May 15, 2016 Film & TV
This is my first question with any documentary, particularly ones of the talking heads variety. Sometimes a subject’s screen presence is sufficiently vivid that nothing could substitute for it. Sometimes a compelling or important story flattens out on the screen, diminished by the garden-variety documentary technique of its tellers. Among the Believers achieves an odd mix of these two effects. There are moments from it that will linger a long time in my memory. Overall, I can’t quite recommend it.
The Red Mosque, or Lal Masjid, was originally a single red-walled mosque in Islamabad. Over time, the name has come to refer to the whole network of radical mosques and madrassas run by the extremist cleric Abdul Aziz Ghazi, an ISIS supporter whose ultimate aim is to impose Sharia law on the entire world. Naqvi and Trivedi, who are absolutely not on Aziz’s side of the ideological fence, somehow persuaded him to let them film on site at the original mosque over a four year period. This is the very definition of a journalistic coup, and some of the moments it produces are indelible: a small boy chanting a hate-filled sermon he’s learned by rote, then turning to Aziz for approval; an older student explaining that he has no idea what the Koran actually says, although he’s spent years memorising it, because he has not been taught Arabic; Aziz himself talking about the deaths of his mother, father, wife and son in various incidents over the years. His father’s death he blames on American intelligence operatives.
Watch the trailer:
It’s very clear, looking into Aziz’s smiling, implacable eyes, that his father’s assassination is the crucible in which his beliefs baked hard. The chance to see his face, and listen to his smooth politician’s voice, and see his students’ reverence for him, is this film’s best reason for existence. Print could not convey the full flavour. But it would be nice to know whether there is any reason to suppose his father really was assassinated. It would be nice to know why, immediately after Aziz is arrested for inciting his students to riot, he is allowed to appear live on Pakistani TV, explaining his position to an interviewer. It would be nice if we knew slightly more about the education reformer who appears several times in the film, arguing that Aziz’s movement has to be shut down for the good of the country. Naqvi and Trivedi position him within their story as Aziz’s cultural counterweight and possible nemesis, a role he does not entirely seem to suit.
The film suffers from simplistic narrative instincts: it wants to serve up a story, and it keeps skating lightly past any complicating details.
Generally, the film suffers from simplistic narrative instincts: it wants to serve up a story, and it keeps skating lightly past any complicating details. The sense that important questions are not being asked is not quite fatal, but it’s damaging; more damaging is the lack of wider explanatory context, which might have let us grasp how Aziz and his followers fit into their society. It isn’t news that radical Islam is scary, but that seems to be the main message Naqvi and Trivedi have for us. Pakistan – a nuclear-armed state precariously poised between a wider range of possible futures than most countries in the world right now – deserves and requires more searching attention than Among the Believers manages to give it.
Among the Believers. Friday May 20, 6.15pm and Sunday May 22, 1.45pm, Q Theatre. Q&A with Mohammed Ali Naqvi will follow both screenings. Book tickets.