Three Films You Must See to Understand Pakistan, Its Problems
By Richard Leiby
If you’ve ever wanted to spend time in Pakistan — and let’s be honest, few among us have — there is a way to do so this weekend from the safety and comfort of Washington movie theaters. Three documentaries, related in content yet wholly unique, offer compelling reports on the country and some of its worst scourges: polio, drone strikes and extremism.
“Every Last Child” (opening Friday at the Angelika Pop-Up cinema), “Drone” (screening Friday as part of the AFI Docs film festival ) and “Among the Believers” (also at AFI Docs, Friday and Sunday) introduce us to the human beings who are often reduced to caricatures in coverage of Pakistan. In a country rent by crisis and at war with itself, the filmmakers manage to illuminate hopeful themes, showing some Pakistanis’ remarkable courage and resilience.
Having spent a year and a half in Pakistan as The Washington Post’s bureau chief in 2012-2013, I wanted to test the authenticity and journalistic rigor of all three films. I covered polio vaccination efforts similar to those shown in “Every Last Child,” reported regularly on the impact of the CIA’s remote-controlled missile strikes that are detailed in “Drone,” and saw the insidious Talibanization of the country that is explored in “Among the Believers.” Each film impressed me. I learned things.
Yes, each is emotionally difficult to watch — the needless tragedy and violence are unsparing — but Pakistan’s afflictions are not offered toward cheap ends. I recommend each of these movies.
“Every Last Child” focuses on the bravery of World Health Organization workers who slog door to door through fetid slums to persuade Pakistanis to have their children vaccinated against polio. (The paralyzing disease remains endemic only in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.) The vaccinators have been targeted for death by the Pakistani Taliban, which issued a fatwa in 2012 against vaccination until the United States stopped drone attacks that have killed children in the militant-
infested tribal areas (collateral damage well explored in “Drone”).
The film’s polio-battling heroine is a woman who continues her mission even though her niece and sister-in-law were gunned down in front of her while offering polio drops in Karachi. Army forces assist the vaccination effort, but the danger remains, infusing the film with tension. Terrorists could strike at any time.
Then there is the obdurate skepticism of Pakistanis who view polio eradication as part of a Western plot against Muslims. Bizarre conspiracy theories, promoted by extremist mullahs, link the drops to sterility in boys and the early onset of sexual maturity in girls; others see the vaccine as poisonous. The Taliban’s hideous rationale — you are killing our children with drones, so there’s no way you would want to keep them healthy — is embraced by otherwise sensible-seeming parents who refuse vaccinations for their large broods.
The health workers also face reasonable suspicion of being spies: During the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the CIA enlisted a Pakistani doctor to collect DNA through a hepatitis vaccination campaign. To powerful effect, the filmmakers contrast the refusers’ arguments with the desperation of a man seeking treatment for his stricken son and wrenching footage of the daily miseries of a man paralyzed by polio as a child.
“Drone” is a remarkable document if only for taking viewers into rarely seen North Waziristan, the virtually lawless area that has long been a haven for the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Haqqani network fighters who often travel between Pakistan and adjoining Afghanistan to attack Western troops. (Incidentally, the back and forth migration of unvaccinated families also makes polio eradication more difficult.)
The film puts faces on innocent victims through credible testimonials about wanton missile strikes. “It was a horrible day,” says a young man who survived an attack. “It felt like the end of the world.”
The United States says it strives to stem collateral damage, but “Drone” raises rule-of-law and war-crimes questions about the use of these unmanned weapons in an essentially borderless and endless battle against non-state terrorist networks.
Retired Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson , one of the most noble men of conscience in Washington (he broke with his longtime friend and boss, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, over Iraq and other issues), makes the case that drones amplify terrorism. “We’re killing a lot of innocent civilians,” he says in the movie, “and we are recruiting people to the arms of groups like . . .al-Qaeda. Tell me how we’re winning, if every time we kill four [militants] we create 10.”
The film also introduces us to former drone controllers, including one who talks convincingly of suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because of his video-game-like missions to blast people into oblivion. The operators revisit with remorse the killing they did from thousands of miles away. “You never knew who you were killing,” says one.
The third documentary, “Among the Believers,” is a must for anyone who wants to understand how fundamentalist Islam manufactures zealots who become suicide bombers and otherwise kill to glorify God. It explores what have, in Pakistan, become jihad factories: the thousands of madrassas where young Pakistani boys are sent by impoverished parents because they can’t afford to pay for regular schools (which is an abject failure of the Pakistani state).
In these boarding facilities, the boys spend endless hours memorizing the Qur'an in Arabic, told that if they master this feat, when they die, they will be able to take to heaven 10 of their relatives who would otherwise go to hell.
Students confess they have no idea what the verses mean; they just memorize them. As for the goal of their education, that’s simple: “We are mujahideen,” one says. “We kill infidels for the sake of Allah.”
The pro-Taliban cleric at the center of the film, Abdul Aziz of the Red Mosque in Islamabad, talks approvingly of molding young minds and thus setting their intolerant perspectives for life. His goal is to impose sharia law in Pakistan — also the aim of the anti-state Taliban insurgency that has cost the lives of tens of thousands of Pakistani soldiers and civilians.
The heroes here are progressive, secular Pakistanis and mainstream Muslims, such as the man who builds a village school to counter the Red Mosque’s influence. Also fighting for tolerance and pluralism are leaders of protests after the killings of more than 130 schoolchildren in Peshawar in December; they forced the government to put Aziz under house arrest after he refused to condemn the massacre.
Most movie audiences prefer to look away from places like Pakistan, except perhaps in implausible Hollywood thrillers set in stand-in countries. These three films are real, and painfully so. There is little of beauty therein; they will not make Americans want to visit our turbulent, double-dealing ally. But the documentary-makers have done an important service by visiting the difficulties of Pakistan upon us so we may see on the screen, in the swathing cool and dark, these instructive, heartbreaking and even uplifting stories.
(Richard Leiby is a senior writer in Post’s Style section. His previous assignments have included Pakistan Bureau Chief, and reporter, columnist and editor in Washington. He joined The Post in 1991.- Courtesy Washington Post)