The New Posterboy of Indie Films set for a Venice Debut
Tariq Tapa made “Zero Bridge” almost single handedly. He wrote, directed, shot, recorded sound and even co-edited it. During the shoot he stayed with his relatives in Kashmir and financed the film from his Fulbright scholarship. The film is now ready for a world premiere at Venice Film Festival. Bikas Mishra spoke to the filmmaker
“Zero Bridge” is the only Indian film (an Indo-US production) selected this year for the upcoming Venice Film Festival. Made by Tariq Tapa, New York born, Kashmiri filmmaker’s debut feature film will be screened in the “Orizzonti” section of the festival that according to the organizers “aims to provide a picture of new trends in cinema”
Tariq studied filmmaking at the Graduate Film Directing Program at the California Institute of the Arts, where he made several short films, including Custody (2005, 10 mins), which was a finalist at the from 2006 Student Academy Awards. He received a U.S. Fulbright Scholarship in 2006 to Kashmir, India where he made his thesis (and debut) feature film Zero Bridge single handedly, while staying with relatives from September 2006 until June 2007.
American independent cinema publication, Filmmaker Magazine recently featured Tariq in its tenth annual survey titled “25 new faces of independent films“.
“Zero Bridge” is the story of Dilawar, a teenage pickpocket planning to escape his strict uncle, Ali Muhammed, a mason who struggles to make ends meet and to raise the rebellious youth. Dilawar’s plans take a twist when he forms an unusual bond to Bani, a bright, nurturing woman whose life he ruined during a recent stealing spree. Dilawar’s actions lead him to a moral crisis that endangers his friendship with Bani, as well as both of their futures.
Tariq spoke to Bikas in an online interview. Excerpts-
You’re born and brought up in the US, what memories you’ve of Kashmir?
My earliest memories of Kashmir are of my cousins and I playing with our grandmother by the Jhelum River near our houseboat beneath Zero Bridge. Every summer my father brought my mother and I to Kashmir to visit his family. When war broke in 1989, the visits stopped. My parents later divorced, and I became absorbed in my own life like a typical American teenager. Years passed before I went back to reconnect with my relatives.
Why did you decide to make your first feature in Kashmir?
I eventually decided to make a film in Kashmir because I found that none of the outside voices describing it accurately captured the daily lives of average Kashmiri people. I thought that a film introducing the lives of a few Kashmiri citizens and their daily hopes and fears would show their humanity more intimately than the usual Western documentaries on the Kashmir Situation or the Bollywood products that treat it purely as an exotic backdrop.
Tell us little bit about the process of making “Zero Bridge”?
Over several years, I kept a running file of stories and drawings based on the lives of my family members, and then when the time came I brought all this material with me for inspiration. All the stories I want to tell in Kashmir, for this and for future films, come from this file.
I was in Kashmir for three months before I started writing the story for Zero Bridge. I waited a few months because I wanted to write something ethnographically accurate to Kashmir, but at the same time I wanted to write about matters close to my heart. I wrote a 140-page screenplay for Zero Bridge in 2 weeks.
But immediately upon finishing it, I realized it was useless. None of the first-time actors I wanted to cast would understand how to analyze a script the way a trained actor would, much less make sense of the weird screenplay format. (In fact, one of the actors, Ali Muhammed, was illiterate. He decided to learn his entire part by heart, bless him. He usually could perform a scene after hearing the story read aloud only once). So I threw away that script and decided to make things much more intuitive.
Instead, I wrote a detailed 10-page scene outline that just described the important scenes, who was in them, what happened and why, what the important dialogue was, and distilled and connected them all in a way that flowed like a story and that now closely resembles the finished movie.
Where do you draw your inspirations from as a filmmaker?
Some of the inspiration to make Zero Bridge and to show the daily lives of Kashmiri people came from the neo-realist filmmakers before me, particularly the films of Ermanno Olmi. I was inspired by the invisibility, spontaneity, modesty, and respectfulness that I saw in Mr. Olmi’s work. I decided to apply those same qualities to all aspects of the production – casting, locations, dialogue, camera, music – while remembering to keep things as personal as possible, including adding touches of humor wherever appropriate. Humor is an essential tool to cope with the daily injustices of Kashmiri life, which meant that humor was also essential when portraying Kashmiri life.
Was it difficult shooting in Kashmir?
My first production office was in a very poor, very conservative religious neighborhood. When the news came that Saddam Hussein was hanged, the residents of that neighborhood erupted in violent protests. In the midst of these protests, I had the auditions for the part of Dilawar. One morning I found a scarecrow made from a potato-sack hanging by a noose from a post in front of my window. There was a sign pinned to the front of the scarecrow – EVIL MR. BUSH – and people began to stone it and then set fire to it. Stones went through our window and broke the glass. I didn’t think anyone knew who I was or that I had an American passport, because they could see that physically I was a Kashmiri and spoke some of their language. But still, I was worried that things would get even more out of hand. I called off auditions and set up a new office in a new neighborhood, which turned out to be much, much worse.
A few weeks later, I arrived at the new office to find that there was an angry mob of about a hundred men, waiting in front of my door. They were there to confront me about some rumors they had heard that I was a foreigner making a pornographic film. Of course they had no proof of this, they were just a belligerent group of idle men looking for an excuse to cause trouble. Then, someone threw a flaming bottle through the window and set fire to the office. That’s when people just went completely crazy and it became a free-for-all. Then someone grabbed the keys of my motorcycle so I couldn’t make a fast getaway. I panicked and just started running for my life. I passed by a man who saw what was happening. He got on his motorcycle, swung around, I hopped on and we got away. From then on, I decided that having an office was too visible, that I should not announce my presence anymore because it was attracting too much hostility.
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. After a few days, there was a knock on my family’s door. It was the police coming to take me away. The police told me I was guilty of causing a disturbance, and of making a pornographic film. I had to go down to the police station, and spent weeks doing damage control on this insane situation. I had to give depositions, was made to wait in offices for days on end. I was being ground up in the gears of police state machinery, all because of some idle person’s hearsay. What a real reminder it was of what many people go through regularly in Kashmir, only usually much worse. The oddest thing of all was that this whole episode (my brief incarceration and the investigation) all came months after I had written the fictional story of Dilawar and his similar ordeal.
Apart from writing and directing Zero Bridge, you’re also credited for camera, sound and editing (along with Josee Lajoie)? Budget was a constraint or you wanted a complete creative control by doing almost everything?
Regardless of its size or subject, every creative enterprise presents limitations that must be treated as springboards for creative solutions. So rather than wishing for more money or control, my working method had to do with an instinct that for a film in Kashmir, intimacy and mobility would be the keys to capturing truthful, spontaneous performances. For instance, I knew I wanted to watch the actors really live into their performances, which meant I would have to shoot over a long period of time, for several months. And once I decided to achieve that with people who had never acted before, and in a place where it’s quite difficult to film, then it just so happened that keeping things small-scale made the non-professional cast much more relaxed and capable of giving better performances. I believe that acting is something that anyone can do, given the right role and the right working atmosphere. But to achieve that, everything must be sacrificed for performance, even if that meant I had to work without any crew. Whatever it takes to make the actor most comfortable, whether professional or amateur.
Which festivals the film has been selected for so far?
At this time, we are only able to confirm we will be in attendance for the Venice world premiere, which is a huge honor and we are all thrilled as we believe that this is the perfect place to premiere the film.
Are you in touch with Indian festivals, distributors? Any plans of Indian release or festival screening?
At this time we are interviewing foreign sales agents and discussing how the film will open in all markets world-wide, including India.
Have you started working on your next feature project, any details if you can share?
I’m preparing two more features: Young Offender, which I’ll shoot in Texas, and then, in 2010, another picture to be shot in Srinagar. I will absolutely preserve the same level of intimacy in production (as the no-crew Zero Bridge)… but I would really like to bring along one or two other crew members