Thursday, October 25, 2012

Valley of Saints [2012]

MPAA (Unrated would be PG-13/R)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing -

Valley of Saints [2012] written and directed by Musa Syeed, is an Indian/USA film (Kashmiri w. English subtitles) that played recently at the 48th Annual Chicago International Film Festival (Oct. 11-25, 2012).  It is set in and around Dal Lake in the Valley of Saints in the disputed territory (between India and Pakistan) of Kashmir.  The Kashmiri conflict forms an important part of the backdrop to the story.

Afzal (played by Mohammad Afzal), 20-something years old, along with his best friend Gulzar (played by Gulzar Ahmed Bhat) is a humble taxi/tourist boatman.  The two make their livings paddling tourists in their boats around the lake to the various islands, lotus gardens and so forth.  The beginning of the story finds Afzal beginning his day pretty much like any other day, helping his aging and somewhat ailing traditionally Muslim uncle get up.

Afzal appears to have some special concern about his uncle that day as apparently the uncle is going to travel somewhere reasonably distant for some kind of medical checkup.  But after his uncle is on his way (presumably by bus) the day continues like any other day with Afzal, Gulzar and other taxi/tourist boatmen hustling for customers onshore.  Eventually both get gigs, Afzal taking a young long-haired European couple to one of the islands, Gulzar meeting him on the island with his boat after taking somewhere as well.

However, this is Kashmir... So what began as a "normal day" soon ceases to be one.  While the two friends were transporting their customers to the island somewhere in the middle of the lake a riot broke-out onshore and the military authorities imposed a week-long 24 hour curfew on the cities onshore.  So the two find themselves stuck now on this island for a number of days.  Would Afzal's uncle be able to come home from his trip to the medical clinic?  Perhaps he made it back before the curfew was imposed, perhaps not.  In any case, "normal life" is frozen for a week and the two are stuck on the island.

While stuck on the island, the two come across a young woman, Indian/Kashmiri like they were named Asifa (played by Neelofar Hamid).  She was a university student (more probably a graduate student) who had come back to Dal Lake to study its environmental degradation.  Apparently not only is the Kashmiri conflict going on, but with the increase of population and general increase of "stuff" the overall environmental quality of the lake has been going down as well and it becomes progressively clear to the viewer that all kinds of garbage and refuse is being thrown or otherwise dumped into the lake.

A somewhat "impossible romance" naturally starts to develop.  Afzal, a humble boatman falls for the exotic and far more educated Asifa.  As a result, some traditional gender roles do reverse.  Trying to impress Asifa, Afzal cooks for her (Indeed, one gets the sense that Asifa probably would have been rather lost on the island during the curfew if not for Afzal).  On the other hand and certainly at the beginning of their interaction, Asifa treats Afzal as basically an underling "in need of an education" (by her) of how to treat the lake with respect.  In one scene he shows her a bathroom and she proceeds to draw him a plan for an "environmentally sound one" ... ;-).

Nevertheless, Afzal does seem to grow on Asifa...  However, remember folks that in many respects this is a "traditional Muslim movie" ;-).  So Westerners especially may find it "surprising" that the budding relationship doesn't seem to go anywhere.  Or honestly, does it (go nowhere)?  This aspect of the story becomes fascinating for me because it offers an invitation for viewers (and readers here) to reflect on the question of _when_ does a friendship (or even relationship) become _meaningful_?   And yes, I do believe that this film does offer an alternative to contemporary Western cultural "orthodoxy" on the matter.  :-)

The other aspect of the film that I found fascinating was the number of "levels of action"/"things happening" that are present in the film:  There was (1) the story of Afzal's uncle's gradual decline in health.  There's (2) the story of the three young protagonists' struggles to "grow-up" (finish school, achieve a stable and secure existence) and _begin_ their (adult) lives.  Both of these stories would fall into the realm of "the natural/human order of things."  But then there's (3) the intrusion and obvious resentment of the conflict in Kashmir: There's enough suffer, there are enough problems in life, why add political/military conflict to the mix?  Then there's (4) the (current) gradual decline in the quality of the Lake.  Even as Hindus/Muslims, India and Pakistan are fighting for this (previously) beautiful piece of land, it's being poisoned and _may_ become a lifeless cesspool to whoever ends up finally "winning" that political conflict.  Finally there's (5) a "timeless" dimension to the story, something that Afzal appears to be struggling with.  During the course of the film, Afzal narrates the story of why the area in which he lives is called "The Valley of Saints:"  At some time immemorial, there was a demon who lived in the lake that used to attack small children.  The Saints (giant, presumably at least partly supernatural beings) came and killed the demon, making the lake safe for the people who lived around it.  During the course of the film, Afzal repeatedly asks "Where are 'the Saints' now?" in the midst of all the suffering mostly political/military but also in regards to the lake's declining capacity to sustain life.  And yet, the story says that "life on the lake" has been guaranteed "safe" by those "Saints" since pretty much the beginning of time.  So is life "safe" or has it been pretty much _always_ rather "precarious" and yet are we still somehow guaranteed by those "Saints" (supernatural beings / Religion) that All will turn out well in the end?

This is a simple story that ends up asking some really big questions!  Very good job!

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