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Terrors in the lives of the children

11 March 2016

Stephen Brown views cinema releases


THE makers of Among the Believers couldn’t afford a BBFC certification; so it’s doing the rounds as “Advised 18”. Details of the Taliban’s December 2014 massacre of 132 schoolchildren in Peshawar certainly warrant it.

The directors, Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi, try hard to provide an impartial view of Pakistan’s radical jihadist leader Maulana Abdul Aziz, whose teachings are blamed for this atrocity. The Red Mosque and its madrasahs train thousands of children to understand jihad in terms of “freedom fighters”. Links with Osama bin Laden and IS are made clear.

Aziz’s parents and son were murdered with, he claims, the co-operation of United States agents protecting Western ideological interests. Aziz yearns for Pakistan, and ultimately the whole world, to be ruled under sharia law.

The film introduces Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, a nuclear physicist and educational reformer. As far as Aziz’s followers are concerned, jihad involves violent contention with Islam’s enemies, including moderate Muslims, whereas Hoodbhoy takes the same line as Muhammad, who after one battle, is believed to have said: “We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad; the struggle against the evil of one’s soul.” Historically, however, it would seem that Islam has mainly favoured Aziz’s interpretation.

Aziz is now under house arrest; but that doesn’t necessarily impede an idea whose time has come.

The film also follows two separate 12-year-olds. Talha was brought up in a relatively liberal home. He is drawn to Red Mosque teachings, becoming a jihadi preacher. Zarina, a girl, does the opposite. She escapes from the madrasah to receive a more standard education. Schools she attends are regularly targeted by the Taliban. Further puncturing of her dreams of liberty and self-fulfilment comes via her family. A final caption tells us that, after an arranged marriage, she now has a child.

My great temptation throughout this film was to tut-tut not just at Islamic radicalism, but even some less extreme Muslim practices. But then I began feeling rather uncomfortable. Our own civilisation has been shaped by a state inextricably linked to religious institutions that frequently did some terrible things in the name of God. Even today, a so-called secular society, in throwing off certain religious shackles, has embraced ideologies and practices that may be regarded as equally oppressive. If Aziz’s followers are prepared to sacrifice countless innocent lives in a greater cause, then so do we in the West. William Blake’s words ring true: “He who would do good to another must do it in minute particulars. General good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer.”


THE film Goodnight Mommy (Cert. 15) begins with the Family von Trapp singing “Tomorrow if God deems You’ll wake from your dreams”. For “dreams” read “nightmares”.

In modern-day Austria, Elias and Lukas (played by Elias and Lukas Schwarz) run harum-scarum in beautiful countryside. They return home to a woman (Susanne Wuest) whose face is covered in bandages. She is strict and sharp with them to the point where the boys begin to doubt whether beneath the dressings this person really is the sweet mother they once knew.

The German title is Ich seh, Ich seh, meaning “I see, I see.” In much of the film, we are seeing double. There is the children’s point of view, and the woman’s. Which do we believe?

It is a Christian home with a crucifix above the boys’ beds. Hymns are sung or played, one of which has lines to the effect that God sees and loves them. That may be so; but the nagging feeling throughout the film is that we are not sharing in this divine vision of who any of them truly are.

Removing the bandages increases doubts. The boys escape, and pray for guidance at a wayside cross before seeking out their parish priest. We don’t witness the conversation they have, only that, without revealing his intentions, he drives them home. Is this betrayal of the trust justifiable? Would anyone in his position feel able to do otherwise?

It is a contemporary issue, not just for Austrians in the wake of the Fritzl case, where a father imprisoned his daughter for decades, but for us, too, as we contemplate how abuse claims of minors were frequently ignored.

The woman says to the priest: “It was all a bit much. The accident. The separation.” It may be a reference to the father, who is never mentioned, and/or her hospitalisation. There follows a dramatic turning of several tables. It is enough to say (in contrast with films such as Fight Club or The Book of Eli, with which there are parallels) that the twists and turns can be accused of dishonesty. What we have seen with our own eyes is confounded far from convincingly.

Lullabies begin and end the picture, inducing an almost biblical sense that we may see truth more clearly in our dreams. But we have to awaken, and what do we do, if anything, about our night visions?

Goodnight Mommy provides no answers to that. Veronika Franz, one of the directors and writers, co-wrote the screenplay of Paradise: Love (2012), which examined how far what passes for love is commensurate with our belief in heaven. This time, sight alone proves not enough for faith to prosper, without ever suggesting what else may be required.

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