Independent filmmaker and writer Musa Syeed offers a rare view into the world of Kashmir through his first narrative feature, Valley of Saints. Premiering this week at the Sundance Film Festival, the film was shot on location in Kashmir during the military curfew of Fall 2010, with Nicholas Bruckman as producer. Syeed received the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Production Award for his screenplay, a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, and a National Geographic All Roads grant.
The film centers on Gulzar, a young tourist boatman with plans to run away from Kashmir with his best friend. But a military crackdown derails their escape, and they become trapped in Gulzar's lake village. They discover a mysterious woman, braving the curfew to research the dying lake. As Gulzar falls for her, rivalry and jealousy threaten his boyhood friendship and their plans of escape. The first film set in the endangered lake communities of Kashmir, Valley of Saints blends fiction and documentary to bring audiences inside this unique world.
Syeed discusses the process of creating the film and shooting in Kashmir, an edited transcript of the conversation follows:
How did you come up the idea to write a film with a storyline centered around Dal Lake?
Musa Syeed: My parents are from Kashmir and my father was a political prisoner there. When he came to America, he never looked back in a way. He was trying to start a new life away from the experience he had in Kashmir. We weren't raised speaking Kashmiri and only visited once when I was four. As an adult, I wanted to reconnect and rediscover Kashmir for myself and went back in 2006.
The one thing that we did grow up hearing a lot about from my parents is how beautiful Kashmir is. When I visited I expected to see that beauty and this place that almost was like a myth on how beautiful and magical it was. In particular people would always talk about Dal Lake which is the main attraction in Kashmir. When I went back and saw the lake, it was beautiful but seemed like it was kind of past its prime and had seen better days. And there was a lot of talk in Kashmir on how bad the Dal Lake had gotten and nostalgia on what the lake used to be.
The lake helped me understand Kashmiri society in a way. It served as an allegory or symbol for what's happened to Kashmir. You can always tell a lot about a society by looking at the environment around it. Reading into what's going on in the lake was a sense of loss and nostalgia that I was interested in exploring. What I came to is that even though Kashmir has lost so much, there is still a lot that remains. There is still beauty even after and in the face of destruction. Nature as well as the people is still resilient, they survive and can nurture what remains.
What was the experience like for you to shoot in Kashmir?
MS: In a way people took pity on me because I was this American born Kashmiri that didn't know about their culture and they wanted to help me connect. Over the course of the summer of 2009, I met Gulzar who is the star of the film and an actual man on the lake. I kept coming back to him because he had such a striking personality. He clearly had a story to tell and was very expressive. He wrote poetry, had a sensitive soul and I was really drawn to him. He had a strong sense professionalism as a boatman and I could tell any job he was going to do, he would give it 110% and take it very seriously.
When I asked him to be in the film, I knew he would give it all he had. He never acted before and was going to try and give it all of his effort and that turned out to be the case. He really worked hard through rehearsals and understood the tone of the film and the subtleties of acting. He had a natural talent and instinct for it and it was something I actually saw and was even more surprised when we started shooting on just how quickly he was able to get it.
The military curfew forced you to make a lot of changes to the film, how did you adapt?
MS: All my crew come from a documentary background and we were able to make the most of shooting in an unpredictable, uncontrollable environment. We weren't sure every day what we would be shooting the next day. We would have to wait and see what was possible under the limitations that were presented to us. Every night we decided on what to shoot the next day based on our resources and if we could we get to a location by the curfew or not. I also reworked the whole script to work within the limitations of the curfew and incorporate it into the film. My motto during the whole production was embracing limitations and understanding how to use them towards improving the film.
Have you been surprised that a film on Kashmir could resonate so well with a Western audience?
MS: I think the film will probably be the first introduction a lot of people have to Kashmir. For me growing up it was hard to relate to Kashmir because whatever there was in the news and media was always about the conflict or Kashmiri people were always presented as militants. So it was hard for me to understand but looking at the environment helped me wrap my head around Kashmir a little better and understanding Dal Lake and being drawn to that really unique beautiful world is what helped me get into Kashmir and create an emotional connection to the place.
I'm hoping with audiences it will be the same, that we can draw them in with this really beautiful unique water world of Dal Lake and the exotic intimate myth will be part of the draw. At the same time, the film has strong characters that have similar hopes and dreams to anyone else in the world. The characters are looking for their place in the world, looking for love and friends and those are things that people can relate to and what makes this film set in a very specific place, universal and approachable to a wider audience.
For me part of my motivation was to reframe the way people think about Kashmir because it's always presented as just an issue or a problem but there isn't a lot of talk about its people, culture, or tradition and I wanted to change that conversation. Also to make a film about Kashmir that's positive, hopeful and colorful because there hasn't really been something like that. The film doesn't ignore the dangerous realities but at the same time, it tries to take a positive outlook and highlight the resilience of Kashmir that even in the face of this destruction, people still really embrace life.
Being Kashmiri did give me some personal resonance with the subject because my family had experienced a certain sense of loss and I could understand that from a personal perspective. But it really was a journey for me and I had to immerse myself. I do believe this process of immersion can help people who aren't of a certain culture to tell a story well enough from that perspective.