Pakistan stars in Zero Dark Thirty, from early scenes at a detention site to the dramatic closing minutes as Navy SEALs assault the hideout of Osama bin Laden. But the Academy Award-nominated film about the hunt for the al-Qaeda leader has sparked a controversy here about its portrayal of the country, and it will likely not be shown on the local big screen anytime soon.
Partly, the film taps into national discomfort that bin Laden was found to be living for years near Pakistan's equivalent of West Point, and anger over the U.S. decision to enter its airspace and raid the compound without giving advance notice. Doubts about whether bin Laden was really hiding out for years in the city of Abbottabad are also common across Pakistan, a country where conspiracy theories often have more weight than fact.
But Pakistanis who have seen the film on DVD or Internet downloads are also making much of what they say are factual errors.
'How can you make a Hollywood blockbuster, put in so much money and get simple things wrong? Instead of the film being taken seriously, it became a joke among Pakistanis.' —Nadeem F. Paracha, columnist
Nadeem F. Paracha, a columnist for the English language newspaper Dawn and a cultural critic in Pakistan, noted that in some scenes characters speak Arabic, whereas Pakistanis in fact speak Urdu or Pashto or one of the tens of other languages found here.
In other scenes protesters get right up to the U.S. Embassy gates when in reality the embassy is situated in an enclosed diplomatic enclave that demonstrators can't access. Some scenes that were supposed to show the frontier city of Peshawar looked more like 19th century Delhi in India.
"How can you make a Hollywood blockbuster, put in so much money and get simple things wrong?" Paracha asked. "Instead of the film being taken seriously, it became a joke among Pakistanis."
The movie traces the arc of the CIA's decade-long hunt for bin Laden through the eyes of a young female analyst, who spends most of her time ostensibly in Pakistan. Screenwriter Mark Boal visited Pakistan to do research, but the movie scenes were not shot there.
One scene that also raises questions shows a vaccination worker going to the compound door as part of the American plan to get DNA samples from the bin Laden family. The U.S. did in fact run a fake hepatitis campaign, but in the movie it's portrayed as an attempt to vaccinate against polio. This could add suspicion to polio workers already facing attacks by militants in the tribal agencies.
Pakistani distributors weary of controversy
Pakistan has only a few movie theaters that show English-language films, and none so far has aired Zero Dark Thirty. All films shown at cinemas must be approved by a board of censors, and the head of the censor board, Dr. Raja Mustafa Hyder, said no distributor has applied for permission to show the film.
Whether or not it would actually make it past the censor board is another question, considering that a representative of the powerful Pakistani military sits on the board.
After it came out that bin Laden had been living in Abbottabad and that the military failed to detect the American raiding party coming to get him, the once-revered Pakistan army found itself on the defensive. The film also highlights the cooperation between the C.I.A. and Pakistan's intelligence agency during the early years after the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the United States, a potentially embarrassing topic in a country with such vehement anti-American sentiment.
Jamshed Zafar, one of the leading importers and distributors of foreign films in Pakistan, said he decided after discussions with friends that it wasn't worth importing Zero Dark Thirty.
"If you get into such controversy, you not only lose money but your reputation is also at stake," he said.
Any distributor or movie house that showed the movie might also be courting trouble with the public. Last year during demonstrations against an anti-Islam film crowds of right-wing Islamic hardliners burned some movie houses.
The fact that neighboring India — Pakistan's archenemy — substituted for many of the Pakistani street scenes has also raised concerns, said Rashid Khawaja, a Lahore-based film producer and distributor.
Until recently it was possible to purchase a DVD of the film in Islamabad. But at least two stores in the capital said in recent days that they stopped selling it because of rumors it had been banned. Another store was still selling the movie — albeit under the counter.
In Abbottabad, the DVD is available at local video stores but hasn't sold particularly well.
"This movie is about Osama and Abbottabad, and still I honestly say people living here are not showing much interest in it," said Akhtar Hussain.
Even in the city where people could hear the Navy SEALs as they swooped in on helicopters and flew away with bin Laden's body, there's still disbelief he was living so close.
College student Raheel Ahmed said he watched Zero Dark Thirty and came away thinking the movie's intent was to praise U.S. President Barack Obama.
"I don't know whether Osama was here," he said, "but Americans have defamed us by producing the movie."