Film Reviews

Review: ‘Armed with Faith’

A meticulous and compassionate character study


Armed with Faith
(USA, 74 min.)
Dir. Geeta Gandbhir, Asad Faruqi

Since 9/11, life in Pakistan has drastically changed. “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists,” – was the post 9/11 US rhetoric, which led to Pakistan joining forces with the US in the war on terror. As a result, the terrorist organizations declared war on Pakistan, bringing fear and instability to the region.

Bomb attacks have predominantly disrupted life in the northern province of Pakistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). Bordering Afghanistan, this area is susceptible to suicide bombings and IEDs and known as a gateway for terrorists coming from Afghanistan. Some terrorist organizations are believed to operate within the province and close to the border, which makes life tougher for its civilian population.

Directed by Geeta Gandbhir and Asad Faruqi, Armed with Faith sheds light on the KPK Bomb Disposal Unit (BDU). Consisting of 34 men, BDU is tasked with protecting innocent people against bomb explosions in the region. The film specifically follows three members of the organization: Shafqat Malik, Abdur Rahim and Inayatullah “Tiger” Khan.

“Prophet Mohammed preached that when you save one person’s life, you save humanity,” – says the BDU commander, Shafqat Malik, at an opening of a new police facility. This phrase is the credo for many BDU members. A devoted citizen, Malik highly values his unit’s integrity and works hard to protect his people. He believes that BDU’s efforts are fundamental to the future of Pakistan and his family. While Malik’s family lives outside the province for safety reasons, he stays in KPK to support his squad.

Abdur Rahim is another KPK BDU member in focus. Having lived in KPK his whole life, Rahim laments his region’s fate: “When I was growing up, there was peace in this region. I wish my children could also grow up in a peaceful environment.” A loving father and husband, Rahim wishes his children could have good education and not worry about recurrent bomb blasts.

Children are likely targets for terrorist attacks in the area. In 2014, 145 children were killed in the Peshawar’s Army school attack, which Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for. Inayatullah “Tiger” Khan, has witnessed children being ruthlessly killed and injured by Taliban. These attacks have made him even more fearless and resilient in the face of danger. When asked about the precarious nature of his work, Khan says: “For the future of humanity, someone needs to do this job.”

Besides offering a poignant examination of KPK BDU, the filmmakers draw a complex politico-social portrait of Pakistan, putting emphasis on the region’s tacit ramifications. The film puts global and Pakistan’s politics in perspective, confronting stereotypical and binary renditions of the country’s terrorism problem. By scrutinizing the nature of Pakistan’s terrorist attacks and attackers, the filmmakers accentuate the role of education, inequality and poverty in the spiking conflict. For instance, the documentary treats several young Taliban recruits as victims of the ongoing struggle for power.

Armed with Faith certainly reflects the filmmakers’ aesthetic vision and background in conveying human rights and social justice issues through art. The documentary’s meticulous and compassionate character study echoes Gandbhir’s humanizing portrait of New York convicts in Prison Dogs (2016). And the film’s dynamic pacing and rhythm echoes the style of Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s A Girl in the River (2015), which was shot by the film’s director and cinematographer Asad Faruqi. Similar to A Girl in the River, Armed with Faith offers an in-depth exploration of its captivating subjects, which capture Pakistan’s multifaceted identity.

Faruqi’s cinematography captures the film with visceral sophistication. The panoramic long shots of the scenic mountains and hilly areas; the vigorous hand held camera shots following the squad on their perilous missions; and the evocative close-ups of BDU’s family members having dinner in peace – the film’s visuals prove to be just as strong and meaningful as its narrative.

One memorable scene follows Abdur Rahim running away from a nearly detonated bomb. Right when we hear the explosion, the scene is juxtaposed with a bustling street of Peshawar, the KPK capital. This juxtaposition of extreme danger and everyday reality creates an innate proximity between the subjects and audience. The split seconds between the image of Rahim running for his life and the mundane urban cacophony of Peshawar symbolize the precious yet rapid moments between life and death, the reality for many Pakistanis.

In Armed with Faith, Geeta Gandbhir, Asad Faruqi and Obaid-Chinoy preserve their tradition of avoiding one-dimensional representations and finding humanity in the darkest corners of the world. The film is built on their aesthetic visions, which are discernable and powerful. The filmmakers continue to build a legacy of meaningful, confrontational and enlightening documentaries, exposing inclusive perspectives and advocating for unity and tolerance.

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VIFF runs Sept. 28-Oct. 13.
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