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Pakistan Goes to the Oscars

Image from the Guardian: Dr. Jawad examines Zakia's Face

Tomorrow is Oscar day. If you are anything like me, you watch as many Oscar-nominated films as humanly possible (while still, of course, maintaining some semblance of a life) and hope your favorite movies walk away with the coveted trophy.

The Oscars are it, the last pit stop in the awards season, the culmination of all that was brilliant in film that year. This year, filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy became the first Pakistani to ever garner an Academy Award nomination. Her documentary, Saving Face, co-directed with Daniel Junge, is up for the Oscar in the short documentary category. The film delves into the issue of acid attacks through the lens of the women affected by tragedy and the doctor trying to help them. In Pakistan, there are 100 acid attacks reported each year, but many cases go unreported, the victims instead relegated to the shadows of society.

Saving Face follows two women who chose not to remain silent. Zakia was horrifically injured after her husband, a drug addict, threw undiluted battery acid on her after she tried to divorce him. In the film, Zakia’s husband, who was in jail following the crime, called the charges against him a “conspiracy,” stating that his wife was his and it was “a matter of dignity.” The crimes against Rukhsana, who is just 25 years old, were also perpetrated by her sister-in-law and mother-in-law, who lit her on fire and locked her in a room. When asked for his account of the attack, her husband Yasir claimed Rukhsana had a temper and high blood pressure and threw acid on herself. He added, “99 percent of [these women] throw acid on themselves.”

The stories are woven into the larger narrative, but also are documented as a journey for retribution. Dr. Mohammed Jawad, a plastic surgeon in London, works to help these women become a part of society again. On Zakia, he performed the first surgery of its kind in Pakistan. The Guardian noted, “He used Matriderm to smooth her ravaged face, gave her a pair of glasses with a painted eye and attached a prosthetic nose, allowing her finally to show her face in public.” The results are extraordinary for a woman who had stopped showing her face in public (instead covering it with a burqa and sunglasses), whose life had previously been stolen by her husband’s atrocities.

The beauty of Saving Face was in its very human and nuanced portrayal of all its characters. Zakia was not just a victim of an acid attack, a faceless woman both literally and figuratively. She was a survivor, someone strong enough to fight against the system. During the film, her husband was found guilty of his crimes, receiving two life sentences. Her case was the first to be tried under the new law passed unanimously by Pakistan’s Parliament (and tirelessly pushed forward by the Acid Survivors Foundation and  MNA Marvi Memon). Rukhsana’s story was more bittersweet but reflected the tragic reality facing most acid victims. Many, like Rukhsana, are forced to live with their attackers, mainly for economic reasons.

This speaks to the complexities that exist in societies like Pakistan, where attitudes towards domestic violence (honor-related or not) and victims, are a very large part of the problem. Lack of economic opportunities, social stigma, and safety problems among others all act as significant obstacles for survivors of these attacks. While passing legislation to give their attackers life imprisonment is an important top-down step, there is much more that needs to be done to address the symptoms behind this problem. We need to do more than just be prescriptive.

I watched the film yesterday evening. I expected to cry, to be horrified and indignant for the state of our society, for the crimes committed daily against women in their own homes and by their own family. But I did not expect to also walk away with a deep and lingering sense of hope. Dr. Jawad’s compassion and charm jumped off the screen, and his deep relationships with both Zakia and Rukhsana were touching. After having a baby boy, Rukhsana told Jawad she had named him Mohammed with hopes that he would grow up to be a doctor just like him. Zakia’s son was also a strong but silent character woven beautifully into the narrative. Though he did not speak during the film, he stood constantly by his mother’s side, a small example of how all is not black and white in these stories.

In a segment for NBC News, Sharmeen, who has previously won an Emmy for her documentary Children of the Taliban, told NBC’s Amna Nawaz, “I fell in love the first time we put the cameras on, and it was because I could see the colors, the textures, the language, the beauty and the heartache that could just transcend all barriers.” The purpose of this documentary, she noted to the Washington Post, was to educate people about acid attacks in Pakistan, but also to recalibrate attitudes towards honor violence. She said, “We wanted men to know they think it is manly to throw acid, but in fact it was the most unmanly thing to do.”

As a Pakistani, I am incredibly proud of Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and her much-deserved nomination. But I am also proud of the characters in the film, who were all larger-than-life in their capacity to love, to fight, and to live. We all can learn many lessons from them. At the end of Saving Face, Dr. Jawad noted, “I’m part of this society that has this disease. I’m doing my bit. Come join the party.”

The Oscars will air tomorrow evening (EST), and Saving Face will be shown on HBO on March 8th. Sharmeen, you have an entire country behind you. And we are all rooting for you.

UPDATE 2045 EST: Sharmeen just won the Oscar – AHHHHH!!! Pakistan’s first Oscar – SO PROUD!

Horrible quality photo, but I was too excited to take a good one of my television!

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Copyright All rights reserved by Without Shepherds Film Inc.

As revolution continues to spill over the Middle East, some have questioned whether a similar rallying cry would erupt on the streets of Pakistan. But while we have certainly reached our own tipping point, it is not a moment defined by a call for regime change. It is far more complex. Pakistan is a country that suffers from an identity crisis. And ultimately, if we don’t know who we are, do we really know what we are fighting for?

Without Shepherds is a feature documentary that addresses some of these very complex and fundamental questions. The film, directed by Cary McClelland and made in partnership with Pakistani filmmakers [The Crew Films & EyeBee Films among others], offers a glimpse into the nuances of the country through the eyes of six diverse characters – Imran Khan, a cricketer-turned-politician; Vaneeza, a model/actress; Laiba, a Peshawar-based journalist; Abdullah, a truck driver; Arieb, a Sufi musician; and Ibrahim, a former Taliban fighter. Each character has a mission and their documented journey from February 2008 to November 2008 is a reflection of the broader struggle within Pakistani society.

Each of the people cast in Without Shepherds came from different regions and socioeconomic classes. They were selected to showcase the rich diversity of Pakistan, possessing different religious and political perspectives, as well as ideas about the future of the nation. However, noted McClelland, “the similar push among the cast was this desire for justice – to be more legitimately part of the social infrastructure and fabric of the country.” He added, “Each of these characters had significant obstacles in their path; some had  been robbed or cheated of things that were very dear to them, and as a result, had to bravely face these challenges head-on.”

The casting of the film was extremely important in demonstrating both the diversity of the country as well as their shared humanity. While selecting Imran Khan was relatively easy, given his boycott of the February 2008 elections and subsequent “outside-in” perspective, the Without Shepherds team took many trips around the country to discover other interesting narratives. Abdullah, whose struggle to provide for his family keeps him “chained to the road,” gives us a glimpse into the world and wisdom of Pakistan’s truck drivers, who have traversed the entire country and subsequently possess unique insights. According to McClelland, Abdullah was “the most empathetic and human character in the film,” a man who exhibited a sophisticated world view despite being self-educated.

Copyright All rights reserved by Without Shepherds Film Inc.

Laiba, a female journalist based in Peshawar, is courageous in her battle to humanize families living in northwestern Pakistan, but must also battle for respect and appreciation at work. McClelland noted her story had the richest twists and turns. “There was a real juxtaposition between how progressive she was politically and how conservative she was religiously.” He added, “The more I watched her push up against the people who ran her television channel, to get them to be more engaged and undertake braver programming, the more I grew to admire her.”

Another character in the film, said McClelland, required a sensitive ear during filming. Ibrahim fought for six years with the Taliban along the Afghan border. His struggle is one for peace, a journey complicated by family and friends who cannot look beyond his past. For McClelland, Ibrahim’s story constantly revealed new layers of insight. “He was a real student of the country – about its history and culture – and he could speak very beautifully and poetically about what was happening around him.” At one point during the film, Ibrahim is captured saying, “You can see many animals here, but you will rarely see a shepherd.”

Copyright All rights reserved by Without Shepherds Film Inc.

The filmmakers behind the documentary were really interested in juxtaposing the character’s private and public experiences. This was particularly pertinent for Imran, Vaneeza, and even Arieb, who are all public personalities. According to McClelland, though, some of the more human moments were captured in Imran’s interactions with his children. “Watching him as a father was analogous to how he viewed himself as a political leader and a philanthropist, making the narrative that much more rich.”

Each of the character’s journeys was unique, but their shared struggle for justice made the “film a very emotional experience” for those involved. There are connected because they all went against the mold, and each person at the end of the story arc either overcame their obstacles or came to peace with their situation.

Although the timeline in the film began before the February 2008 elections and ended with the U.S. elections in November 2008, McClelland emphasized that the interwoven themes in Without Shepherds are still very current today. “The questions that were posed to the country at the time were similar to those we were posing to our characters throughout the film – what direction do you see the country going, what values do you have, who are the people who best represent that,” he told me. “Pakistan is still similar to the country we left, as is America, and the questions we asked back then are still relevant today.”

Without Shepherds Director Cary McClelland

Without Shepherds aims to provide a more multidimensional perspective of Pakistan for an American audience. It is ultimately a human story. But the film is also an opportunity for Pakistanis to reflect on their common voice and hold a mirror up to our own society. Therefore, noted McClelland, the film will be shown to American audiences, “but we are also hoping to partner with Pakistani NGOs and set up grassroots screenings throughout the country. It is a great opportunity to use film to reach a diverse set of audiences.”

The documentary is currently at the mid-point in post-production, and hopes to premiere in the late summer/early fall 2011. However, Without Shepherds still must raise money to achieve this goal. Last week, the team established an online campaign on Indie GoGo, and is trying to raise $25,000 to bring the film into its next stage of post-production. It’s an enormous undertaking, but it’s for a character-driven film with a very significant overarching message. As McClelland said to me, “We really have the opportunity to help close the gap in a country as important and beautifully expressive as Pakistan.” You can get involved and help Without Shepherds reach this goal, by donating here. [Also, follow Without Shepherds on Facebook.]

WITHOUT SHEPHERDS Trailer from Cary McClelland on Vimeo.

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Last week, I attended a screening of Slackistan, an independent film by director Hammad Khan. The film, which screened in London, Abu Dhabi, New York City, and San Francisco [Pakistan screenings are coming soon], was recently described by the NY Times as, “a pitch-perfect comedy about restless youths in Islamabad,” and is a raw embodiment of 20-something angst, superficiality, and existential musings about life. As someone who grew up in “the city that always sleeps,” Slackistan was – ironically - a very real treatment of Islamabad’s detached reality.

That, in many ways, was director Hammad’s point – to organically create something that was closer to a documentary than a film. Slackistan‘s characters to an extent even mirror the actors who portrayed them – somewhat like art imitating reality. Hasan, the narrator and main character in the film, is a 20-something who dreams of becoming a filmmaker, but instead drives listlessly around the city with his friends, hangs out at coffee shops, and waxes philosophical about where his life could be going instead. He is played by Shahbaz Shigri, also a 20-something, also an Islamabadi, and also an aspiring filmmaker, though he is making that dream come true rather than slacking alongside the city’s affluent class.

Hammad told me, “It was really important that the casting was right, and that we cast people from Islamabad who could at least embody the attitude of the character. It was important that I didn’t try to impose characters on the actors, but allowed it to organically happen.”

Ali Rehman Khan, who played Sherry, Hasan’s best friend in the film, echoed, “It was easier for me to relate to my character because I grew up in Islamabad and have been through many of those same experiences. It was important that Islamabadis were a part of the film because it gave Slackistan authenticity – we weren’t really characters as much as people in the film.” The making of the film, he added, was also a collaborative process, with Hammad mapping out a scene while the cast and crew were at a cafe or  another site, always keeping his camera on him at all times.

The interesting thing about Slackistan is its lack of political commentary or real mention of the volatility and violence that often shape Pakistan’s image in the news media. Instead, current events were pushed into the periphery, mentioned in passing conversations or playing on the television in the background. This was done on purpose, noted Hammad, “to reflect a narrative that was based on perspectives of young characters where the political situation and militancy are not the focal point in their daily lives.” He added, “It was very difficult for me not to be political because I am a very politically charged person. In fact, in the first draft of the script, Hasan would have monologues that would then connect back to a current event in Pakistan. However, we realized that this was artificial because a typical 21 year old wouldn’t necessarily think like that.”

Hammad didn’t want Hasan’s character to live entirely in a bubble, though. Perhaps the most telling part of the film was when he stumbles onto one of Islamabad’s many Christian colonies – or slums that house the marginalized Christian minority. The colonies are located amid some of the city’s nicest neighborhoods, but they are a far cry from the well-paved roads, pristine houses, and fancy cars outside their walls. The slums are dotted with cramped and dilapidated homes, and suffer from poor sewage and a lack of electricity. Hammad noted, “I wanted to make the point that these slums are basically a stone’s throw from some of Islamabad’s best houses and streets. It is an adjacent world that is literally right outside our door.”

Of all the days of filming, shooting the Christian colony was one of the cast and crew’s best experiences. “It wasn’t like we were shooting a movie,” Hammad told me. “For me, it was quite a transformative experience to see the joy and the sense of community among this minority, and then outside the slum’s walls to feel the sense of detachment and affluence in the city.” Ali added, “This is the reality of Islamabad in many ways, that we ignore the things that are right in front of us.”

That, ultimately, seems to be the biggest criticism of Pakistan’s elite – the apathetic divide between the rich and poor, the detachment from the jarring reality outside their doors. While this appears to be a criticism of Slackistan – that its attempt to show another side to Pakistan is still only depicting the affluent class, both Hammad and Ali argue that this is still a very real side of Pakistan. Ali noted, “We are such a bubbled society in Islamabad. There are lots of bureaucrats, diplomats, and politicians, and we’re the offspring of that. And this is how some people live – it may not be reality for the majority of the country, but it is a very real depiction of this slice of society.” In an interview with PRI’s The World, Hammad stated,

It’s important to say that it’s a personal film…it [Islamabad] always used to frustrate me that well, we’re pretty modern, we’re pretty connected, but the town and the environment just doesn’t lend itself to any kind of creative growth or progress. You know, we had nothing to do, nowhere to go. So that was something that I thought, what do you do? How do you move forward? And that sort of extended itself into this kind of metaphor for the country as well because these are young people living in a bubble and they can’t really move forward and in a sense that’s kind of how Pakistan is right now in the world.

In an interview with the Guardian last year, Hammad further noted, “Slackistan should be a wake-up call to the wider youth base, both in and outside Pakistan, to redirect the future of the country.” The film, though it depicts affluent young 20-somethings with no sense of purpose, does have a purpose and a solution – to take action, even if it means taking small steps to achieve that goal.

If there was one thing Hammad would like us to take away from the film, though, it’s to keep in mind this is only one film, one snapshot of life in the country. “Judge the film all you want,” he noted, “but judge me after watching ten of my films. Because the next one I am working one will be a drastically different lens of Pakistan, as will the ones after that.” Moreover, he added, “I am entirely dedicated to supporting anyone who wants to make films about Pakistan,” given the need for different perspectives and the power of imagery in changing perceptions of the country. “Cinema isn’t part of our culture in Pakistan, but images can be educational and they can be socially useful in showing a nuanced side of Pakistan. That can and should be imparted to Pakistan’s youth.”

Slackistan, though not without flaws, was a unique and telling film told through a Pakistani lens, one of many into the country’s rich and vibrant society. As a fellow Islamabadi, it was not only a very real depiction of life in the city that always sleeps, but it was also  a genuine attempt to capture the uninspired underpinnings of this slice of society, a wake up call for the apathetic and the affluent.

To join Slackistan‘s Facebook page and learn about screenings in your city, click here. [You can also visit Mara Pictures for more information on UK and future Pakistan screenings of the film. ]

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Tere Bin…Laden

It’s official. Bollywood’s releasing a new film this weekend. But given that the Indian film industry releases the largest number of movies in the world (about a 1000 a year, according to some sources), this isn’t really news.

Except when the film in question is called Tere Bin Laden and it stars Pakistani crossover/pop star Ali Zafar. According to The News’ Instep magazine this past Sunday,

It’s a big, big, scratch that, huge deal to see a Pakistani star promoted this way in India…Indeed, if Tere Bin Laden turns into a box office smash, Ali Zafar will reach a level of stardom hitherto unprecedented in our industry and he will also become a one of a kind phenomenon in Bollywood…After all, which actor does Bollywood have who can act, dance and sing his own songs? The answer is none. Ali Zafar is a rare breed.

Yeah! Take that, Bollywood! Billie Jean is not your lova!

Seriously, though, the film is garnering major buzz (and tweets), and is described as “a tongue-in-cheek comedy about an ambitious young news reporter from Pakistan who is desperate to migrate to the U.S. in pursuit of the American dream.” When the journalist comes across an Osama bin Laden look alike, he decides produce a fake Osama video “and sell it to news channels,” leading to serious ramifications.

Director Abishek Sharma told Reuters, “The film looks to give a fresh perspective to the repercussions of 9/11 that a lot of people are facing but…through humor.” Zafar, in his interview with Instep writer Muniba Kamal, noted, “I knew that I didn’t want to do a typical Bollywood film with romancing a girl around trees. I didn’t want to play second lead in any film and when I was offered the script, I read it and I could see myself doing it. It’s very funny. I think I suit the role.”

Comedy or not, producers are opting to shorten the film title to Tere Bin when it’s released in Pakistan, “so as not to draw the ire of militant Pakistani Islamists,” noted the Wall Street Journal.

Me thinks said militant Pakistani Islamists may be “ired” anyway, seeing as how they probably watch television and know the real name is actually Tere bin Laden. But I digress.

What is great about a film like Tere Bin (Laden) is that it doesn’t really have to stretch the truth to be funny or satirical. Because these days, you just can’t make up some of the stuff in the news. For example:

  • Back in January, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released fresh images of Osama bin Laden, using “digital enhancement” technology to show what the Al Qaeda leader would look like today. What kind of “technology” you ask? Google. Turns out the FBI updated the bin Laden photo using the grey hair, jaw line and forehead of Spanish politician Gaspar Llamazares. Not so intelligent.

Ridiculously good Eugoogling.

  • Gary Faulkner, the Bin Laden Hunter. Nuff said.
  • According to Chinese news agency, People’s Daily Online, the Afghan Taliban is “training monkeys to use weapons to attack American troops.” No, really. Monkeys are apparently being armed with “AK-47 rifles and Bren light machine guns in the Waziristan tribal region near the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.” And this isn’t the first time! According to the news agency, the CIA also “trained massive “monkey soldiers” in the Vietnam War and dispatched armed monkeys to dangerous jungles to launch assaults on Vietnamese soldiers. Today, the Taliban forces have given the American troops some of their own medicine.” Wow.

Bow down to Monkey Soldier, Yankee!

So yes. Excited for Tere bin Laden and Zafar’s Bollywood debut. But also secretly hoping for a sequel that uses the aforementioned details we call news. Because monkey soldiers, Gary Faulkner, and Spanish MPs-turned-doctored-bin Laden-images are a hilarious combination that you just can’t make up. I think Paul the Octopus may even predict a smash hit!

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Shahrukh Does Amrika

On Sunday, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria interviewed Bollywood actor/superstar Shahrukh Khan on his recently released film, My Name is Khan, his U.S. airport security woes (Stars! They’re just like us!), the Indian film industry, and perceptions of America abroad.

The interview was surprisingly interesting, but I found a few points to be the most thought-provoking. Towards the end of the first segment (around 5:00 onwards), Shahrukh asserts that it is the responsibility of educated Muslims to promote a more tolerant image of Islam. He emphasizes,

I think it’s a duty of every educated, maybe a little liberal Muslim to go out in the world and if he has the opportunity, like I think I have as an actor, I think we need to make sure, that’s yes, this is what it stands for, this is what Jihad means, this is what tolerance means and this is what Islam means.

Shahrukh raises a point we’ve discussed heavily before on this forum – do “moderate” Muslims have a responsibility to spread a more tolerant image of Islam? And, more specifically, do Muslim celebrities bear the burden of carrying that torch?

In My Name is Khan (feel free to weigh in on your opinion of the film since I haven’t yet seen it), Shahrukh plays a Muslim man married to a Hindu woman living in post-9/11 America, who subsequently “has to go on a journey to explain to everybody that, guys, just because ‘My Name is Khan’ doesn’t mean I’m a terrorist.” The debate is significant because it raises several fair points – first, if the loudest voices in the room are on the far end of the spectrum – Islamist radicals – shouldn’t there be attempts to at least raise the volume of the moderates? At the same time, has that moderate voice been cohesively defined in a manner that can counter negative perceptions? Finally, are we doomed to be constantly on the defensive, particularly since many attempts are unraveled the minute a terrorist attack occurs?

Zakaria, a little later in the interview, asked Shahrukh:

You know when George Bush saw Manmohan Singh at some event, the first time he had an opportunity chance to introduce his wife, Laura Bush, to Manmohan Singh, he said to her, honey, this is the prime minister of India. This is a country that has 150 million Muslims and not one member of Al-Qaeda. That was the way he thought of Indian Muslims. Why do you think Indian Muslims are not so radicalized?

Now, I admit to know relatively little on the subject of Muslim identity in India, but I do think Zakaria’s point is interesting. Although Shahrukh responded, “I think Indians by nature like people and they’re compromising and understanding,” I’ll leave further discussion about Zakaria’s question up to you guys (refraining from Pakistani/Indian bashing of course).

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SonofaLion - NiazSA

Son of a Lion, Carolyn Johnson Productions

Son of a Lion, the feature film debut by Australian filmmaker Benjamin Gilmour, tells the story of a young Pashtun boy Niaz Afridi. Though Niaz is from Pakistan’s tribal weapon-making village of Darra Adam Khel, he defies his father’s expectation to carry on the family’s gun making business by demanding an education. The film, which has drawn critical acclaim at international film festivals and is a 2008 Independent Spirit Award Winner, is significant because it explores the nuances of the Pashtun culture and attempts to break down stereotypes of a group often lumped together with the Taliban. Son of a Lion opens in select theaters in the United Kingdom November 6, [see Mara Pictures for further information]. Below is CHUP’s Q&A with Gilmour:

Q: You went from being a medic on a film set in London to filming your first movie in the dangerous terrain of northwest Pakistan. What inspired you to make the jump into film and why did you choose to go to Pakistan for your first project?

For a few years following the 9/11 attacks in New York, I was working as personal medic to Hollywood celebrities whenever they were in London for film shoots. It was while looking after Sharon Stone that I realized how far I had strayed from my mission in life. Paramedics, like most health professionals, are generally imbued with compassion and a sense of justice. Did I train for five years to dish out headache tablets to famous people? The vacuousness, materialism and selfishness of the world in which I inhabited began to frustrate me and I knew my calling was far greater.

In addition to this, having traveled as a tourist in Pakistan in August 2001, I had been deeply touched by the country. Immediately after crossing into Pakistan from India, my wife and I were overwhelmed by the difference in attitudes towards us. We were struck by the kindness and generosity of Pakistanis, whatever their ethnicity. In particular, when we ended up in Peshawar to shop for textiles, we were impressed by the extreme hospitality and good nature of the Pashtuns. A year later, the memory of ‘gupshup’ with the Pashtuns chased me on the film sets of London. The terrorist attacks in NYC had set off a wave of Islamaphobia and outright Muslim hatred in the West, perpetuated by governments and media outlets who ought to have been less hysterical. I was angry and it spurred me into thinking about way in which I could balance out the stigmas and fear-mongering. Being exposed to film as I was at that time convinced me that film as medium had tremendous power to influence people worldwide. This is how film became my weapon to fight Islamaphobia and misconceptions of Pashtuns.

Q: The film, Son of a Lion, goes beyond just touching upon a father-son narrative and really delves into the Pashtun identity, which is significant given the many misconceptions that exist about this group. How did you go about befriending the Pathans you met in the area and how were they part of the creative process of the film?

Shooting this film was a great lesson to me about the Pashtun psyche. This film is a drama, not a documentary, so I needed to find actors willing to participate and there was a great deal of reluctance at first. Film is not generally a medium considered by conservative types in FATA as something acceptable. Judging by some of the Pashto films in the market, I can understand why. But film does not have to include negative and damaging information. Indeed, if film is used by the right people in the right way for the common good of humanity, it can be beautiful and uplifting. Even the Taliban and Al Qaeda have YouTube accounts and make films for Al Jazeera! In no way did I want ‘Son of a Lion’ to be a Western perspective of Pathans. This would be too obvious and has already been done by too many ignorant news stations and I despise it. For the film to be a real glimpse of Pashtun mentality, I knew I needed actors who would improvise.

Befriending a Pathan is not easy as an outsider as they are notoriously suspicious about the intentions of Westerners. This comes as no surprise after so many Western nations have tried to control them, failing dismally each time. For me it took months of waiting in Lahore, teaching film at IQRA University and then countless cups of tea with contacts in Peshawar and villagers in Orakzai trying to convince them to help me. I mean, by the end of pre-production I needed a bladder transplant, that’s how much tea I had to drink for this film!

When I mentioned the word ‘honor‘, the fact I could not return to Australia without a feature film, most of the Pathans felt obliged to assist me I suppose, thanks to Paktunwali. Nevertheless, I believe they were genuinely convinced I wanted to represent them in the best possible light and saw this film as platform to show the world who they were as a people. When those who are frustrated and angry do not have a proper platform to express themselves, they often resort to violence and I think this is part of the problem in FATA. Pashtun tribes have not been consulted about the best way forward in dealing with militancy in their midst. Musharraf‘s negotiation’s with the tribes doesn’t count, as he was also pandering to Taliban. The real Pashtun voice is rarely heard in the Western media. In making this film, I was offering locals a chance to send the world a message in the form of an entertaining drama.

As a consequence, each actor was given the freedom to make up their own dialogues, to help shape the whole story, and to bring their own material to the process continuously. We see news footage of the security situation daily. What we don’t see are the feelings of Pashtuns. My story was about challenging misconceptions about a group with whom we are quite unnecessarily at war with.

Q: Your film tells the story of 11-year-old Niaz who lives with his father Sher Alam Afridi in a small town, where for generations the local population has earned its living by producing weapons. Niaz, however, wants to receive an education. This is such an important message – what do you hope audiences will take away from the film?

The real message in this film is, I believe, that when it comes to ‘change’ in the world of Pashtuns, its a very slow-burning evolution. One cannot say to a Pashtun, ‘Look, we think you should join the wider Pakistan, lose your autonomy and modernize or we’ll send in the army’. It just won’t work. In the film, Niaz sees the value of an education that includes science, languages, mathematics and so on. Although these subjects can be part of madrassa curriculum, in the FATA they tend to be left out. Niaz, as the son of a Pashtun, challenges his traditionalist father, which is a big thing in this culture to do. The boy wants an education and his father wants him to carry on in his gun factory. The only individual on earth who can possibly change a father’s way of thinking is perhaps his own son. This is the message, that when it comes to Pathans, any change must come from within, must be between father and son, mother and daughter, brother and sister to be effective. It cannot be enforced by outsiders like the Pakistani Army or NATO or US predator drones. True change will never come at the barrel of a gun.

Q: Have the people in the villages you filmed in seen the film? What was their reaction?

Yes, those in the villages and towns where Son of a Lion was shot have seen it and were thrilled. One or two were unhappy with the fact that I made a comparison between madrassa and government schools. Of course, I don’t have any problems with madrassas at all, I believe that in the absence of properly-functioning government schools, a madrassa is often the best option so long as it does not advocate violence. I do however believe in a well-rounded education and this means that in addition to religious instruction every child is entitled to satiate their inquisitive minds about life and nature and health, to learn skills for future employment opportunities and most importantly, to understand their human rights.

So let’s have madrassas in FATA with a wider curriculum. All those involved in the film are, above all, ecstatic there is a film depicting them not as murderous extremists but as innocent men, women and children caught in the middle of a greater game in which they are but victims, pleading for a little understanding and compassion from the outside world. One day, they hope, we will see them for who they really are.

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JourneyintoAmerica

Journey into America: The team conducts a social experiment in Arab, Alabama

The below piece first appeared in Dawn Newspaper’s World section. It was my third installment in a series on “Muslims in America,” where I attempt to show how Muslim-Americans are working to change perceptions and challenge stereotypes in the United States. You can read the Dawn piece here:

The United States is a country founded on freedom, justice, and tolerance. These fundamental ideas are revisited in Journey into America, a documentary that explores American identity through the Muslim lens. Professor Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, traveled with a team of young Americans for nine months, visiting over 75 cities and 100 mosques in the United States. The result is an unprecedented effort to understand the nuanced dimensions of Islam in America, and its place within the broader American identity.

Journey into America, the companion to Ahmed’s earlier study Journey into Islam, is the first consolidated anthropological study on the Muslim-American community. Five Americans were chosen to be part of his team – Craig Considine [the film’s director], Madeeha Hameed, Jonathan Hayden, Frankie Martin, and Hailey Woldt. According to Ahmed, the team members not only were instrumental in conducting the necessary fieldwork; they also acted as his “guides” on the journey. For his team, the film was also a journey of discovery. Hailey Woldt, a former honors student of Ahmed’s who traveled with him to the Muslim World for Journey into Islam, told me this study challenged her preconceived notions about her own country. She noted, “I learned so much about my own society by talking to the Muslim community.”

At one point in the documentary, the team visited Arab, Alabama, where they conducted a small social experiment, dressing Woldt in a full abaya to gauge the residents’ reactions. Despite the fact that Arab [pronounced ‘Ay-raab’] is a small and more homogeneous town, people were warm and welcoming, living up to what Ahmed hailed as, “Southern hospitality.” In an interview with Woldt, she added the Arab residents were open to getting to know her as a person, rather than viewing her simply “as an image or a stereotype.”

Such anecdotes in the film were refreshing because they showed how misconceptions persist on both sides of the divide. While ignorance does exist, it does not always come from a place of hatred, but sometimes from a simple lack of exposure. In such instances, there is an opportunity to foster understanding and change perceptions, as was illustrated a number of times throughout Journey into America.

In Chicago, the team encountered a street named Mohammed Ali Jinnah Way, in honor of Pakistan’s founding father, Quaid-e-Azam. Interestingly, the street was commissioned bya longtime Jewish figure on the Chicago City Council, Alderman Bernie Stone. In the film, Stone admits, “I probably have better support from Muslims than Jews.” He adds, ‘My message is that each of us should treat each other as you would treat your own brother.” In Los Angeles, the city with the largest Muslim population in America, Sheriff Lee Baca calls himself a Pakhtun, having traveled not only to Pakistan but also to the Khyber Pass. Well-versed in Islam, he is an instrumental leader in encouraging understanding among the various faiths in his community.

The film explores the diversity of the Muslim-American community, from a Shia congregation in New York City to a community in Dearborn, Michigan to the oldest mosque in America, built in 1934 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Professor Ahmed and his team even visited Sapelo, a small island off the coast of Georgia. There, they interviewed Ms. Bailey, a direct descendant of Bilali Muhammed, a West African Muslim slave brought to Sapelo in the early 19th century. Although Muhammed’s descendants have since converted to Christianity, the churches on the island still face east towards Mecca, and until recently, worshipers removed their shoes before entering the church. To this day, the people of the island bury their dead facing Mecca.

These different stories become the interwoven narratives of the documentary, creating a colorful picture book of the Muslim-American community. Despite the nuanced differences between the communities, Akbar Ahmed noted there was still an “overall sense of being Muslim.” Moreover, he and his team were overwhelmed by the tremendous amount of hospitality they received. That generosity and warmth, he said, became a universal thread in their journey. Professor Ahmed added, “They were so grateful because we were traveling to their homes and talking to them face-to-face, rather than writing about them from afar.” In doing so, Ahmed and his team gave these communities a voice to tell their story.

The question of American identity was another constant thread in Journey into America. In particular, the film sought to address the difficult question of how Islam fit within these parameters in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The issue was touched upon in the film’s numerous interviews with notable figures, including Noam Chomsky, former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, and Reverend Jesse Jackson.

Akbar Ahmed’s team also met with Keith Ellison, a Muslim Congressman from Minnesota, who took his oath of office on the Holy Quran. Although he came under attack by some who called it “a threat to American values,” the interesting twist was that the copy of the Quran used for the swearing in ceremony was owned by one of the country’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson.

For Ahmed, the journey was an effort to not only probe Muslim identity in America, but also revisit the ideals of these founders. He told me, “We were hunting for clues of what the founding fathers wanted [for American society].” When the team visited the University of Virginia, they encountered a statue of Thomas Jefferson. In the hands of the third U.S. President was a book dated 1786 and the words, “God-Jehovah, Allah, Brahma, Ra…” The founding fathers’ ideal of religious pluralism was immortalized in the hands of this statue. For America to progress, Professor Ahmed noted, it must rediscover these fundamental values. Journey into America is therefore a definitive study on all of these difficult questions, using an approach that is as humanistic and emotional as it is academic.

Journey into America, produced and narrated by Akbar Ahmed, directed by Craig Considine, is 99 minutes long. It has shown at numerous film festivals, including the Islamic Film Festival, and has screened throughout the United States. The next screening will be at the Washington National Cathedral at 5:30 pm EST on October 25 in Washington, D.C. [Click here for ticket information] The documentary will also be presented on Pakistan’s AAJ Television in the coming weeks. You can see the trailer for the documentary below:

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A Lollywood FAIL Moment

Things that make my head hurt:

  1. Fire truck sounds – why, why must you be so loud?! We can hear you. We won’t mistake you for the ice cream truck. We will swerve out of your way.
  2. People who talk really loud on their cell phones in public places. I’m sorry you had to get that procedure done, but my life was a lot better off not knowing the details.
  3. The latest Meera Lollywood scandal. Drumroll please…
Oh no jaani no, I work for people day and night for poor people!
Oh no jaani no, I work for people day and night for poor people!

Let’s backtrack for those of you blissfully unaware of this story. On Friday, an arrest warrant was issued against Meera, a popular Pakistani actress [i.e., Lollywood] who was accused by her alleged husband of theft and intimidation. The first information report [FIR] filed by Attiqur Rehman asserts that he married Meera on September 2, 2007. The Daily Times, in its coverage, added:

He said he spent most of his time abroad due to business and could not see her very often. He said he returned to Pakistan on August 28 and went to his house in the Defence Housing Authority (DHA), only to find Meera, her mother Shafqat Begum, her father Sarwar, her brother Ahsan, her brother-in-law Raheel and her uncle Abbas attempting to steal items from the house, including furniture and a generator. When he tried to stop them, he added, they threatened him and escaped with all his possessions.

They made off with the furniture and the generator?! I hate when that happens! According to Meera, though, this is not only a lie but also a conspiracy. On Tuesday, Dawn reported that the actress has requested Punjab’s Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif to provide her security, claiming that Attiq was not her husband but merely her business partner and a “terrorist” who “attacked her house, threatening to abduct and kill her,” [Funnily enough, this isn't the first time Meera has claimed that terrorists are after her.]

The story will undoubtedly continue to play out like a bad Lollywood film, much to the chagrin of those of us who follow actual news. But, a few things are on Attiqur Rehman’s side. First, police say they attained Meera and his nikah document [marriage license], proving the two are married. And, if that doesn’t convince you, then the hilarious video detailing the scorned lovebirds’ email exchange will [Skip to 30 seconds in, thanks Sana]:

Oh Meera, you’re such a “layer.”

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Image Credit: IMDB

Image Credit: IMDB

I first wrote about  Faran Tahir back in May, after the Pakistani actor played Captain Robau in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek. Tahir, who was born in Los Angeles (while his parents were studying acting and directing at the UCLA Theatre Department), but grew up in Pakistan, later moved back to California to attend the University of California – Berkeley. He also received a graduate degree from the Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard University. The actor has a number of film and television credits under his belt, including roles in Iron Man, Charlie Wilson’s War, 24 and Sleeper Cell. Below, he answers a few questions for CHUP on the stereotyping of Muslims in Hollywood, his foray into acting, and the revival of Pakistan’s film industry:

Q: Your recent role as Captain Robau in Star Trek was significant not only because the franchise portrayed a captain other than Kirk or Picard as heroic, but because it was also a “color blind” role. What was it like to be involved in the film, and to play such a groundbreaking role?

It was a remarkable experience on many levels. First of all, it was truly color blind casting. I asked the director, J J Abrams, at one point about his reasons for casting me. He said that he was looking for a certain quality and intensity regardless of color or creed. It gives us a ray of hope that maybe we are slowly inching towards a more even playing field. The casting also adheres to the true philosophy behind Star Trek. Star Trek envisions a universe based on merit not race or other differentiators. Secondly, I grew up with Star Trek so it was like a little boy’s dream come true.

Q: Several Hollywood films and television shows, particularly after 9/11, have perpetuated the stereotype of Muslims as “terrorists.” However, recent efforts by organizations like MOST (Muslims on Screen and Television) have been significant in changing perceptions. For example, Howard Gordon, the creator and executive producer of ’24’ said he changed his mind on the issue after meeting with representatives from the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Have you noticed a shift in Hollywood, or do you continue to face such obstacles?

There is definitely a shift to balance out the perspectives more. Some of it is because of vocal groups calling the media out and challenging their portrayals of Muslims and some of it is the natural balancing out of approach to sensitive material. Whenever there is a monumental tragic event [9/11] in the world, the human race reacts to the shock of it but eventually we realize that in the end, we have to engage in dialogue with the other side and not war.

Q: Given that your parents also studied acting and directing, did they support your own ambitions to pursue a career in theater/acting? What advice would you give young Pakistanis who may want to follow a similar path?

My parents have always been a support to me. Their main concern is always been my well being. They have tried to support me and even challenge me to find ways to protect my core and stay true to myself. They have taught me not only the craft but also how to find bravery in the face of adversity and humility in face of success.

My advice to aspiring actors would be NEVER to give up. There will be plenty of rejections along the way and plenty of wins but be your own best critic and friend. We all want to be successful and there is plenty of room for all of us but lets succeed with grace and dignity.

Q: What’s next for you?

I have two movies in post production. Ashes is the story of two brothers. I play the older brother who is spiraling into mental illness. The younger brother is spiraling into drugs. They have no one to fall back on but each other. Two Mothers is a story of two families dealing with the death of their teenage sons in an explosion at a shopping mall. It deals with how lives can corrode when a tragedy hits. I play the father of one of the boys and an extremely talented actress from our own Pakistan, Mahnoor Baloch, plays the mother.

Q: Pakistan’s film industry has recently seen a resurgence of film – from Khuda Kay Liye to Ramchand Pakistani to Kashf. What do you think of this revival and what more could be done to encourage this growth?

The Pakistani film industry has been producing movies in a singular genre. We need to branch out. It will bring newer challenges for directors, actors, everyone. People like Shoaib Mansoor, Mehreen Jabbar, and Ayesha Khan have shown the courage to tackle new frontier and others must take this baton and run with it.

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Made in Pakistan is a 60-minute documentary that follows the lives of four young, middle-class Pakistanis during Musharraf’s state of emergency in 2007 – Waleed Khalid, a lawyer, Rabia Aamir, a journalist and a working mother, Mohsin Waraich, an aspiring politician, and Tara Mehmood, an event & PR manager. The film is an attempt to break the oft-negative depictions of Pakistan in the news media by re-examining the country through the eyes of these four citizens. Made in Pakistan premieres in Karachi next week on July 31, followed by screenings in Islamabad, and Lahore [click on the city to get more information on the showings], making the film the first documentary to be nationally released in Pakistan. Below, CHUP talks to the film’s director, Nasir Khan:

Q: What inspired you to make the film, Made in Pakistan?

Whenever I saw any coverage of Pakistan on foreign news channels, it felt like an extremely myopic and stereotypical representation of our people. The Pakistan they repeatedly covered was only showing a part of the story. Pakistan and Pakistanis were often labeled as dangerous pariahs who should be secluded from the world stage as we know it. As Pakistani filmmakers, we felt that their conclusions were amateur and racist. We felt we could easily negate them even if we showed a glimpse of Pakistan through the eyes of Pakistanis. Thus began the journey for making Made in Pakistan.

Q: The documentary follows the lives of four Pakistanis who are meant to show the multifaceted nature of the country. How did you go about “casting”/finding these people for the film? What surprised you the most when following their lives?

We were extremely lucky that we were able to find people from such diverse backgrounds who had very distinct personalities. Most of them were friends of friends and the great thing was that all of them agreed to be part of the production without hesitation. There were many surprising elements during filming: following Mohsin’s [the aspiring politician] campaign and seeing how aware and resolute the voters are even though they are coming out of low-income populations. The fallacy that people don’t know their rights and just vote blindly was absolutely dispelled. Then following the lawyers’ movement and seeing the passionate atmosphere – people are hit yet the spirit didn’t waver. But the most reassuring aspect was visiting schools and colleges and seeing the high level of patriotism these young kids have for Pakistan.

Q: The film will be screened in Pakistan’s three main cities – Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. Are there plans to release the film elsewhere in Pakistan and internationally? What do you hope Pakistanis who watch Made in Pakistan take away from the film? Do you think international viewers may take away something different?

Plans are on for a worldwide release – we have been getting a lot of interest from audiences and InshAllah we will be hitting the major cities soon. I think it feels good to see a Pakistani story, it feels good to see a representation of yourself so I think that hint of pride that one gets while seeing something homegrown is what Pakistani audiences should take in at a very basic level. As for the response we have gotten from focus groups done abroad, the response has been incredible. On one hand, audiences are surprised that people in Pakistan can speak such good English and on the other, they are connecting the most to the bearded Muslim (Waleed the lawyer), whom they are supposed to hate based on popular perceptions.

Q: The documentary was filmed during Pakistan’s state of emergency under Musharraf in 2007. However, so much has happened in the past two years – from democratic elections to an increasingly tumultuous security situation to a burgeoning economic crisis. What do you feel is constant and universal in your film that makes it relevant not just today, but in the future?

I think it reflects the spirit of the people and that is something that remains resolute and relevant. What we have tried to show is that Pakistani people are aware of the situation they find themselves in; they are able to make decisions for their future and that this future brings with it a promise of hope. The message of the documentary is loud and clear “Pakistan Zindabad”  [Long live Pakistan].

Q: Your film company – Talking Filmain – run by you, Adil Sher and Rizwan Saeed – has a very diverse portfolio of projects under its belt. Do you hope to tackle other politically and socially conscious projects in the future?

InshAllah we do hope to work on more inspiring stories and subjects but first we need to get Made in Pakistan out of our system as this is the first documentary to garner a national release in the history of Pakistan. The encouragement we are receiving will guide us to continue of this journey of telling Pakistani stories.

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