How my brush with the Pakistani censor board opened my eyes to its warped system

“These films portray Pakistan as a failed state,” a representative of an intelligence agency said very accusingly to me.

The year was 2015. We were sitting in a sombre room on the premises of the Federal Censor Board in Islamabad, where the intelligence representative, along with his fellow intelligence colleagues, a couple of civil society members, and political party representatives, were pre-screening three documentaries: Hemal Trivedi and Mo Naqvi’s Among the Believers, Asef Ali Mohammad’s Besieged in Quetta and Doya, a thesis film by NCA’s Kashif Raza Toori about spiritual rituals in FATA.

These documentaries were supposed to feature at the 2nd annual FACE Film Festival in Islamabad in that year, of which I was the director and programmer.

Our venue, the PNCA, told us that we had to get the No Objection Certificates (NOC) issued for all the movies and documentaries.

This was when I came in contact with the Censor Board, and the whole experience opened my eyes to the mind-numbing banalities of censorship in Pakistan.

This was the second screening; on the first occasion, the board had refused to issue the NOCs for Among the Believers and Besieged in Quetta. For Doya, we were asked to cut some scenes that exhibited glass eating practice, a request that the filmmaker very rightly rejected.

I filed an appeal after the initial screening, and the board’s chairman agreed to arrange a second screening with different referees. To me, he continued to express his support for these films and promised to help us. I was allowed to meet the new judges and discuss the issues they had with the films.

But as soon as I walked in for the second screening, the people in the room looked at me like I was the devil herself. Once the proceedings commenced, the chairman, who had previously expressed his support, began attacking the films.

All the films were labeled ‘anti-state’. The main objection against Besieged in Quetta was that it did not discuss “who was actually behind the violence against Hazaras,” namely everyone’s favourite scapegoats in Pakistan, “India and Israel”.

It was lost on the reviewers that this film avoids going into the politics directly and only details the suffering of a people.

“All my arguments fell on deaf ears. When I finally let the words ‘freedom of speech’ escape my mouth, the board laughed in my face.”

Their problem with Among the Believers — a film that had been screened across the world and won numerous awards — was equally infuriating.

It posits a rather uncontroversial thesis: young children in Pakistan are enrolled in madrassahs, where they are provided with food and shelter, due to the very simple reasons of poverty and state neglect. It also features Lal Masjid cleric Abdul Aziz.

The film only tells what everyone in the country already knows, but for the gentlemen in the room, not only was it ‘distorting’ Pakistan’s image, but that Lal Masjid was also a ‘dead issue’.

All my arguments fell on deaf ears. When I finally let the words ‘freedom of speech’ escape my mouth, the board laughed in my face. The fact is that the room was lost to me even before I entered it.

Among the Believers, a documentary on the Lal Masjid network of madarassahs across Pakistan, was banned in late April last year in the country.
Among the Believers, a documentary on the Lal Masjid network of madarassahs across Pakistan, was banned in late April last year in the country.

Among the Believers is now on Netflix and anyone with a subscription in Pakistan can watch. What we lost out on was what film festivals are meant to provide: an opportunity to engage with films and filmmakers as a community and a chance for a more diverse set of people (our festival audience comprised many students from local universities and colleges) to come together in discussion about how we can correct our failings.

One year later, the same chairman was invited to Atiqa Odho’s film conference in Karachi to participate in a panel discussion about the role of the Censor Board in our industry.

As most panel discussions go, it was an inane set of exclamations from all those involved. The chairman notably made multiple claims of how liberal his office was and how eager he was to help and work with filmmakers.

Needless to say, during the discussion I was vocal against him and his office. When I met him outside that hall, he seemed to be very upset but said that in his heart he knew I was right.

He pleaded innocence since, according to him, his hands were tied. All orders came from “upstairs.” I asked him why he couldn’t then sit on that stage and be honest. He had no answer.

This blog is part of a series of articles on young Pakistani filmmakers, run collaboratively by Images and Dawn blogs. The aim of the series is to explore the dynamics of the country’s film industry from the standpoint of upcoming filmmakers. Read the first part here.


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