The bloody power struggle between Muslim extremists and secular leaders for control of Pakistani children’s education receives clear, dramatically up-close expression in “Among the Believers.” Activists and local teachers seek to stem the Taliban tide, the government sends troops to destroy mosques, and two students, one on either side of the divide, cope with the consequences of their choices in this must-see documentary from Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi. It is the film’s centerpiece, however, consisting of an interview with fanatical cleric Maulana Aziz, that chills to the bone.
Affably smiling and speaking in the dulcet tones of sweet reason, Aziz patiently explains to the filmmakers (and the camera) why he is waging jihad against the Pakistani government and anyone refusing to conform to strict sharia law. Always personally unarmed but surrounded by machine gun-toting guards, he takes care to modulate his tone and appear kindly even when explaining how Americans killed his father, or the government slaughtered his mother, brother, only son and 150 loyal students.
At the same time, Aziz invites a young boy to recite his assigned sermon about defending the faith against infidels, which the boy accompanies with strident shouts and violent gestures at variance with his otherwise quiet obedient demeanor. The fact that he doesn’t know what he’s saying (only the older boys learn the meaning of the verses they memorize all day long) emphasizes the disconnection between doctrine and thought.
The filmmakers quietly expose conflicts and contradictions without the intrusion of voiceover, and with only occasional intertitles furnishing factual information. Throughout, Aziz is clearly masterminding the interview, retaining the appearance of reasonableness while ascribing to his students the violence that ensues. This only underscores the hypocrisy of his position as he sadly tsk-tsks over the results of his students’ various acts of terrorist martyrdom, while at the same time lauding their purpose.
The escalating conflict between secular forces and the Red Mosque headed by Aziz, which boasts 10,000 students in madrassas all over the country, occupies the film’s center and explains the actions of its protagonists. With the aid of copious newsreel footage, the documentary shows how in 2007 the government, alarmed by the growing power of Aziz and his legion of followers, completely destroyed the building serving as headquarters for the Red Mosque, bombing and shooting those who refused to surrender. The Taliban then brutally retaliated, randomly massacring 132 schoolchildren in Peshawar, to the shock and horror of most Pakistanis, who came out in vast numbers to protest religious extremism.
On a more intimate level, “Among the Believers” — and Aziz — supply a simple answer to the implicit question of why young children would choose to endure strict discipline, beatings, hours of unrelenting rote memorization, and the denial of all games and music: extreme poverty. The madrassa, at least, ensures that its students are given food, shelter and an education of sorts, essentials that the government often fails to provide. Indeed, the only secular activists that the film offers — one spokesperson for modern education, a nuclear physicist named Pervez Hoodbhoy, and Tariq, a self-taught village chief who dedicated his land and time to setting up a local school — have no official status or backing.
Finally, on a one-on-one level, the filmmakers, following events in Pakistan over several years, also witness changes in two students. One is Talha, whose father realized too late what enrolling his son in the madrassa entailed and is unable to win him back. The other is Zarina, who ran away from the madrassa to pursue her passion for learning, lift herself out of poverty and avoid both martyrdom and an early marriage that her family’s extreme poverty would likely impose.
The filmmakers skillfully orchestrate the various levels of their exploration, from the intimate details of Talha and Zarina’s lives to the workings of the big national picture. Date’s infectious indigenous score highlights one of the “sins” that Aziz is attempting to eradicate.