Among the BelieversTribeca Film Festival 2015
“They briefly replied that they were equal to the Divine will in this matter and that, whatever God might wish to do with them, they would accept it willingly and with humble spirit.” This passage by the Anonymous author of Chronica Regiae Coloniensis describes the Children’s Crusade of 1212. While it is questionable whether youngsters really set off to defend the Holy Land alongside adult crusaders, the story is a prime example of fanaticism’s effect on young minds.
This, essentially, is what this probing documentary explores. The Pakistani children in Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi’s Among the Believers are real, and at the center of an internal War on Terrorism. Trivedi, Naqvi and writer/producer Jonathan Goodman Levitt carefully present opposing religious and secular views. No easy task.
The documentary centers on cleric Abdul Aziz Ghazi, leader of Islamabad’s Red Mosque. His madrassah (seminary) and others modeled on it are proponents of fundamentalist Islamic Shariah law, advocating no tolerance for outsiders. Former students are in the Taliban. Aziz’s advisory activist, Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, is an equally strong presence; during a lecture, his presentation includes images from a Red Mosque kindergarten-level primer. One slide is of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers.
Trivedi and Levitt do a good job of presenting the multifaceted conflicts to viewers unfamiliar with them – emphasizing that Pakistanis, regardless of religious practice, have indeed suffered. A 2007 government-sanctioned attack on the Red Mosque killed 150 students and members of Aziz’s family, and in 2014, the Taliban murdered 132 children in the Public Army School in Peshawar. Aziz’s comments defending the attack led to his house arrest.
The filmmakers do something else that makes Among the Believers more than just interviews and news reports spliced together: they follow two teenagers – Talha, a student at the Red Mosque madrassah, and Zarina, who attends now a regular school, having broken away. Talha’s father regrets the decision enrolling him. The sound is sensitively muted during their conversation, but Talha’s hard stare reveals he will never return home. A former madrassah student, Zarina now loves school, as it’s a happy escape from her parents’ talk of arranging her marriage. Students don’t exactly run wild at her school; there is close supervision for religious and safety reasons. Yet they are encouraged to play, which is in sharp contrast to the militancy of extremism.
Talha and Zarina’s stories will continue after Among the Believers’ closing credits. Through the film, they will be known outside their communities for their part in and conflict with these sharp ideological battles – as will the sadness of their own and so many other Pakistani childhoods.
Among the Believers does not yet have a confirmed date of release.
Watch the trailer for Among the Believers here: