By Maliha Rehman
An Emmy nomination is no small feat but even before filmmaker Mohammed ‘Mo’ Ali Naqvi’s documentary Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror was recognized in the Outstanding Politics and Government Documentary category, it had already been winning accolades. Streaming out on Netflix , the series was slotted in the top 10 viewed on the OTT platform last year. A very varied audience loved it, running the gamut from Kim Kardashian to Stephen King.
Mo must have been expecting a nod from the Emmys?
“I couldn’t allow myself to be presumptuous but it definitely felt great to be recognized by your peers,” says the Pakistani-Canadian filmmaker who has many more thought-provoking documentaries to his credit as well as fictional films.
Back in 2006, Mo narrated the story of Mukhtaran Mai in the hard-hitting Shame. Gang-raped in her native village, Mukhtaran’s quest for justice was fraught with difficulties. Shame told her story or rather, in Mo’s words, ‘celebrated her heroism’. “Filming Shame had been eye-opening,” he says. “From the time when Mukhtaran was raped to when she finally got justice, her village changed. People began to think differently. Mukhtaran’s story may be a painful one but it is also is a positive one.”
Since its release, Shame has been the recipient of multiple awards including a Television Academy Honor and an Amnesty International Award. Mo’s other notable documentaries includes 2017’s Insha’Allah Democracy, capturing the Pakistani electoral climate, and 2014’s Pakistan’s Hidden Shame, narrating the harrowing circumstances faced by Peshawar’s street children.
Speaking of Pakistan’s Hidden Shame, Mo recalls, “Making the documentary was very traumatic, to trail after these children and show the abuse and violence that they endure daily. We interviewed Imran Khan while filming and when he saw it, he found it heartbreaking. It prompted him to initiate plans for Zamang Kor, a project that endeavors to provide refuge to the street children of Peshawar. If I had inspired him in even the smallest way, I feel that it is an achievement.”
There are other documentaries where Mo, given his Pakistani origins, treads tricky territory. 2015’s Among The Believers explores the training of young boys into becoming Islamic militants. 2020’s The Accused: Damned or Devoted? told the story of Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s mission to keep the blasphemy law intact in Pakistan. Topics revolving around religion tend to incite strong reactions within Pakistan. Also, even though Mo’s many achievements and the respect that he gets internationally is impressive, there are many within Pakistan who feel that documentary filmmakers like him sell their country out to the West, by telling stories that depict Pakistan as a criminal, uncouth land of extremists.
How does he feel when people from his home-country consider him a traitor? “The medium of the documentary requires the filmmaker to abide by truth and accountability. My job is to tell a story as truthfully as I can, without any fabrications. There are documentary-makers all over the world who are hated for the same reason, because they capture events the way they really are.”
Mo continues, “I also sometimes feel that the people who protest against my work don’t make the effort to actually go and see it. I remember that a group of Pakistani activists were protesting against my documentary Insha’Allah Democracy in London. The activists had sent out a petition trying to get my film banned claiming that the film glorified military rule even though they themselves had not seen it. Had they seen the film first, they would have had known that Insha’Allah Democracy was critical of military rule and actually advocated Pakistan’s journey towards democracy.”
“Human Rights Watch, the group that was hosting the screening, issued a statement that the film, in fact, will ‘remind people about Musharraf’s abuses and jumpstart a conversation about addressing them … Musharraf’s answers to Naqvi’s questions provide a rare insight into the dictator’s mind. But it should not be confused with glorifying Musharraf.”
“Ironically, the activist group advocating democracy was also trying to censor my film and silence me, much like a dictator,” points out Mo.
Similarly, even in the case of the Emmy-nominated Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror, there are commentators on social media who simply assume that Mo will be telling a story that sympathizes with the U.S.A. They dismiss the documentary, without seeing it and the post 9/11 narrative that it follows.
Does this make Mo feel disillusioned sometimes? “Change doesn’t happen overnight,” he says. “Maybe 20, 30 years ago no one would even be willing to call out injustices. I do want people to see my work before they complain but my primary motive is to bring about change however I can.”
Shortly before the Emmy nomination came his way, Mo was also enlisted as part of the selection committee of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences – that is, the Oscars. “It is a lovely affirmation and a privilege to be accepted and appreciated by your peers,” he says.
“The members of the selection committee are usually assessed and selected if other members feel that they fulfill certain requirements. In the case of documentary filmmakers, they need to have had done a substantial amount of work, their films should have been impactful, their work should have had been nominated at some point or it needs to be of the same caliber as that of other nominated films. Also, the member’s films should have had theatrical releases and some of my films have released in the UK and the USA.”
The 74th Emmy Awards are going to take place this September and the Oscars, next year. Does Mo have an acceptance speech ready in case his film wins at the Emmy’s? “It’s still a ways away. I wouldn’t be presumptuous. It’s just an honor being nominated,” he says.
An honor, indeed. The latest in the many that Mo has received throughout his stellar filmmaking career.
What do you think?