‘Zero Dark Thirty’ a hit in Pakistan, despite being seen as ‘a pack of lies’

February 4, 2013

Still photo from "Zero Dark Thirty." (AP Photo/Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc., Jonathan Olley)

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — "Zero Dark Thirty," the Oscar-nominated film about the CIA's 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden, stirred great umbrage in the Distict with its implication that the brutal interrogation technique known as waterboarding was key to locating the al-Qaeda chief, who hid out in Pakistan for years.

Serious people, including those at the CIA, feared that a story conjured from a screenwriter's imagination would be taken as truth. But in Pakistan, viewers of the action film — unreleased here in theaters but widely available on pirated DVDs — take it for what it is: a slick work of Hollywood fiction. But, for many here, it's the entire premise that's fictional.

"Technically, it's very strong, the directing is very good and so is the acting," said Rizwan Ahmed, 35, a businessman browsing titles in an Islamabad DVD shop. "It's an excellent thriller, but I doubt whether the story is true."

He and other citizen reviewers characterized the movie as anti-Pakistan propaganda. There remains debate here over whether the event actually happened: that a U.S. Navy SEAL team swooped in on stealth helicopters and terminated the terrorist kingpin in his villa near Pakistan's top military academy in Abbottabad.

"The people who have seen this movie liked it as a movie, but most of them believe it's a pack of lies," said Kazim Abbasi, owner of a DVD store where "Zero Dark Thirty" has been a popular seller.

"Some customers even say that bin Laden was not present in Abbottabad, and the film has been made to malign Pakistan," he added.

Many Pakistanis – in the public, political leadership and the military – were outraged by the unilateral raid, and don't dispute that it happened. But many tend to embrace conspiracy theories. Some people here insist that bin Laden died years before the May 2, 2011, operation.

In conversations with Americans, they raise questions such as, Where's the proof bin Laden died that night? Where are the photos of his corpse? Why is America refusing to release the photos?

It is commonplace for Pakistani politicians and religious leaders to make a scapegoat of other powers for their country's woes – America, Israel, India – and the Navy SEALS operation was a national humiliation. That might account for any tendency by the public to just shrug off the killing as fiction, but there's no way to know with certainty how widespread this is.
The Pakistani government and military of course don't dispute the fact of the raid. But the government has yet to make public the results of the official "Abbottabad Commission" probe launched in June 2011 and reportedly submitted to the prime minister about a month ago.

Distributors here have launched an unofficial boycott of the movie by refusing to screen it. But the film has not been banned by the state, said Raja Mustafa Haider, chairman of Pakistan's film censorship board.

That's because no one has asked the board to watch the movie to decide whether it should be banned, Haider said. In the past the board has banned India-made movies because they were thought to portray Pakistan's intelligence services as terrorist coddlers.

So far "Zero Dark Thirty" has earned more than $79 million at global box offices, according to Boxofficemojo.com. Not a cent of that has come from Pakistan, a copyright-free zone. Pirated, usually interior copies of major movies are available here within days of of their release in U.S. cinemas.

Pakistani consumer interest in "Zero Dark Thirty," which garnered five Oscar nominations, has already begun to wane, according to shop owners.

A few weeks ago when it was first released in America, Abbasi said, his store was selling 20 bootleg copies of "Zero Dark Thirty" a day; now he sells three or four a day.

But maybe that will pick up again if it wins any Oscars, proof that it's a fine example of a work of fiction.

Shaiq Hussain contributed to this story.

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Max Fisher · February 4, 2013