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Directors Senain Kheshgi and Geeta V. Patel probe the Kashmiri conflict by turning their cameras on themselves in Project Kashmir.
The documentary competition at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival was dominated by films about larger-than-life personalities who push narratives forward with their determined grit. An eccentric artist, a courageous feminist, a determined school principal, a pioneering actor, and groundbreaking politician -- these were heroic figures who defined Asian American struggle at the festival this year. Project Kashmir stood apart by diverging from the one-man's-struggle and tell a tale of human relationships.
At this moment, the South Asian subcontinent is facing significant challenges. A civil war, featuring a violent rebel force and brutal anti-terror campaign, has put civilians in the line of fire in the island nation of Sri Lanka. A paramilitary mutiny in Bangladesh in February left at least 70 dead and threatened the stability of the country's already fragile democracy. Militant attacks have plagued Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India, particularly in recent months, further straining the countries' already tenuous relationships. Age-old enmities plague this part of the world and fuel political violence.
What comes to the fore in Project Kashmir is that these disputes are not limited to the subcontinent. How these enmities create mistrust and destroy relationships, between Kashmiris and foreigners alike, is the principal question of the documentary. Indeed, Kashmir is a place whose geopolitics and day-to-day problems embody South Asia's greatest conflicts: rich versus poor, India versus Pakistan, Hindu versus Muslim. The region, which has been disputed between Pakistan and India since partition, has been a hotbed of violence for over 60 years. What Project Kashmir does, however, is more than just show how hatred grows in violent places. It shows how those battles seep into people, notably the filmmakers themselves.
Senain Kheshgi and Geeta V. Patel had a simple idea. Two American friends -- one Muslim and one Hindu -- would visit Kashmir with cameraman Ross Kauffman, an Academy Award winner for his work on the documentary Born Into Brothels. It would be a journey into the heart of war, a film about people who have lived in conflict their entire lives but are not often given a voice in the international media.
Kheshgi explains it this way: "I was feeling very claustrophobic and having a hard time telling people that I was Muslim in the United States after September 11." She wanted to see how the people of Kashmir handle this kind of struggle. Patel had more of an academic interest; she had studied international policy and human rights issues at Duke University and was preparing to write a novel about Kashmir.
Muslim and Hindu communities in the United States have deep divisions. Prejudices are passed down through generations to create a "quiet conflict" a continent away from South Asia. Patel and Kheshgi wanted to probe these conflicts at their source. As it turns out, the source of the divisions was much closer to home than they realized.
In one pivotal scene, the filmmakers are in the backseat of a car, discussing the things that divide Hindus and Muslims. They arrive at a fundamental disagreement about idol worship and end up sitting in uncomfortable silence. Before long, the friends find themselves personally involved in the conflict they had come to witness.
"I was shocked by my own alliances and my emotional reactions. I had to confront my identity," Patel says. "The politics of that place sort of stays with you," Kheshgi adds. Kashmir's conflict is not simply religious, but loyalties tend to divide along those lines. Muslims and Hindus, as these two Americans experienced for themselves, just stop talking. "The silence is a form of violence. The silence is something that perpetuates violence," says Patel.
When the filmmakers are the main characters, they have to make the tough decision about how to portray themselves. Patel and Khesghi in Project Kashmir are courageously honest about their encounters with conflict. It took two years to edit the film. In that time, they were forced to talk about what they were seeing in the footage. In choosing scenes, they were forced to acknowledge each other. "For us, that was the moment of conflict resolution," says Kheshgi.
Their evolving relationship is interwoven with the stories of three Kashmiris who have lived in these complicated situations their whole lives. The documentary pulls back the curtain of filmmaking to show the awkward relationships that develop between documentarians and their sources. Expectations and disappointments build up, and like in Kashmir itself, trust becomes tenuous.
Khesghi, a former journalist, says in the film that she is scared of falling in love with Kashmir. She explains later that she did not expect to feel such a great connection to the place, that she was worried that she was "falling down the rabbit hole" and would not be able to maintain an objective voice. But how the filmmakers lose the objectivity of being outsiders is precisely the strength of the film. The audience gets to watch, and more importantly understand people who fall down the rabbit hole of a conflict that inevitably becomes deeply personal. They become the witnesses to war, in an intimate way that sheds great light on the nature of how conflicts grow.
Project Kashmir will air on PBS' Independent Lens in the 2009-10 season, with the date to be announced.
Date Posted: 4/3/2009