tragedy, 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 feelings I started digging deeper into the root causes of these attacks.
Over a period of time, I realized that ordinary Pakistanis are themselves the victims of this violence rather than the ones actually perpetrating it. Their way of life is under attack by religious extremists who are forcing itself on the vast majority of Pakistanis. My anger and hate slowly dissolved into empathy when I travelled to Pakistan in 2009 to document this war of ideas that is ripping the country apart.
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) and co-edited “Saving Face” (Oscar and double Emmy-winner, including one for editing). Mohammed directed “Terror’s Children” (Discovery-Times Channel), “Shame” (Toronto, Showtime), and “Pakistan’s Hidden Shame” (Channel 4, UK). The same overall filmmaking team also worked together in essentially the same way to make a film for Al Jazeera’s Witness series called “Shabeena’s Quest” a few years ago.
Biggest challenge in completing this film?
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. We, the Directors, are exactly the kind of people that Aziz wouldn’t mind killing: An Indian Hindu woman and a liberal Muslim man who belongs to the minority Shia sect. And Aziz would certainly have some issues with our Jewish-American Producer/Writer Jonathan Goodman Levitt!
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. 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 conduct the final interview in the film with Aziz shortly thereafter, in February, 2015.
What do you want the Tribeca audience to take away from your film?
The extremist rhetoric of spiritual leaders like Cleric Aziz can only be challenged by books, not bombs. In other words, education that empowers the next generation can be more effective than any military intervention at combating militancy. Giving children the knowledge and skills they need to be employable, as opposed indoctrinating them with the limiting ideology offered at madrassahs like the Red Mosque, is vital if the next generation is going to escape the cycle of poverty.
A key takeaway from the film is also that children who join radical madrassahs are typically from very poor families. Many are sent to madrassahs by their parents because they can provide food and shelter. Students are then taught extremist religious ideology, but are there in the first place because of their low socio-economic status, rather than because of their own families’ actual religious beliefs. Pakistan and those elsewhere need to recognize this fact, and to support the building of more schools where Pakistan’s youth can receive a more well-rounded education that better prepares them for life and work.
Any films inspire you?
Hemal: Barbara Kopple’s “Harlan County, USA” inspired me to become a filmmaker. I saw it at a small film club in Mumbai and I was blown away. That was the first time I had ever seen a documentary as emotional and dramatic as a fiction film. That’s when I decided to dedicate my life to non-fiction dramatic storytelling. I was also very inspired by “Grey Gardens” (God bless the late Albert Maysles), which I saw in grad school. It reminded me so much of my relationship with my mother; I cried my eyes out. It showed me that what’s important in a documentary is not the information conveyed, so much as the nuances of human relationships.
Mohammed: Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries.” His understanding of the human condition is breathtaking. On the surface, his films inhabit a very dark space, but a sophisticated analysis can easily demonstrate Bergman’s limitless compassion and empathy for humanity. It’s about seeking a rare, hidden, profound, and ultimately real beauty, in the most unexpected and fantastical of places. Seeing “Wild Strawberries” changed my life.
Hemal: After we’ve seen “Among the Believers” through our festival run, outreach campaign, and distribution, I’ll be directing “Forest of Punishments,” which was recently awarded a grant by the IDFA Bertha Fund. It deals with indigenous tribes in India who are caught in the crossfire between the Maoists and Indian armed forces over the control of a mineral rich dense tropical forest. I am also working on “Price of a Goddess,” a film about the increasing rate of female infanticide in India caused by the dowry system.
Mohammed: I’m continuing to tour festivals with my recent film “Pakistan’s Hidden Shame,” about the sexual exploitation and abuse of thousands of poor and vulnerable street children in Pakistan. And I’m getting ready to launch my next documentary, “The General Goes Home,” which has also been five years in the making. It chronicles former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s attempt at a political comeback, in the vein of a political satire. I like to say it’s an Arab Spring story told through the perspective of a former military dictator, while Pakistan strives toward real civilian rule.
What cameras did you shoot on?
We shot mostly on the Panasonic HVX-100. Some of our footage was shot using the Canon 5D, and other lower-quality formats were also used at times in situations that required even greater discretion.
Did you crowdfund?
If so, via what platform. If not, why?
In order to protect our crew and subjects’ safety, and given the precarious nature of our access at times, crowdfunding during production wasn’t really an option we considered. Our efforts were eventually supported by grants and other funding from Ford Foundation, Tribeca Film Institute, Sundance Documentary Fund, Center for Asian American Media, Chicken & Egg Pictures, and New York State Council for the Arts.
Did you go to film school? If so, which one?
Hemal: I received an MFA from the Documentary Institute at the University of Florida.
Mohammed: I never went to film school, but did major in Theatre Arts at the University of Pennsylvania, and I come from a playwriting/directing background.
Indiewire invited Tribeca Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2015 festival. For profiles go HERE.