'Among the Believers': Tribeca Review

Among the Believers Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

Among the Believers Still - H 2015

An eye-opening exploration of secular/religious conflict in Pakistan

Pakistan's infamous Red Mosque, seen from the inside.

Taking Western audiences into communities we can hardly be expected to understand solely through conventional news coverage, Among the Believers goes to school where young Pakistanis' elementary education focuses less on basic life skills than on instilling a militaristic, extreme interpretation of the Koran. Showing how many of the country's impoverished citizens contribute to the ranks of jihadis-in-training without understanding what they're doing (while others oppose the system unreservedly), documentarians Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi produce a deserving film that, while unlikely to get much theatrical play beyond fests, would complement news coverage on small screens.

In the office of Abdul Aziz Ghazi, the cleric whose Red Mosque runs a network of schools across the country, an innocent-looking young boy sits awaiting guidance. At the older man's suggestion he recites a chant he has learned — as a terrifying look clouds his face, he starts describing how "we will destroy you."

As we spend more time in the cleric's madrassas we see scores of youngsters rocking back and forth as they recite chunks of the Koran, which they're committing to memory. They've been told of grand rewards awaiting them and loved ones in heaven if they can learn the whole book by heart. But according to students, they understand little of the message they're chanting, instead accepting the violent interpretations of Islam they hear from teachers.

Traveling to small villages, we meet the families whose desperate poverty makes such a madrassa appealing: After having kids they can't support, they can send them off where room and board are free, probably guessing it's in nobody's interest to second-guess what kids are taught. Some students rebel, like 12-year-old Zarina, who snuck out after concluding of her teachers that "they are not Muslims." She has found a secular school to attend, but it costs money her family won't be able to afford for long.

Countering this narrative is the campaigning of Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, who argues passionately that the state should control those putting "poison" in the minds of the young. His cause gains traction after the 2014 school massacre in Peshawar, a tragedy the filmmakers show in context of a 2007 attempt by the government to curtail the mosque's activities. Abdul Aziz snuck out of that bloody siege wearing a woman's burqa, despite having said he would happily have sacrificed a hundred sons there for the glory of Allah. Among the Believers is a step toward understanding how such a man can be entrusted with such a large percentage of a nation's children.

Production companies: Manjusha Films, Changeworx
Directors: Hemal Trivedi, Mohammed Ali Naqvi
Screenwriter: Jonathan Goodman Levitt
Producers: Jonathan Goodman Levitt, Hemal Trivedi
Executive Producer: Whitney Dow
Directors of photography: Haider Ali, Habib ur Rehman
Editor: Hemal Trivedi
Music: Milind Date
Sales: Jonathan Goodman Levitt, Changeworx USA

No rating, 82 minutes