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'Zero Dark Thirty' unofficially banned in Pakistan

Aqeel Ahmed / AP

People watch "Zero Dark Thirty" outside a computer shop in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the town where Osama bin Laden was found hiding when American special forces killed him in May 2011. The Academy Award-nominated film appears unlikely to be shown on the local big screen anytime soon.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan –“Very Zero, Very Dark” reads one Pakistani film review.

“Zero IQ Thirty” another headline screams.

But just like Osama Bin Laden, the subject of the Oscar contender that recreates the most expensive manhunt in history, "Zero Dark Thirty" is not supposed to be in Pakistan.

The film has not been released, officially. Thus, there is no response, officially, from Pakistani government censors to Kathryn Bigelow's controversial depiction of Pakistan. Therefore, technically, no one in Pakistan is supposed to have ever seen the movie. 

AFP - Getty Images, file

Local actors perform on the set of Kathryn Bigelow's film "Zero Dark Thirty," in Chandigarh, India.

But in reality, "Zero Dark Thirty" is being watched, noticed, slammed and unofficially banned, even while trending on Twitter.

Some of the backlash in the mainstream press here was balanced.

“Though sharp in its production and direction and largely accurate in depicting the events that led to the death of Osama Bin Laden,” wrote respected columnist, Nadeem Farooq Paracha, in Dawn newspaper. “It went ballistic bad in depicting everyday life on the streets of Pakistan.”

Paracha says that the movie may be designed to embarrass Pakistan, its people, its military and even its distinct culture.  Or it might be simply a victim of sloppy research, he mused.

The journalist lists what he believes are the films goofs: The Pakistanis sound like an Indianized Arabic speakers (they are not). They eat hummus (which Pakistanis largely don’t). A character in the movie claims that nobody in Pakistan drives SUVs (people love their SUVs here).

Both Sen. John McCain and Senate Intelligence Chair Dianne Feinstein have complained to SONY Pictures that the film is 'factually inaccurate.' NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

But what triggered more questions about the movie's message and motive here was when the country’s major cinema players decided not to buy the film from international distributors.

“As a local distributor, there was no financial viability for me. The film was already widely available in the [pirated] DVD market,” said Mohsin Yaseen, general manager of Cinepax, the largest multiplex chain in Pakistan . “But as a film buff, the movie was inaccurate about Pakistan. If you’re going to say something about a complicated part of the world, then you should say it right.”

But Nadeem Mandviwalla, chief executive of Mandviwalla Entertainment, who has been buying and distributing Hollywood blockbusters for three decades in Pakistan, played down the hype.

“This whole ‘ban, ban, ban’ bit is a scam. It’s an assumption and just pure hype that’s perfectly timed for Oscar season,” Mandviwalla said. “There is no politics [regarding screening "Zero Dark Thirty"]. There are tons of movies that don’t make it here. It’s not a political decision the army or the ISI [Pakistan's intelligence agency] makes for us. We, as businessmen, make it. And it was bad business modeling to bring this movie to Pakistan.”

Jonathan Olley / Columbia Pictures via AP

Jessica Chastain starred in "Zero Dark Thirty."

But on the ground, reality has matched the fiction featured in the 157-minute thriller.  In Islamabad, the movie was widely available in local DVD stores until mid-January, offered with either the original cover art or a locally designed version featuring bin Laden and current al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri.

Things are different now.

“We were asked to stop selling the movie by some guys a couple of weeks after we started stocking it,” said an attendant at Illusions, a popular movie and music retailer in Islamabad’s upscale Jinnah Super arcade.

“There were four of them. Two stood outside, as if on guard, and two came inside and told us that 'Zero Dark Thirty' was banned,” said the man who asked not to be named because for his own security. “They said they were from Aabpara [the local neighborhood that headquarters the ISI]. They asked us to send the DVDs back to the warehouse, and they took a few discs back for themselves.”

“They were very polite,” he added.

("Zero Dark Thirty" is distributed in some parts of the world by Universal Pictures, which is owned by NBC Universal.)

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