Valley of Saints: Finding The Beauty In Kashmir

Among the winners at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Valley of Saints, an environmental drama that casts light on the toll that human habitation and tourism have taken on Kashmir’s lovely Dal Lake. The plot centers around a boatman named Gulzar and his best friend, who are planning to run away from the conflict in the region when a military curfew interferes. When Gulzar gets to know Asifa, a young scientist studying the polluted lake, he gains a new perspective on the beauty that remains in his homeland.

Written and directed by Musa Syeed and funded in part by National Geographic’s All Roads Films Project, “Valley of Saints” blurs the line between documentary and drama. The plot is fictional, but it stars several non-professional actors from Dal Lake’s community of “boat people,” and was filmed during a period of real political unrest in the region. National Geographic intern Antonieta Rico interviewed producer Nicholas Bruckman about the challenges and triumphs of the filmmaking process.

Q. What was it like to film in Kashmir?  

A. It was a wonderful, unforgettable experience, but we had to deal with all of the difficulties Kashmiris face every day. Just like the characters in the movie, we had to break the curfew and sneak into the dangerous city at night to shoot the smuggling scenes. Many of the gunshots and tear gas firings in the film soundtrack are live production sound, going off in the distance from where we were shooting. I recorded sound, and during some of these scenes I would hear the actors heartbeats quicken through their wireless microphones. Our actors grew up in this world, so if they were scared, I knew I should be too.

Q. In the movie, Gulzar’s best friend derides Asifa for caring about the lake’s health while there are “killings, strikes, curfews and people struggling to make a living” in Kashmir. Why did you choose to focus on environmental issues more than political issues?

A. Musa’s family is from Kashmir. His father was a political prisoner in Kashmir in the 1960s and later came to the United States, so Musa had always heard about it as a kid. I think he wanted to tell a story about his homeland, but not a story about the conflict—a story about the people. When I read Musa’s script I really fell in love with it because it is a story of beauty and life in a place known for war and decay. It explores the lake as a reflection of society, and the environment as a reflection of the people.

At its core, the movie is a love story. It’s a love story between two friends, between a man and a young woman, and between a man and his homeland—which is of course, threatened. It could be set anywhere, but it happens to be set in one of the most beautiful places in the world, a place that we might lose, and we hope this film will call attention there.

Q. Why is it called Valley of the Saints?

A. Kashmir has a rich spiritual heritage of all faiths. The saints that are described in the film refer to the old myths and traditions of Kashmir, and the spiritual traditions tie back to the stunning natural environment of Kashmir. I think the film draws the connection between those two things in a very subtle and beautiful way and talks about the things that Kashmir has lost, both in terms of its traditions of interfaith tolerance and in terms of the environment. It is a hopeful film about how those things can be regained.

 Q. What’s next for you two?

A. We are in discussion with distributors to release the film theatrically in the United States, Europe, India and Pakistan. And Musa and I are working on two new films together. We are absolutely planning to bring the film to Dal Lake and we would love to do a screening on the lake and have people row their boats up to the screen.

–Antonieta Rico

Human Journey