On October 22nd, 2017, Aleena and Yasmeen were able to sit down for a formal interview with Mo Naqvi, the director of Pakistan’s Hidden Shame and a globally acclaimed filmmaker. His important work opened their eyes to the atrocities occurring, and his devotion to helping these kids has continuously inspired them to continue pushing forward on creating change. The documentary is linked below.
Q: The documentary you made was so profound and gut wrenching, how did you even come across this issue and decide to make a film about it?
A: I grew up in Pakistan and I think there was always some incident that had always come out in the news of child abuse, or any abuse, and I think this was an issue that was an open secret. I mean, everybody knew about it. Even I knew about it. I just didn’t know to what extent. In my film Shame, I looked into the abuse women endure. Because it was dealing in the realm of sexual violence of women, I wanted to look into the same situation with minors. Clover films had actually done another film called Dancing Boys of Afghanistan, Where they look at the same phenomenon in Afghanistan focusing in on Bachabazi (which literally means "playing with boys"), a cultural practice. Jamie Doran, the producer of the film, approached me with this idea. This is basically where this came from them. We found each other and embarked on this film.
Q: Why do you think everyone knows it happens but are afraid to talk about it, or tend to just turn a blind eye?
A: I think we have a very dominant culture of shame in this country. And if you’re a victim of sexual abuse then you really have very little support or places for seeking justice. Most people, and I think this is across the board, would rather not talk about it or just not be reminded of it because the honor of one person in your family who, God forbid, suffers this tragedy, then reflects the entire family. It’s more of a tribal mindset, it reflects on the entire family and the toxic shame permeates our country and forces us to quiet the victims and have them suffer in silence.
Q: Did you know going into it that there would be an element of danger involved when talking to the abusers?
A: The last day of shooting it was cut short because the people I had interviewed, a lot of them wanted to take back what they had said. They wanted to get the footage from us, or else. So we had to cut shooting short and leave Peshawar that night. So that kind of comes with the job, I guess. All of the projects I do have an element of danger. For me, it might sound strange, but once you’re in the middle of a story, you want to follow that story and it overcomes any fear you might have had for yourself. It’s almost foolish, but you kind of just let go.
What I wanna say more than the physical danger, I think I underestimated how profoundly disturbing it would be for me and my crew to process this. Especially when you’re showing children. Some who are drug addicts, some of whom are involved in such horrible circumstances. They have an entirely alternative moral paradigm. My first impulse was to try to save them in some capacity, but I’m not a social worker. I have no training to do so. So working within those safe parameters, working with a social worker, constantly while filming was very important for us. I can say it really gave me…. It was one of the most difficult films I’ve ever made. I don’t like to watch it. In terms of danger, I would say the emotional effect it had on us was a big factor.
Q: How did you meet Naeem, the main child followed in the film, and how did he become the focus of the film?
A: He was actually one of the boys that would regularly check in with the social worker and would get counseling. Basically, the social worker was very instrumental as well as the organization we were working with in introducing to us a few boys who had stories they were willing to share. So Naeem was one of the kids we focused on, which was good because he was older kid too.
The difference with him was aside from having such a terrible family life like most of these other children did, he also wanted to share his story to affect change for some of the other children. And this was something we discussed with him in great detail that the general rule is with these instances is that we want to keep the victims anonymous. And that’s what we did with the younger children.
We were also following his wishes by giving him a place to get his story out. Last we heard is that Naeem is working with his brother in law at a mechanic shop, and was still regularly checking in with the social worker.
Q: How did you get the abusers and the victims to feel comfortable enough to open up with you?
A: We had a social worker present at all times, and they had already shared the details their case with him and felt comfortable. We obviously never wanted to push any of the victims. The abusers we spent most hours with to get them to open up. We were upfront about us making a film about poverty. Especially poverty with street children around the bus depot. We also told them it’s about drug use, and how some of the children are abused. We wanted to limit the people we’d approach to the bus depot, and the makeshift hotels. They were rumored to have the most abuse. In addition, many of these bus drivers had a little boy as an assistant as a help and it was kind of understood that some of these boys were being abused by the bus driver. We actually didn't have to go that far to find these abusers.
I had to suspend any rage or judgement and be a blank neutral slate, which is a lot harder to do than you’d think. And instead of staying central to the film, I spoke to the abusers about their lives and families. You have to understand, Even the bus drivers live awful horrible lives, in fact some of them were these street children 10, 15 years ago. They were in the cycle of abuse. So that’s where I started the conversation. Asking them about their abuse. And some of them were more forthcoming and admitted. And some were not. It was almost as if them admitting it was compromising their masculinity. So that’s how I started. They don’t have anyone to talk to about it. It was strange to them that someone was even speaking to them. That 2 - 3 minute clip was a week or two of just casually speaking with them. I also would send my camera man away so it was just me speaking with the abuser. The other really sad and horrible thing about them is that they didn’t realize that what they were doing wasn't even that bad. One of the last people we filmed with, him and his friends were willing to kill us to get their footage back.
Q: Do you think this form of thinking in the society is a reason this abuse is so common? What did you find to be the biggest perpetrators of this abuse?
A: Poverty is a huge factor. Inherent misogyny and this culture of shame is a huge reason as well. I’m not speaking as a social psychologist. For example, so many people had joined onto the #metoo campaign, and I was shocked to see how many people I knew that had dealt with sexual harassment. So all I’m saying, is this problem is vastly underreported. Poverty definitely plays a role in this.
Pakistan is a very sexless society. Sex is thought of as shameful, evil, or whatever, and it’s only supposed to be used under strict circumstances and for reproduction. You have this group of young men who turn to a commercial means of sex. They specifically say a lot of them go to boys because it’s cheaper to get them, like for the price of lunch or a cigarette. Whereas if they were to hire a woman prostitute, it would be much more expensive and more risky. If you’re seen walking around with a woman you’re not married to, everyone will question you. With a boy no one questions it. It shows you the more segregated and sexually frustrated you make a community, it manifests itself in the darkest ways. Again, I can only speak from what I observed. The research in this is woefully inadequate.
Q: Was it hard for you to leave knowing what you know now?
A: A lot of it hit me after I stopped filming, because it’s such a dark space you enter to tell the stories. I think that to some degree it’s still haunting, and still informs the work I do. I don’t wanna put myself in that situation again but I am glad I did it because even if I was only able to help one child then we’ve done our job. Imran Khan did open a shelter after seeing this movie so that was able to happen. You have no education, no birth control, no family planning education. So when these families of 8 or 9 people are living in one room huts. And they think it is their divine right to to procreate, and once the child is born, they take on “now Allah will take care of them.” You have 8 or 9 kids. You can’t feed all of them so you expect them once they hit 4 or 5 to earn their keep. You see these kids picking up garbage and running through recyclables to make a few rupees. Their families will tell them, if you don't make x amount of rupees today, don’t bother coming home. Otherwise they get beaten. And after a while they decide, I might as well stay out.
Their exposure to sex is so strange. The parents will engage in sexual intercourse in front of the children because there’s no privacy. One man I talked to that was abused in his past told us that when he was young he found a nice man at a cinema who told him he'd pay for him to see the movie with him, all for being physical with him. So he thought this was a nice man because he thought he was showing his love to him, he thought, this is love it is what my parents do. It wasn’t until later when he realized, well he realized he could make a lot of money off of this. Then he got even younger children to get involved in this. It’s not until later that they realize there is something wrong with this but they can’t put their finger on exactly what. That’s when they turn to drugs.
Q: How can we open up the conversation about this?
A: I think a lot of what you’re doing in terms of raising awareness and just having a dialogue is extremely important. You’re actually creating the space for people to speak out and for many people to event share their experiences, and make them realize that they are not implicitly bad or damaged for maybe having suffered this abuse. I think once it becomes more open in our society, people will be more willing to address it. In terms of me growing up in Pakistan, our own media and people are more open to addressing than before where it was entirely swept under the rug. There have been some changes being made, and we as a society have to instill these. We are a signatory to the UN rights of the child. But we ignore these laws. The police ignore it because their bosses and then their bosses on top of it ignore it. They ignore it because society ignores it. We need to stop blaming the victim and hold the abuser accountable. A big way to do that is through education, and by women being a much bigger part of public society. Give them the strength and agency to be apart of it. Even though I only focus on boys, this doesn’t mean girls aren’t experiencing the same thing as well. The reason these boys are being abused is because of how we treat our women.