A notice from the Central Board of Film Censors issued earlier this week had the organisers of Islamabad's FACE Film Festival scrambling at the last minute to fill holes in their schedule: two documentary films that were meant to be screened at the festival were deemed "unsuitable for public exhibition," while a third documentary was pulled by its producer after the CBFC advised that cuts be made to his film before it was screened.
The FACE Film Festival, spearheaded by the Foundation for Arts, Culture & Education (which also organised 2015's Music Mela), is a two-day affair dedicated to filmmaking from Pakistan being held this weekend. Since this is the festival's first year, it's a relatively small celebration, which means the absence of three films is definitely a blow.
"It's been difficult," admits the festival's director, Anam Abbas. "I hand-picked all the films that were supposed to be screened here, and then two films — Among the Believers and Besieged in Quetta, were banned. I appealed the decision, and the case I presented was pretty logical: in my opinion there's nothing in these films that's anti-state in any way. But the response I got was that the films imply the state has failed to solve a lot of problems."
The CBFC's notice states that Among the Believers was found by the review panel to contain "dialogues which projects (sic) the negative image of Pakistan in the context of ongoing fighting against extremism and terrorism."
A similar justification was offered up when the board decided to ban Besieged in Quetta. "The board offered no clear reason for the ban other than the claim that it portrays 'the negative side of the country'," says the documentary's director Asef Ali Muhammed. "This is very vague, unclear reasoning."
What is it exactly about these documentaries that could've elicited this response?
What you need to know about the documentaries that were banned
Just this week the film Maalik was banned by the federal government. In that case the CBFC offered that the film's portrayal of the police and politicians, ethnic stereotyping, glorification of a former militant, mockery of the democratic voting process, and incitement to violence were all factors that motivated the decision.
The ban outraged the filmmaking community and the general public too, with many pointing out how the government has of late been policing the arts more rigorously than ever before. This latest ban drives the point home.
Directed by Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Naqvi, Among the Believers follows the lives of two children, Zarina and Talha, who have attended madrassahs run by infamous Lal Masjid cleric Abdul Aziz. During the film, their paths diverge: Talha detaches from his moderate Muslim family and decides to become a jihadi preacher while Zarina escapes her madrassah and joins a regular school. Over the next few years, Zarina's education is threatened by frequent Taliban attacks on schools like her own.
The documentary also follows Abdul Aziz closely, chronicling his quest to create his own version of an Islamic utopia. The documentary has previously been screened at the Tribeca Film Festival.
"It's a very nuanced story," says Mohammed Naqvi of the film. "In fact, I see it as a coming-of-age tale, one where you can see how the ideological divide in Pakistan is fostered and grows in childhood. We've devoted 5 years to this project, and it's very representative of Pakistan."
"I don't understand the ban, and the reasons given for it were very unclear," he continues. "One of the reasons set forth was that the documentary violates the National Action Plan, which is absurd."
The National Action Plan, adopted by the government in 2015, outlines a commitment to battling terrorism and extremism in Pakistan.
Among the Believers does touch on the very real tug-of-war that Pakistan faces when trying to combat extremism: for example, Naqvi's documentary points out how Abdul Aziz generates support by proving free food and services to poor families who often don't have any one else to depend on. "These are all things the government should be doing," Naqvi says.
But is that grounds for censure?
For its part, Besieged in Quetta, is about how the city suffers through constant violence and terrorism, and it examines closely the losses suffered by the Hazara community — something the government is criticised for being unable to effectively combat.
"It's a very straightforward documentary based on interviews of people who have lost their loved ones to terrorism in Quetta in the last 15 years. It doesn't fingerpoint or bring in anything that's anti-establishment," says director Asef Ali Muhammed, who himself belongs to the Hazara community.
"It's beyond my understanding why we can't reflect the reality of today's Pakistan through the medium of a documentary. Me and my community are no way anti-establishment. In fact, we are pro-establishment, because it's the only option for a small minority community like ours."
"I want to emphasise that our community should not be made out to be anti-establishment. It's not fair for people who have already suffered so much loss and trauma," he continues. "I hope to screen my film in Pakistan soon. I really would like people to see these people and hear their stories."
The official line
How does the government justify its decision to censor these documentaries?
"These documentary films, Among the Believers and Besieged in Quetta clearly flout the Motion Picture Ordinance of 1979 and the Code of Censorship, 1980," says Mobashir Hassan, Chairman of the Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC). "These laws are like the bible of censorship procedure."
"A panel arranged by the CBFC reviewed these films, they were appealed, we reviewed them again. Still, the decision to not allow these films to air was unanimous," he adds. According to the chairman, the panel that reviewed the films was "diverse" and, apart from CBFC officials, comprised "journalists and members of civil society." When asked whether it might be possible that censorship laws from the 70's or 80s are drastically outdated and need to be overhauled, the chairman replied, "There's really no need for new developments [to these laws]... these are very basic parameters."
The ban raises serious questions about how far the state will go in its quest to insulate itself from criticism.
Films are not the only medium to have come under scrutiny of late — the country awaits a decision on the controversial Cyber Crime Bill, which has been opposed by the IT industry as well as civil society for curbing human rights and giving overreaching powers to law enforcement agencies. If passed, criticising the government online could carry harsh penalties.
Spaces for dissent and healthy, constructive criticism appear to be diminishing every day.
So what does this mean for us?
Banning documentaries to safeguard Pakistan's interests or protect the state is a highly suspect endeavor, and not just because it negates free expression.
When Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy's recent documentary A Girl in The River won an Oscar earlier this year Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was prompted to issue a statement condemning honour killing. Later, the documentary was screened for the first time in Pakistan in the PM House, which was lauded as a huge breakthrough for human rights in Pakistan.
In this case, a documentary film led to real steps being taken by the government against honour killing, even if it was a simple pledge to eradicate the practice. It is an example where raising awareness through documentary filmmaking leads to tangible good. Could bans like the above diminish the small steps we're making towards progress?
"It is very worrying and dangerous that we can screen our work in America, at the Tribeca Film Festival but we can't screen it in front of a Pakistani audience," says Naqvi. "How are we supposed to raise awareness, get our message across?"
Additional reporting by Mehreen Hasan