From the ‘Zero Bridge’

A Kashmiri-American director shot his film ‘Zero Bridge’ in Kashmir that tells the story of common people in Kashmir. Nafeesa Syeed interacts with the young director in Washington.

Tariq Tapa is the kind of storyteller who wants to be forgotten.  Instead, the U S based filmmaker says, it’s the story itself and the truth it conveys that should live on.

“It’s not about me,” Tapa says. “My job is just to be the vessel by which this truth can be shared with others.” That’s the type of authentic experience he is hoping audiences to walk away with after seeing his film, “Zero Bridge.” Set in Srinagar, the feature film follows Dilawar, a teenager who lives with his strict uncle and has his sights set on Delhi, where he hopes to join his adoptive mother. The fictional movie, which Tapa wrote, directed and produced, chronicles the boy’s travails and other characters he meets while toiling toward his goal.

The film has screened at several prestigious film festivals in the last year, including the Marrakech International Film Festival in Morocco. Tapa says there are plans to bring it to South Asia in coming months.

The 28-year-old, who’s clean-shaven and dark-haired and all smiles in his festival photos, spent nine months between 2006 and 2007 making the film in Srinagar, while on a scholarship. He then spent many months editing it into a 96-minute film, in which local actors converse in their native tongue, topped off with a traditional Kashmiri folk song soundtrack.

No matter the obstacles he faced – whether lack of resources or logistical hurdles – Tapa says the thought of quitting never crossed his mind. “I think if you have something you feel in your heart is true, then it’s up to you to share it,” he says. “It’s not up to you if that’s easy.”

His determination started early on, during his childhood in New York City. His mother, who is an American, introduced him to film classics and master moviemakers. By age 10, he and his friends were drafting scripts and using a VHS camera to make plenty of “meaningless movies,” he says.

Later, Tapa studied English at university to learn from past poetry and prose and then enrolled in a film-directing program to hone his craft.

He now lives in the San Francisco Bay area of northern California.

Films encompass all artistic mediums, and when done right they seem like magic, he says. He knew he had to make it his life’s work.

In a “movie you are projecting yourself onto the screen, you’re projecting your own inner life,” Tapa says. “It’s like your dreams coming to life … so that to me is the most exciting part about it.”

Tapa had some short films under his belt, then plunged into his debut feature project when he arrived in Kashmir, his father’s homeland. He knew he wanted to make a film that provided insight into the lives of a few average Kashmiris, transcending political headlines and exotic Bollywood backdrops. By no means, however, did he see his role as a propagandist. He just wanted to tell a story.

Though he wasn’t exactly a complete outsider – Tapa had visited Kashmir several times before and recalls playing with cousins under Zero Bridge along the Jhelum – he acknowledges there was a learning curve. He revised his scripts constantly and struggled to cast first-time actors (his preference). Rehearsals and shooting also came with challenges.

But Tapa kept at it, sometimes revisiting his favourite filmmakers, such as the Italian director Ermanno Olmi, for inspiration as he plugged along. Besides being flexible, the key to the project, he says, was approaching it from the ground-up.

“The proper humility when you’re making a story in another culture is your first responsibility – to humble yourself before the altar of what you’re about to undertake,” Tapa says. “If you do, people will give you the benefit of the doubt, and I learned a whole lot.”

Among the discoveries Tapa made, and which he hopes comes through in the film, is the humour he found in everyday interactions. For instance, he was amused to see the “circular logic” some young people exhibit when trying to reconcile their aspirations and fantasies with adults’ expectations and standards, such as in the relationships between genders. That space between vying worldviews can be a source of both fear and humour, he says.

Though Tapa’s film is yet to screen in Srinagar or other parts of the state, he says reaction from audiences abroad has been positive. The film has travelled to festivals in Africa, Europe and the United States. At the Venice International Film Festival in Italy, Tapa received personal affirmation from Olmi, his hero director, who privately screened “Zero Bridge.”

“He was moved to tears and was very quiet for a long time,” Tapa says of Olmi. “Finally, in Italian, he said: ‘You know if you had filmed this same story in say New York, it wouldn’t have worked; if you had transposed these characters it wouldn’t have been as powerful. Therefore what this means is you really understood this culture, you really got it, and for that you should be really proud.’”

The filmmaker says his experience shows Kashmir is ripe with original narratives. Though it may be a difficult undertaking, he’s optimistic people there will share their stories with the world.

“I think that that possibility of making films in Kashmir has always existed and it will continue to exist, and I hope that we start to see more,” Tapa says. “If a guy with a DV camera working by himself, who didn’t even know how to get to Lal Chowk when he first arrived can do it, trust me, other people can do it too.”

Tapa plans to continue touring with his film this year, and developing other screenplays. And he hopes to one day return to Kashmir to make more films.

For all that he has accomplished though, the young director doesn’t want to be considered a role model. He only urges aspiring artists not to despair, and to use whatever means are available – from cameras to pens – to continue expressing their truths.

“There’s always going to be someone there to tell you ‘no.’ That’s their job. But find a way to do it anyway,” he says. “It may not be everything you’ve hoped, but the fact you’re doing it and you’re not sitting at home is a gift, and that’s a chance to dwell in something larger than yourself.”

Syeed is a Washington-based writer.

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