Three of the 2015 Tribeca Fest films take on the difficult topic of terrorism. Two are feature-length documentaries, and the third is — believe it or not — a comic narrative short.
“Among the Believers” is a chilling documentary in which filmmakers Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi were given unprecedented access to Abdul Aziz Ghazi, a cleric in Pakistan who is waging jihad against the Pakistani state. He wants to force Shariah law on everyone in Pakistan and, actually, the world. Footage includes interviews with Ghazi and scenes at his main madrassah (Islamic seminary), which was leveled by the Pakistani government in 2007.
We also get the stories of two 12-year-old students who have attended the madrassah. One decides to become a jihadi preacher, which means leaving his moderate Muslim family behind. The other is a girl (I was surprised that the madrassah was even schooling girls) who escaped the madrassah and has joined a regular school that is in constant threat from those who feel it is too liberal. We see the boys memorizing the Quran while admitting that they don’t really understand what they’re learning.
The film also includes interviews with Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, who has waged his own kind of war against fundamentalist Islamic factions, although his weapons are words in his lectures and media appearances.
In one scene, we see archival footage of Ronald Reagan shaking the hands of Islamic freedom fighters, and they say that America later abandoned them. We also learn that the madrassah offers the students free room and board, which is an irresistible offer for poor families who struggle to feed their children, many of whom come from Kashmir.
In a particularly disturbing moment in the film, Ghazi says they must fight against “vulgarity, indecency, and music.” Music and any kind of experience of joy is put in the same category as vulgarity.
What motivated the filmmakers to pursue this subject? Producer/director Hemal Trivedi lost a friend in the Mumbai, India terrorist attacks of 2008. Director Mohammed Ali Naqvi says he read the Quran when he was a child but, like the children in the film, had no idea what he was reading. In the notes provided to press about the film, he is quoted as saying, “What I knew of Islam was filtered through maulanas (clerics), and I found their teachings limited and shallow.” He eventually moved to New York and personally witnessed the attacks of 9/11, which he says forced him to face his own religious narrative.
“(T)Error” is a scathing documentary by Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe about a Muslim FBI informant. According to the film, the FBI has wrongfully accused a number of Muslims in the U.S. of terrorism based on little evidence and even entrapment.
In the course of filming, we see a Muslim who fears he will be targeted, and then, we see him experience just that, as he is taken into custody. The film contends that he did talk about the training of Al Qaeda operatives but never actually did anything.
The film also shows that the life of an informant is pretty awful. The FBI doesn’t care about his well-being, and once he’s found out, he becomes an outcast among his own people.
It’s hard to imagine that a film could take a lighthearted approach to the subject matter in “(T)Error,” but that’s exactly what the short narrative film, “Rita Mahtoubian is Not a Terrorist,” manages to do. Poor Rita is just trying to be more popular, so she tries to peroxide her hair and take up the hobby of gardening.
When she botches the dye job and buys a bit too much peroxide and a bit too much fertilizer for her plants … well, you can see where this is going. Yes, the FBI begins to think she might be building bombs. Luckily, her FBI agent figures out that she isn’t a terrorist. This cute short by Roja Gashtili and Julia Lerman stars Della Saba and Patrick Fugit.
Melanie Votaw is a New York City-based freelance writer and the author of 15 non-fiction books. She’s a former actress/singer/dancer who started performing at age 4 and now loves to write about film, TV, and theater.