Valley Of Saints: A Doc In Feature’s Clothing

on Monday, Apr. 11th

Making a feature film with a war zone as its setting, but not its plot, complicates logistics, to say the least.  B-roll can’t be collected without official approval of the filming, and shoots must be rescheduled or redone according to the vagaries of the conflict. Add on scripting advice from a family who endures the daily indignities of occupation, and a professional background in documentary production that makes verite precepts irresistible, and you have the storyboard for the making of “Valley of Saints.”

“It was a difficult trip for me,” said the film’s director, American-born Kashmiri Musa Syeed, of one of his first research trips to the region, “trying to get my work done, but trying to also spend time with my family and understand their perspective. I was never really able to wrap my head around the political situation or economic situation there. I feel like I got a much better grasp of it (while there) but it also made the process of creating the story much more confusing. Everyone was like, ‘You could just put this in there, or write a scene about this, or that.’ ”

As he wrestled with his family’s expectations, Syeed said, he began to feel like he was losing his original concept. “I tried to assure myself that as long as I told a good story, that people would be happy.”

The story he’s written is centered on Dal Lake, the crown jewel in the center of Srinagar, the capital of Indian-occupied Kashmir. Producer Nicholas Bruckman said the lake is the only completely aquatic community in the world where residents live full time on the water — rowing to work and school, trading vegetables, and in “Valley of Saints,” falling in love. “The environment, of course, has taken  a back burner to the political conflict (in Kashmir), for better or for worse. This is a unique living lake, and in the middle there’s an artificial island that people have constructed. This beautiful way of life is endangered because the lake is shrinking.” Bruckman said many Kashmiri experts think the lake will be extinct this century, with plans already in place to relocate many of the people who call it home. “People on the lake blame deforestation,” Bruckman said, which allows toxins to stream in that add to the weeds and plastic already choking the lake.

For Syeed, the environmental issue, and not the conflict, drew him to writing about Kashmir in the first place. But the first draft script, heavy on conservation issues, needed to be grounded in human stories, and his months spent in Kashmir helped him find his protagonist, a boatman named Gulzar.

Syeed returned to the U.S.  after writing the script, but when the crew was getting ready to return to Kashmir to film in the summer of 2010, the latent conflict re-ignited, and a military curfew was imposed throughout Kashmir. “We had already had trouble coordinating things in Kashmir,” Syeed said, “and this meant we would have very restricted movements; we didn’t want to attract a lot of attention from military or police. Before we left we realized we couldn’t shoot the story I had written.” So Syeed went back to the storyboard, writing an outline of a film that incorporated the curfew and was feasible given the political eruption.  “I didn’t feel safe bringing an American cast, so we had to cast entirely locally,” which meant that the film had to be in Kashmiri, a language Syeed doesn’t speak. This hitch turned out to be a boon to the recomposed cast and the adaptive production process.  “We would translate the dialogue every night, working from an outline, developing the story as we were shooting. It helped the actors put the dialogue in their own terms in language they were comfortable with , rather than making the leap to English.”

The film is one of the few to be shot entirely in the Kashmiri  language, which, like its prized lake, is under threat as the number of speakers dwindles. Syeed and Bruckman, despite having South Asian roots, are outsiders, and allegations of bias are par for the course in making films about Kashmir. Given this, Bruckman (whose mother is Bengali) said, “It was extremely important to us that the story could be embraced by Kashmiris and South Asians of all faiths. We tried to transcend this very deep division (of the conflict) in part by focusing on the human aspect, the love story, the environment — which is really a unifying point for people in Kashmir, in South Asia and for people all over the world.”

Bruckman said Kashmiri culture is deeply embedded into the film, which includes scenes of Sufi culture, which has survived in Kashmir for centuries, and of the Waswan, the 36-course traveling wedding feast.*

The team is now in post-production on the film and just received a notable grant to help complete it.

*Amended at the request of the interviewee.

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