Updated Apr 30, 2016 05:04pm

Pakistan's banning spree continues as two documentaries axed for 'negative portrayals'

Screengrab from 'Besieged in Quetta' - Image courtesy Asef Ali Mohammed's Facebook page
Screengrab from 'Besieged in Quetta' - Image courtesy Asef Ali Mohammed's Facebook page

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.

Also read: Censor board speaks up, says Maalik ban was initiated by film viewers

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

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Comments (42) Closed



Harmony-1© Apr 30, 2016 05:02pm

These rulers are ruling with impunity...refusing to budge against Panama Leaks and now bans at whim!

a Apr 30, 2016 05:06pm

Isn't that Central Board for film Certification ?

Abdullah Cheema Apr 30, 2016 05:26pm

How can we improve the state of the nation if we keep banning films that present our failures or weaknesses as a people.

Naseem Altaf Apr 30, 2016 05:32pm

Apparently both the films show factual life in Pakistan. If it shows a negative image to the viewers,it is simply because of the ugliness of ( those aspects of) the reality. We should have the courage to accept the facts and strive to correct the situation. Censoring facts did not help Gestapo, Gen Pinochet, or the KGB of very recent Soviet Union ; will it help us?

Mahmood Apr 30, 2016 06:29pm

This government is clearly petrified of people of Pakistan getting any ideas from these movies to about thge level of endemic corruption in the country, lest they seek a change.

Skeptic Apr 30, 2016 06:31pm

Next? Close all cinemas, shut down TV broadcast, cut off internet access, censor newspapers?

Welcome to North Korea.

XulfiAli Apr 30, 2016 06:36pm

Banned coz of Violation of National Action Plan........ The Government is violating NAP, they should BAN the Government too

M.Malik Apr 30, 2016 06:36pm

I suspect NS will commission a foreign movie producer to make an upbeat movie only highlighting the handful of accomplishments of his government.

Election 2018 season is about to begin in Pakistan.

white noise Apr 30, 2016 06:38pm

and we say Russia is bad, or India is bad or Saudis, our Govt is no different now, they want people to remain un-educated on social and political issues.

XulfiAli Apr 30, 2016 06:39pm

The Hazara community gets killed, targeted, bombed, no body cares. They stage silent sit ins in freezing temperatures with coffins of their loved ones, no one comes to even listen.

Now they cant even raise their voice over it in NATIONAL INTEREST

amin Apr 30, 2016 07:11pm

Banning a book or a film had the opposite effect

Razi Apr 30, 2016 07:12pm

So somebody is trying to hide behind the curtains, but why?

nasir siddique Apr 30, 2016 07:28pm

How about banning all news since they portray everything that happens in the country.

Usman Apr 30, 2016 07:49pm

Who is hemal trivedi and what she knew about Pakistan and its seminaries ?

Ali Vazir Apr 30, 2016 07:56pm

To these so-called Censor Board people, films like "Fikar Not", "Jawani Phir Nahin Aani", Mola Jat, "Tere bheege badan" etc represent Pakistani society and are decent and according to NAP.

AW Apr 30, 2016 07:57pm

The IT cyber law in its present form and the censorship of movies is leading Pakistan to become a state where citizen shall have no freedom of expression and no right to criticize or debate anything. If the country continues to move in the same direction, we will never become a progressive country and a respectable member of the international community

Ali Apr 30, 2016 08:28pm

Bring the banned movies to west and show the failures of Government of Pakistan.

AXH Apr 30, 2016 08:42pm

Unless the society is ready to accept the truth regardless of how ugly it may be, it will not make progress. In this particular case, it is the elite class who is afraid of getting exposed.

AdHawk Apr 30, 2016 08:53pm

How come none of this has invoked a lawsuit yet?

Adil Jadoon Apr 30, 2016 08:53pm

Despicable government, this needs to be challenged in court! We are supposed to be a democracy. Might as well bring the military back!

Hassan Parvez Apr 30, 2016 09:04pm

We are moving towards a police state. Every one is monitored, every phone call is listened, every magazine and news paper is wetted. The Shareef government is making Pakistan a mirror copy of Saudi Arabia.

Safdar Apr 30, 2016 09:54pm

Does NAP not allow freedom of expression? Govt does not want to aware people of prevailing law and order situation in country. I think Mariana aziz is so much powerful that govt. has to ban film to avoid reaction by maulana force or can not bear the pressure of his sympathizers

khanm Apr 30, 2016 11:23pm

what is next....ban on media...ban on public speeches...I m not scared by the sheep leading the lions but scared lions leading the sheeps...

amer mahmood Apr 30, 2016 11:59pm

You can only improve the state of affairs of your country by having the strength to face up to reality - The inability of the state to discuss openly and constructively, We the people can also help the state...personally the people appear to be more strong to face up to reality than the government....and we the people elected them!!!

KhanParrukh May 01, 2016 12:17am

I was at the festival and for me it was an eye opener especially Mina Walking. We need such thought provoking media in a country where it's fast becoming difficult to tell the right from the wrong. Hats off to the organisers. Im yet to understand how the sensor board allows all Pakistani channels to air Indian content and ban patriotic movies like Maalik.

Rahi milla May 01, 2016 02:39am

Pakistan is in a state of war. Freedom of press reporting and documentaries therefore have to be curtailed to maintain order and discipline. Once the war is over and enemy defeated, then it's a different matter. Imbedded journalist with any army of the world are not allowed to report everything. They are heavily censored and scrutinised. Same goes for mass media working in a stat at war. Therefore liberal tree-Hugers should not jump up and down from their high horses.

Sachin May 01, 2016 02:50am

In India anyone can protest and create a movement against govt or intolerance acts etc. The govt has to stand and defend. Plenty of films and books and articles in India portraying the other side about Kashmir or communalism or caste system etc . in Pakistan, Army stooges in govt crush anything that is not convenient. Period. No films, no freedom of expression from the other side .

Joe FL May 01, 2016 03:41am

Just one view from the USA. Every time I think there is hope for Pakistan's democracy, something like this in the news comes along and dashes that hope to pieces.

We are not perfect, but we treasure our freedom of expression. Like this one written here. Humans should not be pressed to shrink, but encouraged to grow.

May 01, 2016 04:04am

Shameful. Govt. responsible for keeping Pakistan in dark ages. People should rise against forced repression, if not for themselves then for their future generations.

someone May 01, 2016 06:14am

Pakistan is a Fascist country with no freedom of expression. Pakistan is following its "iron brother" at least in this area.

Qamar Valliani May 01, 2016 08:08am

Anything which glomourise terrorism should be banned.

Powrr May 01, 2016 08:32am

Any don't we people have the power to reject what the committee says. Where is the power? Why is very very small subset of people in charge can influence what the mass can see.

Thanks to the information age, if they ban the film in cinema, they should release the movie on Facebook. I want to see them ban Facebook to show how Backward the government is.

Salahud din May 01, 2016 09:19am

These corrupt leadears scared that what will happen if these films will screen because these corrupt leaders fails to provide security for the country man. These so called leaders promote the religious extremism in every time which we have today, that promote the ideology of one group. We should get rid of these peoples.

Baaligh May 01, 2016 09:45am

@Skeptic : "Next? Close all cinemas, shut down TV broadcast, cut off internet access, censor newspapers?" And.....and electronic media be ordered to stop discussing the Panama leaks and also stop all other such programme / talk shows etc where failure and weaknesses of rulers are discussed / exposed as is the practice in Saudia and all Arab monarchies etc. Why should the masses know about wrong doings of rulers ?

khi1991 May 01, 2016 10:06am

Ban everything that expose them in the Name of Negative Image of Pakistan and Saving Democracy

vaqas May 01, 2016 11:42am

The censor law of 79 and 80. The era of the most morally corrupt dictator to ever ravage the country. Laws made in Zia the hutts regime need automatic nullification without the slightest need of any review of the letter.

sudhir May 01, 2016 02:50pm

Your government is no different than the governments we have had in India. They all want to run a nanny state.

NASAH(USA) May 01, 2016 10:38pm

Still Pakistan is no Turkey.

Irfan Jafri May 02, 2016 12:25am

Clearly those in the Censor board are of small minds, petty outlook on life with zero interest in the country' s image and minus qualification to be in the Censor board. Likely Government minions as everywhere. Such stupidities as banning of MAALIK and this documentary, ARE THE VERY acts projecting the real negative images. And by the way, pl do not worry your concerned beings with the image of Pakistan. It is not going to be  saved or resurrected any time soon with more idiocy like banning films. On the contrary please work to somehow ensure that more critical films ARE made, and then you the censor board, have the sagacity and enlightenment to pass those movies. That, dear sirs, will be the beginning of restoration of Pakistan's positive image - and you would have

Abbas May 02, 2016 06:07am

Denial doesnot change reality. If we are brave enough we should face it. Our sentiments is already hurt alot from terrorism a film wont effect more!

javed May 07, 2016 04:07am

Another attempt to hide sufferings of real Pakistanis by people living in lofty castles, the privileged elite! Rang laiy ga shaheedon ka lahu!

HeWhoMustNotBeNamed May 07, 2016 12:03pm

@Skeptic Exactly. It seems that having an opinion will also be a punishable offence in the near future. Anybody standing up or speaking up for the downtrodden is labelled a 'subversive'. Every aspect of our lives is being monitored. Everybody knows who it is.