Archive for October 27th, 2009

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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©Zackary Canepari/NY Times-All Rights Reserved

As the military offensive in South Wazirstan wages on and violence continues to strike the country’s major cities, it is apparent that Pakistan is under siege, both literally and figuratively. Given that this is as much a war of ideas as it is a tangible conflict, the issue of what has allowed militant ideology to flourish should also be tackled. Below, Bilquis, a consultant in Lahore and a regular contributor to CHUP, delves into the parallel step that must be taken in this war:

On Facebook and various blogs site, I’ve seen numerous friends cite Imran Khan’s passionate rhetoric advocating for negotiations with the Taliban/militants. According to him, because we can’t tell them apart from civilians, the government must not attack Waziristan or any other area. We need to negotiate or else there will be more mayhem. As I clicked through Dawn’s photo archives of terrorist suspects captured in the past week, I couldn’t agree with him more. How do we tell them apart? Who is with us and who is against us?

At the same time, I feel Imran Khan’s negotiation strategy is a decade too late. I’m not saying our strategy should be ‘Wham bomb thank you Ma’am’ – that was the half-hearted strategy of the past military rule. Nor am I happy to see innocent civilians become collateral in this military offensive and hear of the rising death toll. What we need during this war is not the next step, but the parallel step. We need to address what has led to all of this, and by we, I don’t mean our inept politicians and pseudo- military-personnel-turned-rulers. I believe we refers to Pakistan’s citizens, the next generation, you and I.

As many of us know, what has driven militancy is a combination of factors – poverty and a lack of education and development that has been exacerbated by an extremely narrow ideology. Our past apathy towards the two most under developed regions of Pakistan—Balochistan and Waziristanhas been the most damaging. These areas have a weak basic infrastructure— mud roads, ghost schools, dilapidated hospitals, lack of law and order, and hardly any human rights—which makes them an ideal breeding ground for extreme ideologies.

Many scholars and politicians, particularly Imran Khan, have argued that the people in these areas have lived in traditionally lawless societies  for centuries. Given this ground reality, they say, we must respect their traditions and work within this context. I disagree.

As T.S Elliot aptly noted, “A tradition without intelligence is not worth having.” These traditions ignore issues that have allowed a zealous ideology to mushroom all across Pakistan, especially in rural Punjab. Take the the young girl who was flogged by the Taliban in Swat, for example. Do we want these traditions? Do we want men/women/girls being bartered to resolve disputes? Do we want our people to see a continuously distorted narrow vision of what the world is? I certainly don’t.

Therefore, as the war wages on, and our President, Prime Minister and senior opposition leaders hide within their mammoth securities barricades, it’s time to leave aside our materialistic lifestyles and work towards changing our country.

I’m not talking merely of monetary donations for social development; I’m referring to one simple thing — Education. Look around you; most of us have people working in our households. A question to ask is whether their children go to school. Do we know whether they can afford their education? And most importantly, do we know what they are being taught? Many of us will unfortunately say yes to only one of those three questions. So go and approach the man working in your house and ask how many of his children attend school.  Help him finance their education. More than 75 percent of our country is illiterate and less than 2.5 percent of Pakistan’s GDP goes towards education. To stem the growth of militancy, we can start by educating our people.

Although the government has pledged to allocate seven percent of the GDP towards education by the year 2015, there is still a long way to go. The current state of the much touted National Educational Policy (NEP) will not bring about change. As Naveed Ejaz noted about the NEP 2009, “Apart from the odd cursory analysis or two, it seems as if educationalists, academics, politicians and the media are largely uninterested in the contents of the document. The silence of this group is puzzling and criminal in itself!’”

We must push the government to reform the educational system by focusing on improving public system education and madrassa reforms. Ask any real or pseudo politician and he will say that education overhaul is an expensive process. I think that they really don’t know what they are talking about. We don’t need them to reinvent the wheel, just mimic a good one. For instance, the Cuban education model is an excellent one for us to imitate. Not only is it simple, but it is also low-cost and provides incentives for all:

  1. The Cuban state has a monopoly on all aspects of production of educational materials – design, publishing, and distribution. As a consequence, the state is able to keep costs low, address the learning needs of the poor, and distribute all educational materials free.
  2. As the Cuban education model operates within a tight budget, to deal with shortages, schools work hard to maintain books and schools in good condition. According to The Cuban Education System: Lessons and Dilemmas, “Students continually rebind books and repair other learning equipment and school furniture as part of their weekly ‘labor education.’ Exercise books are often used several times: students write with a pencil and when they complete the exercises, erase the book for reuse. Thus in Cuba, teacher and student initiative and creativity appear to compensate, at least partially, for the lack of resources.”
  3. There is an emphasis on properly trained teachers, which accounts for most of their educational budget, rather than an experimental teacher model.
  4. The Cuban national curriculum is continually reformed and adapted to local realities. All school calendars vary according to local production schedules. This allows flexibility and avoids dropout rates in schools.
  5. In addition, the Cuban model also promotes technical and vocational learning in secondary school that allows students to learn about certain professions.

Perhaps in order to expedite this reform, Pakistan will need additional funding, but I believe it is a small price to pay in order to stem existing or future ideologies. Therefore, if we make the government take this parallel step amidst our current conflict, we will transform our incumbent education system in the years to come and subsequently create a new “liberal” ideology that enlightens and drives our country forward.

The contribution is the sole opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the opinion of CHUP. If you would like to contribute a piece to CHUP, please email Kalsoom at changinguppakistan[at]gmail[dot]com. Pieces should be no longer than 800 words please. For past contributions, click here.

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