TFI Alum News: Among the Believers comes to New York City

Hemal Trivedi and Mohammad (Mo) Ali Naqvi, directors of the critically-acclaimed, Tribeca Film Institute-supported documentary AMONG THE BELIEVERS, are in the middle of a crazy schedule of pre-premiere press and planning. Their film opens September 30th at Cinema Village in New York. We are so grateful they sat down to answer questions about the inspiration behind the film and the extreme challenges they faced while making it.

AMONG THE BELIEVERS examines the rise of Islamic extremism in Pakistan by exploring life inside and surrounding the Red Mosque madrassa system, Islamic seminary residences that admit children. By establishing trust with their subjects and persisting in telling this story over several years, Hemal and Mo were able to provide in-depth perspective on what may be causing the rise of radical Islamism, something Americans can’t easily find on nightly newscasts. Despite multiple rejections from funders, and death threats from Taliban supporters, they persevered and created a documentary that all Americans, and hopefully one day Pakistanis – it’s currently banned in Pakistan- need to see.

What was the initial inspiration behind creating AMONG THE BELIEVERS?

HEMAL: I grew up in an inner-city chawl (ghetto) of Mumbai, in a conservative Hindu Brahmin family. There was a culture of mistrusting Pakistan and its people where I grew up because India and Pakistan are historical “enemies.” I defined the country by the violence and terrorism I saw it inflict on my homeland at the time. Then, in 2008, I lost a friend in the Mumbai terror attacks, a series of massacres carried out by Islamic militants. After the attacks my heart was full of anger and hate for the perpetrators of the crime, who were Pakistanis. To make sense of my anger, I started digging deeper into the root causes of these attacks. I came to understand that ordinary Pakistanis are themselves victims of this violence rather than perpetrators. Their way of life is under attack by this fringe minority of radical Islamists who are forcing their ideology on the country’s vast, peaceful majority. 

The same people who carried out the Mumbai terror attacks are attacking ordinary Pakistanis on an almost daily basis. There is an ideological conflict that is reshaping modern Pakistan and causing it to implode. And this ideological conflict’s most important battleground is the field of education. Young minds are trained, militarized, and instilled with the most extremist brand of Islam in many of the country’s madrassahs (religious schools) and are used as pawns by certain militant groups for their own political agendas. 

I travelled to Pakistan in 2009 to document the depths of Pakistan’s ideological divide and that’s how this film was conceived.

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced along the way?

MO: Soon after our successful world premier at Tribeca in 2015, almost instantly there was a reaction from militants who were sympathetic to Maulana Aziz, the subject of our film. We were slammed with threats. I got death threats from the Taliban supporters, and I had to move homes and move my family into hiding. Our co-producer, Musharaf Shah also had to move houses and go into hiding as he also received similar threats. Furthermore, Pakistani human right activists- and colleagues of ours- Sabeen Mehmud and Khurram Zaki, who spoke out against Maulana Aziz were murdered. 

To make matters worse the film was banned in Pakistan -- and it is still banned. This was heartbreaking for us. There is always an anxious feeling I have being a Pakistani filmmaker that my film might get banned. Most of my films have unfortunately not screened in Pakistan, and it always breaks my heart not to share my work with my own people. But at the same time we have had such a massive outpouring of support from audiences all over - that gives us courage and strength to push on.

HEMAL AND MO: Our most emotionally challenging moment of filmmaking came during our final shoot in January, 2015, when we shot the ending to the film (just two months before our premiere at Tribeca Film Festival). This took place a month after the Taliban attacked an elementary school in Peshawar. It was a national tragedy for Pakistan, in which 132 young children were killed by the Taliban as retribution for the Pakistani military’s crackdown on the militant groups. Our co-producer, Musharraf Shah, lost four of his nephews in this attack.

In the aftermath, our lead character, Maulana Aziz, condoned these attacks on the children. Musharraf was the only crew member available to conduct the final interview with Aziz. As documentarians, we try our best to remain detached from what we are observing – Musharraf conducted the interview gracefully without succumbing to his rage. This was nothing short of remarkable.

What would you recommend to documentary filmmakers looking to get funding or establish a relationship with a nonprofit?

HEMAL: The process of getting the funding and grants is extremely competitive. Our film AMONG THE BELIEVERS faced a lot of rejections and we continued to apply for grants for close to three years before we got our first grant. Our writer / producer Jonathan Goodman Levitt worked on several of these grant applications. Tribeca Film Institute gave us our first grant and then we got grants from Chicken and Egg, The Sundance Institute, Ford Foundation, NYSCA, etc. 

Despite rejections we continued working on the film. I invested my own personal money into the film. I sold my wedding necklace that my mother-in-law gave to me at my wedding to fund a shoot. But then once we got one grant we got other grants too. So do not quit and do not give up.  

You can watch AMONG THE BELIEVERS beginning September 30th- October 6th at Cinema Village in NYC.