Tuesday, June 16, 2015

AFI Docs ’15: Among the Believers

Apologists constantly claim Islamist madrassas are nothing to worry about. They are simply “schools.” While that might be a literally translation, it deliberately obscures the practical meaning. Throughout Pakistan, the Red Mosque’s network of Wahhabi madrassas act as incubators for virulent extremism, molding their students into fanatics and with shocking regularity, suicide bombers. Viewers meet the Red Mosque’s radical mastermind and his leading critic face-to-face in Hemal Trivedi & Mohammed Ali Naqvi’s Among the Believers (trailer here), which screens during AFI Docs 2015.

Abdul Aziz Ghazi radiates the absolute certainty of evil. A supporter of the Taliban and ISIS, he advocates imposing strict Sharia law uniformly and despises secular government, especially that in Pakistan. This is somewhat ironic, since his father founded the Red Mosque at the behest of the Pakistani government and he still probably counts on considerable support from Islamist elements within the intelligence service. When not sending out self-immolating terrorists into the world (maintaining the thinnest shreds of plausible deniability), Ghazi ruins lives one child at a time.

The education provided at the Red Mosque madrassas guarantees their students a life of marginalization. Forget math and science. They are only taught to memorize the Koran, but not what its passages mean. Even if they were not radicalized to the point socially productive lives are impossible, they are not taught any employable skills, thus perpetuating the cycle of futility and resentment.

However, Ghazi can talk a good game. Despite his clashes with the government, he regularly scores points with the media. His most intrepid critic is Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a nuclear physicist. Frankly, the words “Pakistani nuclear scientist” look a wee bit troublesome together, but it is reassuring to know Dr. Hoodbhoy is on the side of civilized, tolerant society.

There is loads of potentially dramatic material in Believers, but it is not well served by the filmmakers’ unyielding commitment to their observational approach. Ghazi’s severe religious ideology cries out to be challenged, but the only time that happens is in a highly structured television debate with Dr. Hoodbhoy, conducted over the phone. Nevertheless, you have to give Dr. Hoodbhoy credit for standing up to his harsh rhetoric.

Yet, this underscores the film’s weakness, presenting both men’s position and then largely shrugging. Frankly, they do not spend enough time with the victims of the Red Mosque, like Zarina, who ran away from her abusive madrassa and now attends a school that provides education rather than religious indoctrination. Even when they do provide wider context, like the Taliban massacre of 132 school children in Peshawar, the filmmakers never ask Ghazi the obvious follow-up questions.

Despite its intentional limitations, Believers is often an eye-opening cinematic dispatch from a deeply troubled nation. Clearly, Ghazi’s outfit is far better organized than the Pakistani government, which is depressing. Yet, the mere existence of Dr. Hoodbhoy and the hundreds of thousands of concerned Pakistanis who came out to protest the Peshawar Massacre is encouraging. It is one of the few documentaries chronicling contemporary Pakistan that does not leave us completely bereft of hope, but it still does not leave a lot of room to work with. Revealing but frustratingly passive, Among the Believers is worth a look anyway when it screens this Friday (6/19) and Sunday (6/21) at AFI Docs, following its premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.