Saturday, May 15, 2010

Dangerous Real Estate: Project Kashmir

Kashmir has a sizeable Buddhist population in the remote Zanskar region, but you never hear about them. That is because the Muslims and Hindus get all the media and government attention. Killing each other has that advantage. Senain Kheshgi and Geeta V. Patel, two American filmmakers with roots on opposite sides of the partition, traveled to Kashmir to document the situation on the ground in Project Kashmir (trailer here), which airs this coming Tuesday as part of the current season of Independent Lens on PBS.

Kheshgi and Patel have a mysterious guide, who only appears in the film as an electronically distorted voice heard on the other end of their cell phones. He starts them out with one piece of sage advice: “you should not trust anyone, that is important.” Indeed, most of the Kashmiris they talk to seem to have an agenda, like Muzamil Jaleel, the Muslim editor of Indian Express, and Khurram Pervez, an NGO activist. While Project spends more time with them, its strongest scenes capture Hindu Pandit Aarti Tikoo Singh’s heartbreaking return to the burned out husk of her family home.

As they navigate Kashmir’s militant divide, the filmmakers hear a great deal of defensiveness regarding the religious nature of the conflict. Several times, Kheshgi and Patel are told the eviction of the Pandits had more to do with class warfare than religious hatred, as if that were more respectable. Far from challenging their interlocutors, the two filmmakers largely accept everything they are told uncritically. Perhaps most disturbingly, at times they seem to line up on opposite sides of the Kashmir controversy, based on their own religious and ethnic identities.

Though the unseen guide supplies the film’s most salient insights, indeed coming across as an honest broker, Project devotes far too much screen time to decidedly uncinematic scenes of phone calls. However, cinematographer Ron Kaufman successfully a sense of the region’s rugged natural beauty and he and the directors definitely deserve credit for filming under some tense situations, including one of the army’s periodic sweeps for militants.

Despite its periodic protestations to the contrary, Project also reduces the Kashmiri situation to a Hindu versus Muslim conflict. At least in the broadcast cut, no Buddhists and Sikhs (of which there are many), Christians and Jews (who admittedly would probably be difficult to find), or heaven forbid atheists have an opportunity to tell their stories. Again, they do not seem be doing any of the killing, so they do not get the spotlight either.

Ultimately, Kheshgi and Patel come away from Kaashmir without bagging the big story, though certainly not for a lack of trying on their part. While there are fascinating episodes, its context is a bit perfunctory, making it an imperfect introduction to Kashmir for viewers not previously steeped in the regional conflict. It airs on most PBS affiliates this coming Tuesday (5/18).