The Pulse

Pakistani Director Tackles Child Abuse in Pakistan

A new documentary explores a particularly tragic topic.

Pakistani Director Tackles Child Abuse in Pakistan
Pakistani Director Tackles Child Abuse in Pakistan

Mohammed Naqvi

Credit: Eric Van Den Brulle

Pakistan’s Hidden Shame, a documentary that highlights pedophilia in Pakistan – particularly in the country’s northern areas – recently aired on Channel 4 U.K., revealing widespread child abuse in an indifferent society. The film was directed by Karachi-born Mohammed Ali Naqvi, an award-winning filmmaker who divides his time between Karachi and New York, and produced by Jamie Doran of Clover Films. The Diplomat spoke recently with Naqvi about his latest production, which features poignant interviews with both victims and abusers.

What led you to make Pakistan’s Hidden Shame?

Growing up in Pakistan, I had heard horrific stories of sexual abuse. My previous film, Shame, profiled gang-rape survivor and women’s rights icon Mukhtaran Mai, and I spent four years documenting her journey. When Jamie Doran from Clover Films, the producer of my current documentary, reached out to me, I was apprehensive about taking on another project that dealt with sexual violence, mostly because of the emotional toll it can take on you as a filmmaker. However, after seeing the success of Dancing Boys of Afghanistan, Jamie’s previous film, which inspired the government to take action against sexual slavery of boys in neighboring Afghanistan, I felt it would be a privilege to work towards empowering children in my country.

How did you manage to get the victims and abusers featured in your documentary to speak about this sensitive, taboo subject? Was it difficult convincing them to speak?

We approached the victims through social workers and foundations on the ground in Peshawar who had been working with some of the boys featured in the film. Because of this, the street children had an ease with our crew. It would be difficult to overstate how integral social workers are in the lives of these children. Just to give you perspective, I witnessed families being indifferent to their sons being abused and boys preferring to live on the street and sell themselves rather than live at home. Afzal, who was the social worker we featured in our film, was in many ways the only real family these boys had. Furthermore, what I found profoundly disturbing was that the boys we spoke to exhibited a candidacy in recollecting what were devastatingly traumatic experiences. It was as if they had compartmentalized the abuse, effectively “splitting” – as if they were speaking about someone else when describing these horrific events. This internalization of trauma manifested itself in other ways, mostly in behavior that was self-harming, such as taking drugs or cutting themselves.

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When I spoke to the abusers, it was a herculean task for me to dissociate and engage with them. In doing so, I was able to keep my personal judgment out of it – effectively becoming a blank screen for these men to project on and, in some instances, use me as a confessional. What I found was that although all of the abusers knew what they were doing was wrong; they considered it a minor infraction. For this horrifying attitude prevalent amongst these abusers, I blame our government. The state has demonstrated an insidious apathy towards protecting these street children, and not holding these abusers responsible.

Your documentary has been aired on Channel 4 U.K. this month; will it be screened anywhere else? What about Pakistan?

Aside from Channel 4, it has also aired in Australia, Japan, Sweden and Denmark. We also have a few more international broadcast dates coming up in Europe and North America. In terms of festivals it premiered at the Sheffield Documentary festival earlier this year and will also screen at the United Nations Association Film Festival in October. We have offered the film to broadcasters in Pakistan free of charge, and we are hoping someone comes forward to air it.

What has the feedback been like so far?

I expected the film to be polarizing and so far we have had a myriad of reactions. On the one end, we have received overwhelming support and positive feedback for taking the initiative to highlight these stories. Of course, there are also knee-jerk reactions of misplaced outrage – claims that the film is being used to tarnish Pakistan’s “image.” I’ve grown fairly accustomed to this feedback, as my previous film, Shame, received a similar reception in Pakistan.

Some of my fellow countrymen may feel as if Pakistan is being singled out for human rights abuses, but that is not my intention at all. Child abuse is not only an epidemic in Pakistan; it happens everywhere, including the U.S. and U.K. The only difference is that there is legal recourse in place which protects the children in those countries. We, as Pakistanis, have to get our own house in order, because not highlighting these stories will perpetuate the culture of silencing these victims. And that, I feel, would be much more damaging to our “image” than featuring cases of human rights abuses in a film.

Did you face any challenges during the filming of this documentary?

Apart from the obvious emotional turmoil that comes with documenting such a story, there was also the inherent danger of filming in Peshawar. In fact, one of the abusers we profiled, a bus conductor named Ejaz, even threatened to kill us, demanding we surrender the footage of the candid interview he had given us a few days earlier. We had to escape Peshawar in the middle of the night, making our way to Karachi.

How difficult was it for you to film this documentary, given the subject and the candidness of the individuals who spoke out about the abuse endured?

Making this film almost destroyed me. Even though one may be familiar with the terrible circumstances surrounding child abuse, that acknowledgment is peripheral. When you come in direct contact with these stories, let’s just say the emotional impact cannot be overstated. I was so lucky that I had a strong support network: my crew on ground, which apart from my producer, Jamie Doran from Clover Films U.K., included my cameraman Haider Ali, and crew-members Ayesha Chundrigar, Syed Musharraf Shah, Tracey Doran-Carter and Laura Kramer.

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Any experiences that stood out for you during filming?

Perhaps the most precious instance of hope was personified by Afzal, the social worker we featured in the film. Despite meager resources and being grossly understaffed, Afzal managed to run his shelter and cater to these boys. Afzal, and other foundations who work with these children, such as Sahil, SPARC and the Aas Trust are unsung heroes. It was a privilege for me to document the exceptional work they do for the betterment of these children and our country.

What’s next for you Mohammed, any upcoming project(s)?

I am currently working on finishing up two feature documentaries: Among The Believers, a chronicle of the siege of the Red Mosque and its aftermath (supported by the Tribeca Film Institute, Ford Foundation, and Gucci), and an as yet untitled documentary, on former Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf and his return to Pakistan (produced by the Oscar-winning Impact Partners NY). In addition, I am excited to be returning to fiction and have two feature fiction films in development.

Sonya Rehman is a journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan. She can be reached at: sonjarehman [at]