Pakistani-American documentary filmmaker and political activist Mohammad Ali Naqvi’s Primetime Emmy-nominated film The Accused: Damned or Devoted? has been called a “scarily acute portrait of how religion and politics intersect” by the U.K.’s Telegraph.
Nominated for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking, the film is an explicit account of the rise of cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who has been on a mission to preserve Pakistan’s blasphemy laws that prescribe an inescapable death sentence for disrespecting the Prophet Muhammad, and life imprisonment for disgracing the Holy Quran.
In the film, Naqvi explores the cases of several people who have either been of accused of blasphemy or who have opposed the blasphemy laws – a group that includes Christian minorities, liberals, and opposing moderate Muslim voices. The WORLD channel documentary is streaming on PBS Passport and Amazon Prime and aired on PBS stations in May.
Naqvi was recently appointed chairman of the Pakistan Academy Selection Committee (PASC), which chooses the country’s official entry for the Oscars’ Best International Film category. Speaking with Deadline, he reveals why he chose to make The Accused: Damned or Devoted?, his goals as the new chairman of PASC, what the current political climate is in Pakistan, and about taking risks to impact real change.
DEADLINE: You said you were initially hesitant about boarding The Accused: Damned or Devoted? but then you finally said yes to doing the documentary. What changed your mind?
Mo Naqvi: I was approached by BBC Storyville in the U.K. to make a film investigating the blasphemy law in Pakistan. I said, no, it’s so dangerous. The blasphemy law is a law that exists in many Muslim countries, but in Pakistan in particular, there are different provisions to it. But the really famous one that most people reference is section 295 C. Basically if you insult or indirectly disrespect the Prophet [Muhammad], you can be put to death essentially… As luck would have it, I found myself in Islamabad in October-November of 2017. I had to fly back to my hometown Karachi, but the airports got shut down because of a cleric by the name of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who also is the main subject of my documentary, the leader of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik political party – the TLP.
Their main mandate is to safeguard the blasphemy law. Our parliament had passed some legislation – it was an oath taking ceremony, which they changed the verbiage of – that was interpreted in their [TLP] eyes, as a blasphemous move – something that might eventually lead to the blasphemy law being changed. His hundreds of thousands of supporters took to the streets of Islamabad, had the whole city, our government shut down. I was like, we can’t have another insane person who has his own political ambitions using Islam to further those political ambitions. I wanted to expose him and that’s why I decided to make the film. Something just draws me to these projects. And I think that’s the activist part of me.
DEADLINE: We see some very violent and graphic clips of some of the people accused of blasphemy throughout the film. What was your thought behind including this footage in the film?
MN: I had to be careful editorially about what to show. I can show this film to a lot of his [Khadim Hussain Rizvi] supporters or him himself – although I should point out he actually died a year and a half ago because of Covid.
My objective was to be brutally neutral for the safety of my team, my producers on the ground, and myself. That is how I’m able to actually make a lot of the films that I make and embed with a lot of these precarious subjects and characters where my own life could be in danger. I maintain strict neutrality… you can see the same film and be horrified. They can see the same film and be fine with it because I haven’t added words or editorialized them in a way that’s painting an inaccurate picture. They’re fine with it because I’m representing them as is. I showed you that footage because it’s neutral. It’s literally in their eyes, they’re showing themselves as these guardians of our faith, and they are basically attacking and killing people who are damned to hell pretty much exactly like the Salem Witch Trials or even the Spanish Inquisition.
DEADLINE: There is a glimmer of hope towards the last segment of the film where the judicial system relaxed the blasphemy laws, and then when Imran Khan became Prime Minister, one of the accused, Asia Bibi, was acquitted and given asylum. What is the current situation in Pakistan now, as it relates to the severity of the blasphemy laws?
MN: There are a few different things. I would say that the blasphemy law hasn’t been relaxed at this point. We finished production almost two and a half years ago. Just earlier this year, they passed some legislation that added provisions to the blasphemy law that actually made it even stricter, where you’re not allowed to even insult the prophet’s companions. So, I would say that it’s kind of getting a little bleaker. Politically, Pakistan is in a really precarious situation. So, let’s see what happens. But the blasphemy law right now is very much there. And if you look at the blasphemy law itself, it was actually a post-colonial construct. The British had implemented it historically in South Asia, pre-partition in the early 1900s to punish people who commit “blasphemy” across religions. The death provision – its teeth kind of came relatively recently, in the 1980s under our former military dictator, General Zia-Ul-Haq, who had actually instituted the death penalty under the blasphemy law. And that’s something that we’ve had to contend with for the last few decades because of this.
DEADLINE: You were just appointed as the chairman of the Pakistan Academy Selection Committee (PASC). What are your goals in this new role?
MN: I’m very lucky to become chairman of the Pakistan Academy Selection Committee because we have a rich history of cinema, but now in more recent years, we’re seeing a lot of films from Pakistan reach the international audiences, whether it was last year through Joyland or even this year, another film that was in Cannes called In Flames.
My hope and goal is to elevate Pakistani voices and cinema to an international level and put Pakistan’s own identity and arts on the world stage. Our immediate goals are to make our official selection from Pakistan, for the foreign language/ Best International Film. I’ve put together a selection committee of people who work in the film industry and filmmakers, all from Pakistan, and we are in the process of viewing our top final films to whittle it down to one that will best represent us this year. Beyond that, I want to make this a more year-long thing where we actually involve ourselves in archiving Pakistan’s cinema and cinema history and celebrating our own filmmakers. Films in all forms – animation, documentaries, nonfiction, fiction features – they all exist within Pakistan itself. I think that’s important because we really are unsung artists, even in our own country. So that’s the goal.
DEADLINE: Joyland was Pakistan’s first feature-length film to be shortlisted for the 2023 Oscars Best International Film but didn’t get the nomination. Has the Academy fairly evaluated Pakistani films?
MN: It’s hard to say whether they’ve been fairly evaluated or not. I can’t really comment that much on it, in the sense that all these films are all available on the portal, and so all members get to see them and should see them. Of course, there’s also a huge volume of films, so to get through them takes a while. We can just hope that everyone gets a chance to see all these films. I can certainly imagine that films that people have heard of more or films that are probably promoted more will get to be seen a lot more. But I can’t comment as to whether it’s a fair process or not because as an Academy member myself, I make it a point to see all films beyond their publicity.
DEADLINE: What is the state of the Pakistani film industry? Are blasphemy laws impeding artistic creativity for filmmakers?
MN: Of course. I can give you a really good example of Zindagi Tamasha [The Circus of Life] which I believe was our official submission to the  Oscars. It’s Sarmad Khoosat’s film.
Sarmad was banned because he made a fiction film [Zindagi Tamasha] in which there was not even a direct – but an inference – in the trailer that [some interpreted as blasphemous]. And the film got banned. He wasn’t ever able to release the film in Pakistan. Just recently, he decided to release it on YouTube just so people in Pakistan could get to see it. So that shows how active censorship is. It’s a really good film, I advised a lot of people to see it.
DEADLINE: The Accused: Damned or Devoted? has received an Emmy nomination for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking. What does the nomination mean to you?
MN: I’m just really blessed and pleased that I’ve gotten this nomination. It’s a juried award, and it’s an award that also doesn’t just look at the art form, but also looks at the impact of films. So I’m really honored that a jury of my peers chose my film. And it’s in the running with other films that were actually also shortlisted for the Best Documentary Academy Award. This is one of those categories that if you make the shortlist – some of those same films carry over here. And I’m in the same company as them. This film [The Accused: Damned or Devoted?] is being shown here on WORLD Channel, which is carried by PBS Passport and PBS stations. We’re up against the channels who always sweep the Emmys, like Netflix or HBO. And in this case, we got a chance. So, I’m really honored about that.
DEADLINE: One of the rules to qualify for an Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking nomination is to submit a written statement that expresses the program’s qualifications as a Documentary Film with Exceptional Merit. What was this process like for you since it would seem you had to possibly examine and highlight the merits of your own work?
MN: When it comes to nonfiction film, historically it was always told through poverty porn –through the lens of Western colonial filmmakers, white filmmakers, just parachuting into India, Pakistan, wherever, doing their parachute journalism. One of the things that I was talking about in the making of this film is that almost 80 or 90 percent of our entire crew was indigenous –from Pakistan. We even had people from Punjab, which is where the story takes place. I think that was really important. We also had Christian minorities from Pakistan working on this film. Representation, especially when it comes to these kinds of films, is integral. It’s essential. It’s also opening up pathways for younger filmmakers to come and participate and tell their own stories. That’s one of the main things that I pushed about my film. The other thing, which we already talked about, is why I made this film. There barely are any blasphemy law films because it has been so dangerous to make. So at least me making this film might get others to be a little brave and start talking about this. Because only once we actually bring this into the collective zeitgeist and start talking about the blasphemy law will people in governments across the world or where blasphemy laws exist, actually think about bringing amendments. If I am able to bring and affect that change, as I have sometimes with some of my previous body of work, then I’ve done my job.