Independent Lens: Interview with PROJECT KASHMIR Filmmakers

May 14, 2010

biopic2By Independent Lens

In PROJECT KASHMIR, two filmmakers, one Hindu and the other Muslim, sneak their cameras into one of the most beautiful, yet dangerous, places on Earth. In a region where religious alliances have spawned more than half a century of war, can these two filmmakers learn what makes Kashmiris choose their homeland over their own lives, even as their friendship is put to the test? Independent Lens spoke with Senain Kheshgi and Geeta V. Patel, directors/producers/writers of PROJECT KASHMIR — about their motivation, their favorite films, and inspiring foods.

PROJECT KASHMIR premieres on May 18 at 10:30pm on THIRTEEN.

What keeps them motivated as independent filmmakers:

The content, creativity, and impact drive us. We are both interested in documenting the experiences and voices that are underrepresented. When we see the impact PROJECT KASHMIR makes in communities, and when we think about all the people who came together to make this project possible, it fills us with inspiration and motivation.

Their three favorite films:

Senain: In my own work, I am very inspired by fiction filmmaking, the way stories unfold narratively, without talking heads or experts. Some inspirations are The 400 Blows, The Apu Trilogy, Turtles Can Fly, Dog Day Afternoon, Diving Bell and The Butterfly, Breathless, and the films of Wong Kar Wai, Kiarostami, Andrei Tarkovsky. I could go on and on.

Geeta: As far as documentaries, these come to mind at the moment: Capturing the Friedmans, Harlan County USA, Hoop Dreams, and Style Wars. Recently, I’ve enjoyed The Ghosts of Cité Soleil, In a Dream, and Oh Saigon.

Their advice for aspiring filmmakers:

Senain: Think about what you want to say. It is easy to pick up the camera and start shooting a film these days. What is more difficult, but ultimately most fulfilling, is to take the time to really think about your ideas, your vision, what you want to say. Making independent films is not a quick process (at least it isn’t for me!). It takes time, living and breathing with your subject, deep preparation and honest reflection within yourself on why it’s important that you tell this story…. If you know what you are going to say, then you will find that the rest of the process (grant writing, outreach etc.) comes naturally.

Geeta: Apply to grants and public television, and try to understand how to make your proposal stronger. Identify your outreach, if you are making a social justice film, because it will help you get grants and support from niche organizations. Embrace the fact that independent filmmakers must more often take on the role of producers for their first films. Surround yourself with mentors and people more experienced than you. Learn how to work with others and communicate your vision, as this is such an important part of directing and producing. And most of all, just take the leap of making your films and following your heart.

Their most inspirational food for making independent film:

Senain: Yogurt

Geeta: Peanut butter

Independent Lens: What impact do you hope this film will have?

Senain Kheshgi and Geeta Patel: We hope audiences will have a visceral understanding of life in Kashmir today … “the scent of Kashmir,” as someone calls it in our film. Even after 20-some years of turmoil, there is such longing for peace, such joy in the culture, and yet such sadness over what has happened there.

The film is also an attempt to understand how religion is used as a tool to perpetuate conflict. We hope that audiences will seek out more information about the region to better understand the complexity, ambiguity, and gray area of life in this conflict zone.

IL: What led you to make PROJECT KASHMIR?

SK and GP: As children of the partition, we wanted to make a film that would explore this issue of our divided communities in an emotional and visceral way. In our Pakistani and Indian communities, everyone has an opinion about Kashmir. And yet, few people stop to ask the Kashmiri people themselves what they really want. So, we started with the idea to make a film about questions, about memory and silences. We thought if we went to Kashmir together, and asked the Kashmiris how they feel about India and Pakistan, the conflict, religion, and each other, then perhaps we could learn something deeper about ourselves as well.

IL: What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

SK and GP: Although both of us grew up traveling to India and Pakistan, neither of us had been to Kashmir. We had read about the conflict and studied the history, but there seemed to be little written about the Kashmiri culture, the people, and their lives. We started by reaching out to Kashmiris living in the diaspora. To the Kashmiris, we were outsiders and it was difficult to gain their trust but after several years of these conversations, we were able to find strong leaders in the community who understood that our goal was to shed light on the similarities and not to make this film about the differences.

IL: How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?

SK and GP: We had to genuinely open up with our own stories. We told them about our families, our lives, and our feelings about the conflict, and how we wanted to learn about the divide between our countries and our people. We wanted them see why this was important to us as individuals. In retrospect, we could have said and done more, but because the two of us were going through a difficult reckoning with our own perspectives, we did not talk about our feelings as much as we should have.

IL: What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?

SK and GP: So many aspects of the conflict: more perspectives of women, mothers, daughters, sisters caught in conflict and how they cope with the trauma; the psychological impact of death and dying on the children of Kashmir; the stories of the mental health facilities, the orphanages; more about the daily life of the IDPs living in the camps in Jammu.

IL: Tell us about a scene in PROJECT KASHMIR that especially moved or resonated with you.

SK and GP: When Aarti, a Hindu Kashmiri, returns to her home in the valley in Kashmir after 16 years of living in exile, we saw a prime example of text and subtext. She had told us repeatedly that her pain was gone, that it was time to move on, that things were over. However, it was clear in her face that it was not. In the scene where she returns home, she comes face to face with her past in a very beautiful and haunting manner.

IL: What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?

SK and GP: The audience response has been very emotional and personal. We find that the post-screening discussions bring out deep feelings from Indians, Pakistanis, and Kashmiris who have directly suffered during these 20 years of conflict. What has been particularly exciting has been the amazing (and sometimes painful) conversation that develops from the shared experience of watching the film and hearing the perspective of the “other.” This is what we wanted: communication, uncertainty, exploration. The issue we saw in our communities (and within ourselves) was that everyone seemed to have an answer, but very few stopped to think about how one asks the questions.

IL: Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

SK and GP: PBS maintains great efforts to reach out to diverse and underrepresented audiences. This is very important to us and really a motivating factor.