Former CPH:DOX winner Mohammed Ali Naqvi returns to Copenhagen (at least in spirit) with The Accused, a film about the febrile debate raging in Pakistan over its blasphemy laws.
Pakistani filmmaker Naqvi initially turned down a BBC Storyville suggestion to make a film about blasphemy on the basis that the subject was too taboo, and “a dangerous topic to even explore.”
What changed his mind was the 2017 shutdown of the Pakistan capital Islamabad led by the cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, leader of the ultra-religious TLP party, after the passing of an electoral oath amendment which was seen as a move to undermine country’s blasphemy laws. (We are told in the film that when the blasphemy law was introduced by the British in the 19th Century, the maximum sentence for offenders was 10 years imprisonment. In 1986 the maximum sentence was upgraded to the death penalty.)
“Immediately there was a pushback, and he [Rizvi] led it, and this small fringe group was so successful he not only got the law minister to resign, he shut down the whole city, got parliament to rescind the amendment, and he and his supports even got money as reparation,” says Naqvi. “So it really was incredible that this man, basically this despot, was able to strong arm our government like that.”
“I really wanted to call him out and that’s kind of what made me decide to go make this film,” he adds.
Naqvi’s film follows the stories of four people accused of blasphemy, most prominent of whom is the Christian Asia Bibi who was tried and sentenced to death in 2010, before her eventual acquittal in 2018. It was a case which took on a global significance after two popes (Benedict XV1 and Francis) called for charges to be dismissed. The film also follows closely the 2018 Pakistan election and how the blasphemy law was used as a vote winner by the competing parties.
Naqvi points out that he wanted to be “as brutally neutral as possible” in presenting his film. “It was an editorial lens that was kind of safe for me to pursue in the sense that usually you would make a film featuring victims… but I was getting the opportunity to show the other side as well as to let him [Rivzi] have his say,” he comments.
He also concedes that the cleric can be “very, very charming” and at times “resembles a Bond villain”, and therefore also “scary and sociopathic.”
“Ultimately, we feel that we have been pretty successful in trying to achieve [objectivity] because ultimately what we wanted was people in Pakistan who support the blasphemy law to be able to see it and say ‘yes, they represented that side, fine’, and the people who support the victims, they can see the film and add their reaction.”
“I think it was really important to try and keep our subjectivity as much as possible out of it,” Naqvi concludes.