Published February 5, 2023
Photography by Fayyaz Ahmed
Photography by Fayyaz Ahmed

Mohammed Ali Naqvi — who goes by Mo Naqvi — is a name well-known to those who have sought to inspect Pakistan’s socio-cultural issues through the genre of film.

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) with a background in theatre, Mo unexpectedly ventured into filmmaking after 9/11 as a mode to express himself in a world that sought to immediately alienate and marginalise him.

“Before that seminal event, I never paid attention to my identity, but something like that happens and you are in New York, you become ‘otherised’ and a target of Islamophobia and racism. That is when I realised I wanted to tell stories from my home ground to a global audience,” Mo tells Icon.

Having directed many films: Shame (2006), Pakistan’s Hidden Shame (2014), Among the Believers (2015), Insha’Allah Democracy (2017) and The Accused: Damned or Devoted? (2020) to name a few, Mo offers us a unique vantage point into his subjects — one that makes us suspend our judgement of what he identifies as the ‘anti-hero’ until after we observe the subject.

Aside from producing Netflix’s Top 10 global hit 'Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror', Pakistani documentary filmmaker Mo Naqvi has won an Emmy and is also a voting member at the Oscars. But his films are not so well known in Pakistan itself. Does that bother him?

Aside from producing Netflix Original’s Top 10 global hit Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror, Mo is the first Pakistani to receive a Television Academy Honour — an elite distinction and award from the American Emmys. In addition, he also recently became a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and is one of the few filmmakers worldwide who votes in the Oscars.

In light of his many achievements, Icon asked Mo to chart out his approach to film.

Much of your corpus is centred around human rights activism. What inspires you to speak about human rights through your art?

To be honest, I didn’t necessarily choose to go into activism, at all. I knew from a very young age that I was into storytelling, and maybe it wasn’t a conscious decision on my part to tell the type of stories I wanted to tell. But yes, if you look at my body of work, it has a very distinct subject matter that I like to explore.

So activism chose me, I didn’t choose activism. There is a lot of victim-blaming in our society and we like to silence people. I guess this was an open rebellion against that in my own way.”

One of my first films was a longform feature film — a separate, more creative film genre than current affairs — called Shame, which was on Mukhtaran Mai. I met her when I was 22 years old and, at the time, like many other young filmmakers, I was interested in a hero’s arc. She was literally someone who was able to take such an immense tragedy and transform her village by making schools for children and women-crisis centres. When people say one person can make a difference, they actually can. She was a hero to me, yes, but on a more personal note, I connected with her because I am also a sexual abuse survivor.

When I made Pakistan’s Hidden Shame, I didn’t have the self-ownership, or strength, to openly talk about it, so I was using these films to be my voice. That happened to be in the activism vein, but I didn’t intend on it.

This was the most difficult film I have made, I don’t like to watch it again. I interviewed these abused boys who were stuck in terrible poverty and a toxic, patriarchal structure, of whom some became abusers [themselves]. I must admit I hoped that talking to these survivors who demonstrated their strength by talking about their experiences would help me make peace with myself. I have had an immensely more privileged life than these boys, but where I did connect was that I also suffered abuse.

So activism chose me, I didn’t choose activism. There is a lot of victim-blaming in our society and we like to silence people. I guess this was an open rebellion against that in my own way.

While most documentaries actively narrate the story of their subjects, your documentation of some events, very specifically stories and heroes, leaves the burden to the audience. Is this intended?

Creatively, I have always been a fan of observational film. There is no such thing as total objectivity, of course. If you want to hold someone accountable, I leave that to the audience. For instance, in Among the Believers, there was a knee-jerk reaction from a far-right group accusing us and threatening us because they felt we were attacking Maulana Saab [Maulana Abdul Aziz of Laal Masjid].

Then I showed the film to Maulana Saab in Laal Masjid, and recorded him watching the film. He agreed we recorded everything as per fact. I took that statement and issued it everywhere, and then the threats dissipated.

But Insha’Allah Democracy on the other hand is a first-person, political, satirical film in which I am actively narrating and framing the footage for the audience. Despite never seeing the film, a student activist group in London accused me of glorifying [Gen] Musharraf, because they felt I didn’t vilify him enough. So I would say my audience takes from my work what they will.

Your films make a commentary on our ability to engage with something objectively and disrupts our need to narrativise. Even though you say you are a storyteller, which by definition assumes someone is a villain and someone is a hero, you resist the active attempt to frame a narrative. Why?

It is about unearthing the narrative. The story is there, but it is a sculpture. You have to excavate different things in order to get that clarity. Holding up a mirror to society — that is my job.

Do you feel there even is an appetite for the kind of work you do?

I think it’s growing for non-fiction cinema locally. Globally, Pakistani non-fiction cinema has always been well received by the industry, like the Oscars and beyond. Non-fiction is becoming a part of the vernacular within Pakistan.

Do you think your documentaries have been so well-received because they, in some way, appease or resist what we identify as the ‘white gaze’ which likes to see the oppressed in a weak light?

Historically, non-fiction stories were mostly made by Westerners and structured through the ‘white gaze’. It is only within the last three decades that Pakistanis have produced their own stories and transcended the shackles of being a “fixer”. I have a problem with documentaries in the last 10 years becoming performative, in that they are pandering to the colonial, white gaze. So, I made it a point through my films, from 2012 onwards, by only focusing on people. I actually privilege the vantage point of the oppressor — Maulana Aziz, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, Musharraf, etc. I don’t feel dirty then, as there is a different power differential when I engage with such figures, as they are more powerful than me. In doing so, I don’t feel exploitative, which seems to be the case when showcasing victim narratives to satiate the colonialist’s appetite for poverty porn.

I feel like my films resist the expected narrative. For instance, when the incident happened with Mukhtaran Mai, it was actually a local cleric who took her to jail to file the police report and meet with the journalist to tell her story. I was told to exclude this because it didn’t fit the Western perception of a maulvi in this country — because anyone who is spiritual or a man of God is seen as totally misogynist and there is a Western impulse to vilify that figure. But I resisted this, by keeping to what actually happened instead of appeasing the narrative.

So, would you say you are glorifying nuance?

Well, that’s what honesty and truth is.

There is a continuity in your films. For instance, in The Accused, you just present different stories of victims who have suffered due to the blasphemy law, and move on. This framing becomes very interesting as, instead of dramatising to one story, the screen just fades black and says: hold on, there are others. Why?

[Khadim] Rizvi says that Islam actually dictates protection of minorities. But then, on the other hand, he clearly attacks minorities. Additionally, he uses religion and blasphemy against people of the same faith. Most of the victims of the blasphemy laws are actually Muslims themselves. That was very important to me to represent.

I am in no way wanting to lessen the atrocities and the bigotries that minorities like Christians and Hindus have to face in Pakistan. It is truly terrible. What does get left out in reporting on these stories, though, is that, actually, Muslims themselves are victims, too. No one in their right mind would ever really commit blasphemy in Pakistan. It just goes to show you, in the four cases that I’ve highlighted in The Accused, that blasphemy is used as a way to silence people, as a way to exact revenge, as a way to demonstrate hatred towards a minority group.

Islam is used in this unfortunate way to get people rallied up in Pakistan and get political support really quickly. Islam is used as currency in that way. That in its own right is actually kind of sacrilegious, it’s kind of going against the merit of the faith. How much people like Rizvi are willing to sacrifice for power — that is scary. That to me is perhaps most frightening.

How does your position as a member of the Pakistani diaspora affect your vantage point as someone recording a subject matter for us? Do you think the distance affects your ability to play with the nuance in your films?

I live half the year in America and half the year in Pakistan. To answer your question, yes. You are able to jump out of Pakistan and reflect by virtue of distancing yourself. Victims here are suffering from an on-going PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], there is a survivalist level of disassociation while you are here. I am an insider-outsider, which helps me think things through.

How do we enable the communal experience of consuming indie cinema?

There was a lot of that in pre-Zia days during the ’80s. A lot of that was discouraged, but it came back. Perhaps a good place to start would be reviewing our censorship laws. I have shown my films Shame and Insh’Allah Democracy here in small cultural pockets such as Cinema76, which is a makeshift cinema.

Do you think your films have a Mo Naqvi signature?

I care about the audience but not enough to sacrifice truth. On a creative level, I try to identify with my subjects. For example, Maulana Aziz was more of a wallflower, he was a placeholder for his brother, who passed away. So I identified with that self-level of shame while recording him.

Do you have any parting advice to aspiring filmmakers?

The only audience that matters is you.

The writer is an academic and a journalist.

She tweets @_safiamahmood

Published in Dawn, ICON, February 5th, 2023



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