Without Shepherds

A scene from "Without Shepherds," an 89-minute documentary being screened at the 14th annual Newport Beach Film Festival. (May 1, 2013)

What do a journalist, musician, truck driver, soldier, politician and model have in common?

Fortitude in the face of chaos and the desire to uplift their homeland — Pakistan.

While headlines, predominantly in the United States, screamed blue murder about the "War on Terror," Stanford Law School student Cary McClelland, 33, chose a different viewfinder.

During a visit to Lahore in 2007, he witnessed a nation that was attempting to maneuver beyond the crises that abound.

"My interest, post-9/11, was the gap in how national media, particularly in America, was covering some of the countries that we were in conflict with," he said. "And the War on Terror was constantly framing an enemy that I don't think we knew very well, in communities that we didn't understand, and was creating more fear than understanding."

McClelland teamed up with a group of Americans and Pakistanis to co-create "Without Shepherds" — an 89-minute documentary being screened at the 14th annual Newport Beach Film Festival. First shown April 28, the movie is also part of Thursday's lineup.

Filmed in the wake of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's assassination, it is set against a country in the throes of its first national election in a decade.

Concerned that the ongoing war was inaccurately shaping public discourse about Pakistan, the team of "Without Shepherds" amplified a diverse cross-section of voices, including their personal struggles and interests.

McClelland's choice of Pakistan as the background for the documentary was influenced by the absence of United States' forces, allowing cameras to capture local stakeholders and conversations about the role of religion and spirituality in civic life, violence in communities, standing up to authorities and drawing strength from one's culture and history.

"These are universal, human questions that come to all communities at important moments of crisis and introspection," he said.

On trips to Peshawar, Karachi, Islamabad and Kashmir, McClelland recalled encountering people embarking on personal and community projects and even modifying the way they communicated with their families, all of which he deemed "central to the way any society needed to address social change from within."

Along with co-director and cinematographer Imran Babur, he highlighted six people attempting to spark change in ways that included founding a progressive political party, reciting powerful Sufi poetry and walking away from a violent past.

"Each of them has identified a different problem and a different way of fixing it," he said.

Arieb Azhar was one of the people, followed by a film crew for nearly a year, who also lent his voice to narrate the story.

"I think, through me, the film touches upon the Sufi influences prevalent in our society and reflected through our folk music, as well as how someone like me — a musician, from an educated background, who's lived abroad for a long time as well — looks at and deals with the chaotic reality of Pakistan," said the 40-year-old Islamabad resident.

Azhar, whose father played an active role in the establishment of Pakistan Television, took a page from his parents' book and developed an early appreciation of the arts. He has sung revolutionary songs at political rallies, formed a Croatia-based Irish and Celtic band called the Shamrock Rovers and is now at the helm of a Pakistani troupe that fuses classical, folk, modern jazz and world music.

Filming took Azhar aboard a train between Lahore and Hyderabad, where he recalled a potentially sticky situation with Tablighi Jamaat, a "hardcore religious group that believes in active proselytizing." After performing some tunes, he found himself conversing with them and departing on good terms.

"What draws me in about music is that it is the most intimate and real form of communion between human beings, which connects us beyond geographical, cultural, racial and religious borders," he said.

Shown at the Slamdance and Sarasota film festivals, "Without Shepherds" was more than four years in the making, which spanned research, travel, shooting and production. McClelland also spent nine months living in Pakistan, where he picked up bits of Urdu.

"The most challenging part of working [on this project] was not anything dangerous, or any security aspect, but constantly managing and investing in trusted relationships around us," he said.