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Believing in a better world

Among the Believers, has been nominated for the UNESCO FELLINI award at the ongoing 46th International Film Festival of India. The Goan caught up with director, Emmy award winning Indian filmmaker Hemal Trivedi

Story: CHRISTINE | MACHADO | 30th November 2015, 12:00 Hrs

Pic: Samrat Bandodkar

Most of us are conditioned to associate Pakistan with the word terror. But in doing so, sometimes we remain blind to the fact that there actually are quite a number of Pakistanis who have nothing to do with these terror elements and want peace, like the rest of the world. And that is the crux of 'Among the Believers', an award winning documentary by Indian film maker Hemal Trivedi and co produced by Pakistani film maker Mohammed Naqvi, which has been nominated for the UNESCO FELLINI award at the ongoing 46th International Film Festival of India.

The film follows Maulana Abdul Aziz Ghazi, a radical cleric who runs the Red Mosque network, and his quest to impose sharia law in Pakistan, which has led the Pakistan society to implode. The film also follows the lives of two teenage students, Talha and Zarina, who attend madrassas run by the Red Mosque network, to see how their education has impacted their view of the world, while also giving a peek into the inner struggle within the Pakistani society to combat the rise of extremism.

Trivedi, who has edited films like Outlawed in Pakistan and Saving Face that have fetched her three Emmys and an Oscar, among others, was moved to make this film after the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks claimed the life of a friend.

“After these attacks, like everyone else, I experienced an irrational anger towards Pakistan,” she reveals. “ As someone born and raised in India, we are almost indoctrinated with this idea of hating Pakistan. But then I began to ask myself- ' why am I so angry at a country that I know so little about?' I only know Pakistan through Indian and American media. I have never been to that country, I did not have Pakistani friends at that time, I have never read their media, I didn't know what was going on in that country. So I decided to find out.”

As expected, close friends warned her against taking such a risk. “ I didn't tell my mother for a very long time,” she chuckles, “ My close friends also told me that I wouldn't get a visa and how I could get leached or raped or kidnapped or killed. Some friends even suggested that I go with a bodyguard! But my husband supported me and told me to give it a try.”

And what she found out, changed her anger to empathy. “ I discovered that Pakistan is a deeply divided country. There is a fringe minority of extremists who are trying to take over the lives of vast majority of peaceful Pakistanis and attacks such as the Mumbai terror attacks are happening on almost a monthly basis there. In fact, Pakistan are the biggest victims of terrorism,” she states. Realizing that the ideological conflict within Pakistan is deepest in the area of education, Trivedi chose that as her focus.

“While I didn't have any problems blending in the Pakistani society in general, the biggest challenge was when I entered the madrassa. I disguised myself as a Muslim woman and said that my name was Hanah Khan from Dubai. We were all very scared,” she confesses. “ After that I had problems getting my visa. Then we were tipped off that we were being watched. So we were very careful as I did not want to spend the rest of my life in Pakistani prison.” Also, despite making herself a promise to not let her biases get in the way of her judgement, she admits that there were times that her prejudices did interfere and her co-director who is from Pakistan was very helpful in this regard.

“ But I was glad for this opportunity as it helped me evolve and made me a better person,” she says, adding that she hopes that instead of concentrating on warfare, we should come up with clever strategic solutions in our dealings with Pakistan.

“The terrorists want us to go at war with them. The more reasons we give them to hate us, the more stronger they will be. So we are actually empowering them,” she explains. “ The best solution is to join hands with the vast majority of the peaceful Pakistanis rather than alienating and painting the whole country with the same brush strokes.”

Trivedi also states that in reality there is no much difference between Indian and Pakistani societies. “ There was this beautiful moment when we visited Zarina's house. She comes from a poor family and has nine siblings. But when we went there the mother borrowed 20 Rs from the neighbor to buy a Fanta for us, just so that she could serve us something. You see that in small villages in India too - this culture of hospitality. In fact, if our political and religious leaders decided not to brainwash our minds with hate and fear and if the borders suddenly dissolve, they will be almost be seamless,” she says.

Trivedi states that they hope to show the film in Pakistan too in February but there are some fears.

“The Tribekah film festival attracted so much attention that we received some threats so we went on hiatus for a while. But in October, we got back to submitting it for film festivals,” she reveals. The film went on to win the CPH -DOX award in Copenhagen and also the F:ACT award for investigative journalism. “Threats are always there. But it is a story we have chosen to tell collectively and we want to tell it,” she says. “ I don't think my film is going to change the way we look at the war on terror but I will be happy if it adds to the noise.”

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