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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2008 Project Kashmir

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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2008: Project Kashmir

Since the escalation of violence in 1989, 68,000 people have been confirmed dead in the hotly contested Kashmir region of India, but how many people in the United States understand the conflict beyond the easy dichotomies—Hindu/Muslim, India/Pakistan—pedaled by an oversimplifying national media? Regretting their own lack of understanding, two American filmmakers, Geeta V. Patel and Senain Kheshgi, of Indian and Pakistani descent respectively, took their cameras to the war zone, interviewing the locals and finding that, while the standard dualities may still hold, they’re virtually useless if we want to gain a full understanding of the conflict. To take one example, the word militant, so casually applied to any number of Kashmiri Muslims, ranging from the bomb-planting extremist to the average citizen who wants nothing more than to live an ordinary life, becomes so general in its usage that, like that beloved American catch-all “terrorist,” it obscures any possibility of understanding a deeply complex situation.

If the filmmakers remain a largely passive on-screen presence, they soon find they’re not entirely unaffected by the project. Before they realize it, they begin espousing the viewpoints of their parents’ countrymen in a series of gently simmering exchanges that reveal the ease with which latent national/religious identifications are realized in the heat of battle. In the United States, Patel and Kheshgi may be largely assimilated, but in Kashmir, it’s not long before the former is donning an orange sari and the latter is reveling in the solidarity of the region’s Muslim majority. Unfortunately, the implications of these developments, like most of the interesting ambiguities the filmmakers stumble upon, are quickly glossed over and by the time the women are shuttled out of the country at the first sign of approaching danger, they’ve left the audience with only the merest glimpse into the complexity of a disastrously muddled situation and little understanding beyond the simple recognition of that complexity. The film’s final lack of clarity—mirrored in the necessarily jerky camerawork—may be precisely the point, but in the end, it makes for a largely unsatisfying piece of cinema.