Filming persecution in secret: James Dann on the making of Section 298
By James Joel Dann, co-director and producer of MRG-produced documentary ‘Section 298’. The story is told through the eyes of three persecuted Ahmadiyya women and unveils the realities of life under Pakistan’s deadliest law.
It was 12:50 in the afternoon, and the ominous ‘Final call to Lahore international Airport’ was heard over the airport’s speakers. Our highly caffeinated eyes fiercely darted across the screens until we found our gate and sprinted towards the plane at breakneck speed.
12 months of preparation: battling pandemics, intense logistical planning, writing wills and securing emergency helicopter rescue. All of this, all of it, almost for nothing due to our necessity for a last minute Pret-a-Manger salmon roll at the airport. Was it worth it? Well, try one for yourself. (Yes.)
But before we talk lunch, let’s start from the beginning.
In 2019 Mahshad Afshar, an Iranian film producer, and I submitted a proposal to create a documentary in Pakistan, focusing on the systematic persecution of the Ahmadi population. We discovered this topic after researching and discussing human rights issues across the world, and decided that this was an extremely poignant issue that we needed to make a film about. Above all, we felt this was a unique chance to shed a light on an ongoing human rights issue that is in vital need of more attention and awareness.
The reality is, we had no idea how difficult making this film was going to be. The logistics of filming, safety and security, translations and everything else that was unknown right up until I landed in Pakistan.
But how did it all come together?
Accepting a lack of control
‘Ah! It’s you! You’re the boy on the mission!’ exclaimed our host shaking my hand and ushering me into the house whilst cautiously closing the doors behind us.
The reality of making this documentary felt more unreal than anything I’ve ever worked on. I had to accept a sheer lack of control over my environment, supported by the incredible hospitality and care from the people who invited me into their lives, and trusted me to tell their stories of persecution, pain and insurmountable loss that’s hard to comprehend and heartbreaking to hear.
On top of the serious nature of this film, the actual production was a full-on adventure through the towns, cities and villages that make up the beauty of Pakistan. 12 days filming across the country with translators, logistical staff, and one confused, half Jewish floppy haired producer sat in the back nursing a chai and watching it all unfold in front of him (hello).
The Ahmadi of Pakistan
Members of the Ahmadi religious movement identify as Muslims. Their religious practice conforms to Islam, but with some significant differences, including belief in the finality of prophethood. Section 298 of Pakistan’s penal code, from where the film takes its name, means that for an Ahmadi person to even call themselves a Muslim is punishable for up to three years in prison. They face systematic persecution at the hands of the Pakistani government and horrific violence at the hands of mobs and armed extremists.
The contributors that we met were among some of the most inspiring people that I have ever come across. Their fearlessness to openly discuss their stories was a powerful demonstration of perseverance and the strength required to make it through daily life whilst living under persecution. Those who shared their stories can be imprisoned for doing so, and so for them to come forward and be part of this documentary made my role in it a privilege, which was laden with a huge amount of responsibility to try and represent their truth honestly, and show the world the reality of their hardship and continuous persecution.
It sometimes feels very self-indulgent to talk about my experience in Pakistan. I’m aware that I can come across as seemingly having a quasi white-saviour complex which might undermine the value and importance of what the contributors have been through. However, I am aware that this documentary was sadly only made possible due to the fact that I am an outsider. This is because for Ahmadis, speaking out means risking revealing an identity they are often forced to conceal, and making themselves vulnerable to even more persecution. To tell this story on behalf of the community and share it with a wider audience, to have people trust you with their lives, is a huge responsibility and one that was never taken lightly.
The Film’s Next Steps
Working on this film has been a lifechanging experience for me. The documentary itself has been an incredible vehicle to tell this story, but it’s the actual immersion and welcome into the Ahmadi community which has left me with a profound feeling of togetherness and inclusion, one I would not have experienced if it wasn’t for this film. Scarcely do we ever embed ourselves in a community unlike our own, but in doing so I’ve had the privilege to meet people, see things, and understand a world unlike anything I ever knew before.
The film has had a remarkable amount of success, and continues to grow from strength to strength. New Take Films (my production company) and Mahshad are continuing to screen this across the world. We’ve had it screened in the UK Parliament as well as the Frontline Club, and it’s also been included in multiple film festivals from London to Nepal. Later this year it’ll be shown at the Doc Society, HOME cinema and Congress in Washington D.C.
With each screening grows the consciousness and awareness of the persecution of Ahmadis in Pakistan. Little by little, we hope our film can make a difference.
Watch the trailer
MRG is holding a free screening of ‘Section 298’ at Bertha DocHouse at Curzon Bloomsbury in London, UK, on 18 October 2022. Register here to attend.
Photo: James Dann in Pakistan. Photo courtesy of James Dann.