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Life & Style

Mohammed Ali Naqvi has much to celebrate, but says job has just begun

  • 'Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror’, on which he was co-executive producer, was just nominated for an Emmy in the 'Outstanding Politics and Government Documentary' category
  • Pakistani-American filmmaker was also recently included among the 397 new invitees of Oscars, class of 2022
Published July 29, 2022

Mohammed Ali Naqvi, the Pakistani-American filmmaker and now a newly-minted member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has much to celebrate.

Naqvi has worked on award-winning titles such as ‘Insha’Allah Democracy', as producer, ‘Shame’, which he directed and produced, and ‘Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror’ on which he served as co-executive producer.

His work is known to explore themes of human rights, social justice, politics, and identity in contemporary Muslim and South Asian narratives along with taking a close look at political Islam.

'Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror’, on which he was co-executive producer, was just nominated for an Emmy in the 'Outstanding Politics and Government Documentary' category. The documentary, representing Netflix, will compete with other works from HBO, ABC and more.

Naqvi is also the recipient of two Amnesty International Human Rights Awards and a Grand Prix from the United Nations Association Festival, among other accolades.

On his recent induction into the Academy, he applauds the move towards diversity, a long time coming, and a slow and steady move towards a reckoning of sorts.

Nonetheless, Naqvi is happy to be able to represent the diaspora, and that the governing body is finally taking note of the importance of representation as well.

Moreover, he is excited about the opportunity – along with his fellow diverse inductees – to be able to represent stories that are more reflective of the global cultural zeitgeist, hopefully moving the cultural needle towards a less clichéd and stereotypical representation of the South Asian diaspora.

On the representation of South Asia in recent years, he criticises the exploitation by filmmakers of the genre of “poverty porn”, finding it entirely “mis-representative of the social ills of the global south...” terming them essentially “films made for the white gaze.”

“Representations matter, even in non-fiction. Who is telling the story matters,” he told Business Recorder in a recent interview.

Naqvi has tried to push back against this genre of film-making and storytelling by featuring saviors in our own society.

One way he hopes to do that is as a member of the Academy.

But first, a little bit about his new role.

As a member of the Academy, you actively take a role in voting for the Oscar nominations each year. But apart from that hefty task, it is also a cultural body, and the initiatives the Academy carries out each year are an exciting way to push the envelope forward, first though, by taking steps towards initiating a diverse member body.

There was a time where up until 2010, where a majority of the Academy was represented by 'old white men,' which is not representative of the population at all. On came criticism and the “OscarsSoWhite” campaign that truly put these glaring inequities into the spotlight. Things have changed since then.

On if Pakistani cinema is having a moment right now, with representation at Cannes, the first Muslim superhero with the release of Ms. Marvel, and the proliferation of the arthouse genre, he says it’s not a new feat, the only difference is that the audience – both at home and globally – are sitting up and finally taking note.

“In my opinion, Pakistani films that have both a national and international audience have always existed.

“I have to commend Jameel Dehlavi who made ‘The Blood of Hussain’ for producing one of the first few films within the arthouse genre.”

Pakistani filmmakers have been relentlessly breaking boundaries and pushing doors open for a while, he said.

“Mehreen Jabbar, Sarmad Khoosat and even myself. ‘Big River,’ a film I produced was in competition in Berlin back in 2005. Another documentary film ‘Shame’ debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival in 2006.

“All of this created small ripple effects in the industry. People began to take note. Cinema language too, has to be developed.”

Naqvi elaborated how this has been in motion for a while, and within the last two to three years, we are now finally celebrating these filmmakers.

On finding it challenging working in Pakistan, Naqvi said he enjoys working here, although has found the industry very nascent in the past.

“I remember when Sharmeen [Obaid-Chinoy] and myself were making ‘Terror’s Children’ back in 2003 – we didn’t have as many well-trained production staff and crew. That’s just not the case anymore.”

He explained how there is now a path to pursue with film education and that younger generations understand the value of arthouse films. Culture has definitely changed, and people are more open to it.

"Film education also makes a difference, we now have an avenue for media education.

"Much like the television industry, which was once thriving and had a strong identity and then socio-political factors dampened it."

Within his own work, there are definitely very specific things that resonate with him and inspire him.

He loves the concept of the underdog. He’s a huge fan of Mukhtaran Mai, having followed her work for years, commending the infrastructure and schooling she’s been able to bring to her village, turning their lives around. As director and producer on the Showtime Original documentary 'Shame', Naqvi received the inaugural Television Academy™ Honor.

He likes bringing an alternative view to audiences as well. For example, for his series 'Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror,' spanning 20 years of the American occupation in Afghanistan, trying to give audiences an alternate view about the conflict.

He preferred to bring a detailed look into the nuance of the details on the ground, wanting to sidestep the prevailing Bush-Cheney binary. The series went on to become one of Netflix’s Original Top 10 docuseries worldwide.

The series involved speaking to all players involved in the war on terror, so to speak, to Taliban leaders on the ground in Afghanistan, such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar as well as military officials in the United States, such as General Petraeus and more.

“In crafting these investigative pieces, we were quite critical of the American government and tried to undo a lot of the set narratives that exist and get a more holistic, well-rounded perspective of the reality of historical moments.”

Naqvi credits his creative roots to an early exposure to the arts.

Packed off to the Lee Strasbourg Academy of Performing Arts in New York before high school, he knew he was going to be storytelling from a very young age.

He experienced off-Broadway theatre featuring the likes of Susan Sarandon and Dustin Hoffman pushing him to begin his own theatre production company straight out of the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied Economics and Theatre Arts.

He moved to New York City where he began working on off-broadway productions where the timing worked out too, so to speak, as he was fresh out of school in the summer of 2001 and eager to shine a light on his view of the subcontinent, right before 9/11 occurred.

That seminal event, he credits to directing the future work that he was going to do.

“As an artist and a Muslim man living in New York at that time, it was a very personal thing to be able to tell these stories and challenge prevailing narratives,” he explains.

Through filmmaking, he was able to explore his own political journey and his democratic roots too.

On what’s coming up next in his film-making journey, fresh off the success of the Netflix original series that he served as co-executive producer on, 'Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror', Naqvi said he really enjoys working on short series.

In fact, he is working on a few different series for various streaming platforms, including working on showing us the aftermath of the recent pullout of troops in Afghanistan.

In addition, Naqvi is returning back to his fiction roots, and hopes to be making a feature film which is in development for next year.

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