Pakistan Bans SXSW Title ‘I’ll Meet You There’ for ‘Negative Image of Muslims,’ Director Speaks Out (EXCLUSIVE)

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Pakistan’s Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC) has banned Pakistani-American filmmaker Iram Parveen Bilal’s “I’ll Meet You There” a week ahead of its scheduled theatrical release in the country.

The CBFC found the film unsuitable for public exhibition on the grounds that it “does not reflect true Pakistani culture, portrays a negative image of Muslims” and is against the “social and cultural values of Pakistan.” The CBFC has refused to grant a censorship certificate on these grounds.

The film was selected for SXSW’s narrative feature competition in 2020 before the spread of the coronavirus pandemic forced the festival’s cancelation. Mini-studio Level Forward acquired North American virtual theatrical rights and impact distribution privileges for the film and rolled it out in 2021.

A portrait of three generations of a Muslim-American family, “I’ll Meet You There” follows Majeed, a Chicago policeman, and his teenage daughter Dua, a gifted ballerina, who are unexpectedly visited by Baba, Majeed’s long-estranged father from Pakistan. Majeed is given a career-making opportunity that he can’t turn down, but it requires him to use his father’s help to gain access to the local mosque, while Dua, under Baba’s guidance, begins to question her passion for dance.

The cast includes Faran Tahir (“Iron Man”), Nikita Tewani, Muhammad Qavi Khan, Sheetal Sheth (“Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World”), Shawn Parsons (“Palomino & Swissy”), Andrea Cirie, Nitin Madan (“Brown Nation”), Michael Pemberton, Samrat Chakrabarti (“The Sinner”) and Rachit Trehan.

Bilal, who made her feature debut with the acclaimed “Josh” that played the international festival circuit in 2013, said in a statement: “I’ve been mulling over the decision by the Central Board of Film Censors, calling our film ‘I’ll Meet You There’ a ‘negative image of Muslims.’ A film that was made with blood, sweat and tears by a Muslim, financed by Muslims and made in the face of a post 9/11 world and a Trump presidency; a film whose very purpose was to combat Islamophobia and to create a positive portrayal of Muslims. A film already released abroad and celebrated widely by the Muslim Pakistani diaspora and seen as a needed and humanized representation of our people. How could that intention be reframed so oppositely and so negatively?”

“I feel the answer lies in the direction of the belief that ‘Muslims’ and ‘Pakistanis’ are not a monolith, that they are a living, breathing, agreeing, disagreeing body of people who happen to identify with the same faith and/or nationality. So, then who really gets to decide what an aligned or misaligned value system is, when the value system itself is not a single presentation but a spectrum of values; of erring human beings, growing and adjusting to life and its complex challenges, one day at a time,” Bilal said.

“I respectfully disagree that there is just one notion of what Pakistan and Pakistani values are. When we ask the diaspora to contribute and donate, when we even care to enable them to vote in elections, then we should also include their troubles, identity struggles and issues as ‘Pakistani.’ Let’s please end the elitism that a nation or religion can only belong to a select few. Such fearful silencing is not the way forward for a country that is vibrantly developing in population, promise and identity. We as artists have a responsibility to showcase and provoke thought, to inspire and engage with a society that is equally provoking and expanding,” Bilal added.

Tahir said: “It is disheartening, disappointing and shameful that issues that Pakistani ex-pats face in their lives are trivialized and labeled as ‘not reflecting true Pakistani culture.’ We, Pakistanis, represent our country with love and pride every day while living in foreign lands. We do this to support our families and loved ones. We do this to support our country financially and in every other way. We do this with nothing but love for our country and yet to be cast aside by our very own is deeply hurtful.’

Tewani added: “In a time where the world is so fragmented, so separated based on everyone’s individual political and social beliefs, it is refreshing to see a film like ‘I’ll Meet You There,’ a work of art, about people persuading each other to see the world the way they do, and eventually meeting someplace in the middle. To make any sweeping judgments about any one mindset present in the film is to misinterpret it, to see it from a narrow perspective instead of the big picture, when in fact, no one is right and no one is wrong. That’s where they meet.”

Full statement from Iram Parveen Bilal:

“From being a government-celebrated Physics whiz kid to being a filmmaker whose film has been banned, my relationship with Pakistan is complicated, like the best of relationships usually are. The very intellect that was celebrated in a starry-eyed, eagerly questioning kid is now being shunned in the now grown woman who dares to ask difficult questions and encourages dialogue. My latest film, “I’ll Meet You There” was banned by the Pakistan federal censor board; a week ahead of our intended premiere. No cuts suggested, no dialogue with the filmmaking team, just straight up…banned. This is a film that has already had a tumultuous journey in the wake of the lockdown-induced cancellation of its SXSW 2020 competition premiere. And then, this. Another highly anticipated premiere was cancelled within a week of its due date. But this one feels more personal and painful in a deeper way.

I’ve been mulling over the decision by the Central Board of Film Censors, calling our film “I’ll Meet You There” a “negative image of Muslims”. A film that was made with blood, sweat and tears by a Muslim, financed by Muslims and made in the face of a post 9/11 world and a Trump presidency; a film whose very purpose was to combat Islamophobia and to create a positive portrayal of Muslims. A film already released abroad and celebrated widely by the Muslim Pakistani diaspora and seen as a needed and humanized representation of our people. How could that intention be reframed so oppositely and so negatively?

I feel the answer lies in the direction of the belief that “Muslims” and “Pakistanis” are not a monolith, that they are a living, breathing, agreeing, disagreeing body of people who happen to identify with the same faith and/or nationality. So, then who really gets to decide what an aligned or misaligned value system is, when the value system itself is not a single presentation but a spectrum of values; of erring human beings, growing and adjusting to life and its complex challenges, one day at a time.

In the grief of losing our potential homeland audiences, I’ve been grappling about who exactly is the audience of my generation of independent filmmakers, daring to make authentic and brave stories, garnering no infrastructural support, struggling for years to finance and make films and then finally facing brutal censorship and if they are lucky, mafia-esque distribution terms in various countries? Who is really watching our films? Who are we taking on these monumental fights for?

The increasingly vivid and exciting observation seems to be that our audiences are a growing identity of hyphenated nationalities that reflect a world more global than we want to admit. From Pakistanis to the Pakistani diaspora, from mixed kids to kids that have nothing to do with Pakistan, to cultures farthest from ours. And this realization arrives with a bit of relief. For isn’t this the ultimate goal? To have our stories be so complex and human that they speak to many beyond the niche; that they bring us together, rather than tear us apart?

Then, who are we really “protecting” by censoring our own films, calling them misaligned with Pakistani culture when yet again the Pakistani culture we seem to witness is not a unique representation but a range from the most liberal scenes that would put a Parisian nightclub to shame to the most expected conservative scenes in religious buildings? And whose minds are we shielding when these very minds have access to everything at the tip of their smartphones? And lastly, let’s be clear, everything that shows on the big screen in Pakistani cinemas doesn’t necessarily align with Pakistani values as perhaps perceived in this case of disagreement; then why are those let through?

I respectfully disagree that there is just one notion of what Pakistan and Pakistani values are. When we ask the diaspora to contribute and donate, when we even care to enable them to vote in elections, then we should also include their troubles, identity struggles and issues as “Pakistani”. Let’s please end the elitism that a nation or religion can only belong to a select few. Such fearful silencing is not the way forward for a country that is vibrantly developing in population, promise and identity. We as artists have a responsibility to showcase and provoke thought, to inspire and engage with a society that is equally provoking and expanding.

Finally, last time I checked, knowledge-seeking and educated dialogue is very much a taught and treasured Muslim value and tradition.”