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February 24, 2010 9:22 AM
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Spirits 2010 |"Zero Bridge"'s Tariq Tapa: "We were starting from ground zero every day"

A scene from Tariq Tapa's "Zero Bridge." Image courtesy of the film's official website.

"We were purely going along by what we could carry on our backs or what we could solve with our hands. It was a very savage or primitive way of working, but I think it taught me to appreciate the things about filmmaking that I took for granted." That's how "Zero Bridge" director Tariq Tapa sums up his experience making a film in Kashmir with a cast of non-professional actors and no crew. Nominated for a John Cassavetes Award at the Independent Spirit Awards, Tapa discusses the challenges of shooting in a city with little to no infrastructure for making films and how he realized his dream project.

Tapa on his background and Spirit-nominated film "Zero Bridge"...

"Zero Bridge" is my first feature. I made it in Kashmir with no crew, a cast of non-professionals, no money, and the cheapest equipment on the market. To the best of my knowledge, it's the first narrative film in 40 years that was made in (and which is about) life in a Kashmiri city.

I grew up on E4th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue in the East Village in the 80's and early 90's. When I saw "Taxi Driver" at age 10, my street was exactly like the world I saw on screen. I became obsessed with that movie, because it was the first one I saw that engaged with my world and could tell me - without words - what life was like. It was a revelation that movies could actually do such things.

Since then, it's fair to say I've become obsessed with a particular theme: the weight of the past on present behavior. That theme is really the secret subject of every story and also of everyone's life, including mine. Plus, it can credibly accommodate a variety of different forms. "Zero Bridge" is simply one version of it.

Kashmir appealed to me as a place in which I could set that theme. It's the perfect setting for it because the stakes of life in Kashmir are already high, which means that the film resonates on a variety of levels simultaneously. That formulation is compounded and complicated when the story is told from the point of view of a morally ambiguous main character.

So, although I didn't grow up in Kashmir (my father and extended family still live there), during frequent family visits, my interest in it grew over the years primarily for the material that such a world provided for stories. For a long time I was afraid to make a movie there so I just wrote short stories instead. When I turned 24 I realized there was nothing I wanted to do more, so I just decided to take the gamble.

I began by expanding one of the short stories into a screenplay, for a different film. I did over a year's worth of pre-production and arrived alone with a backpack's worth of equipment in September 2006, only to have everything fall apart in the first month. Fortunately, I still had all my equipment and the other short stories. So I started over again - from scratch - on a new film. The result is Zero Bridge, which finished shooting in May 2007. But I don't mourn all that lost work on the first film, because I think it helped me to respond more intuitively during "Zero Bridge." It's like that old saying: "Visions come to prepared spirits."

"Zero Bridge" was made under extreme circumstances. It was shot in Kashmir. I had no crew and none of the entirely local cast had acted before or had any ties to moviemaking. They were initially suspicious of the whole idea because movies about regular people's lives haven't really caught on there yet. All anybody knows is Bollywood and Hollywood blockbusters. To begin, I showed the cast DVDs I brought with me - films by Olmi, Kurosawa, Truffaut, Ozu, Rossellini, but also Chinatown and The Purple Rose of Cairo and many others. Each week was another cinematheque, with everybody in the room clustered around my laptop. We bonded over that. They started to get the idea of how I wanted to do "Zero Bridge."

After I wrote the script, I rehearsed for three months with the cast, and scouted locations. It took a while to go around showing people the story, getting permissions, setting up wages for people, etc.

We began shooting in February 2007 and ended in April 2007. We could usually only shoot for a few hours a day, a few days a week, because of the extraordinarily difficult circumstances, which included military curfews, demonstrations, bomb blasts, power failures, strikes, extreme weather, and many others. Over the course of those 12 weeks, we probably shot 30 days at most. No day was ever more than 4 hours, usually just 2 or 3. So everything had to be extremely economical and precise during rehearsals and when I planned my coverage, because actual shooting time was so limited. Then at night, my cousin would translate the footage, by time-code, on my laptop. We wound up with 1500 pages worth of transcripts, which were later on invaluable during editing.

My production method became: arrive, mike the actors or plant some mikes, review the scene with the cast, get the coverage and performances I needed, and then split. Since I was shooting it like a documentary, I had a little leeway with continuity but not that much. Most times we could only shoot something a couple of times before we'd have to move.

Basically, I learned to work quickly while also keeping performance, camera, sound, story, and continuity all in my head at once during each take. That was tiring, but it was manageable in the time we had to work with. It was so difficult shooting "Zero Bridge" that in the 9 months I stayed in Kashmir, I was only able to shoot less than 40 hours of footage. Still, I got what I needed to make the story work and had enough options when editing back in the US. Amazingly, the finished film really resembles the original script. So overall, probably not much different of a time scale than a typical low-budget movie made anywhere else. (But next time it would be really nice to be able to afford to work with a real crew like I had on the shorts I made.).

On the days we couldn't shoot, I'd rehearse, rewrite, or record sounds for the soundtrack. Intent on having a soundtrack of strictly native Kashmiri sounds, I recorded a whole sound library's worth of ambience, effects, and music all native to Kashmir. I would write sounds into the script in order to use them to help tell the story instead of relying on too much dialogue, and then I'd go find and record those sounds. Things like prayer calls, nature, traffic, radio, and Kashmiri folk music all helped flesh out the world of the story. Plus they were royalty free.

Details about Kashmiri life remain little known to the rest of the world, which means that for a movie, there's a good chance to surprise audiences with what can happen in the story. By being so rigorously specific about every choice - including the casting, the locations, the sounds, and the music - I was ultimately trying to present an intimate, clear vision of what life is like there. Neither the occasional Bollywood melodrama nor CNN reports of terrorism really reflect the specific feelings of people's experiences. The story is about how the characters' connections and individual dreams are set against the formidable power structures which govern daily life, including family, religion, politics, economics, and fate. The movie is a portrait of a very particular society, seen through the eyes of some of its youngest and most vulnerable members.

I've mentioned this somewhat, but to sum it up: due to the series of natural, political, and economic disasters that have devastated the region over the past several decades, there is very little industrial infrastructure in Kashmir, and virtually none for making or viewing feature films. No major studios or labs exist except for a couple of very small local channels which mostly handle business PSAs. The only video shooting that's done is for weddings and local news. In the past twenty years the movie theaters have all been converted into police and military structures. (That is, until recently, when one theater did bravely re-open but sadly its business has been poor). I sincerely doubt that anyone there currently under the age of 30 has ever sat in a theater and seen a film. History has robbed this generation of cinema. For pleasure, people watch soaps
and blockbusters on satellite TV. In Kashmir, cinema is the word for what exists only between commercials.

So, to propose making a movie there - especially with no crew and no money - really means getting a lot of blank stares. It was like walking up to people on the street and asking if they wanted to build a rocket ship. Not only did we get no help, but people began to think we were up to trouble. So, we had to work discreetly and we had to reinvent the wheel of film production at every step of the process, including things like: halting shooting in order to find electricity and fuel during shortages; or halting rehearsals due to police curfews, bomb blasts, or demonstrations. Sometimes, if we needed something to accomplish a given task and the thing we needed didn't exist, we'd have to teach ourselves how to make it. And when we couldn't do that, we had to just learn how to continue without it. And each day, the entire film nearly fell apart because of anything that would intrude right at the last minute. It was exhausting. But, because we were starting from ground zero every day, it gave us the feeling that we were also inventing cinema itself as we went along, as crazy as that sounds. We were purely going along by what we could carry on our backs or what we could solve with our hands. It was a very savage or primitive way of working, but I think it taught me to appreciate the things about filmmaking that I took for granted.

On receiving a Spirit nomination...

High praise, indeed. Everyone on our team was shocked and is deeply appreciative of the Spirit nominations, because we know they came from fellow filmmakers and programmers who had no other incentive to nominate it other than because they liked it and wanted to champion it. In my view, that's the best thing that can happen to any film in any awards season: when people respond to something not necessarily because it's been heavily marketed but because they just remembered enjoying it and want to celebrate it.

The nominations themselves have definitely raised our film's awareness among a broader American audience which now has a chance to discover it for themselves. That kind of public championing is a way for broader audiences who might otherwise be turned off by the film's subject matter to now give it a chance. If they do, I really think they will be moved by the story and performances. "Zero Bridge" will finally open in theaters this year. We'll be posting some announcements very soon about its release on our website and on our Facebook page.

Tapa on his favorite independent films of the last year...

I still haven't seen much of 2009's films, but I would submit that there is absolutely no such thing as independent filmmaking. It's become a fashionable and attractive notion but it's never been
true, for anyone. There was a writer who said: "If you truly want to make an apple pie from scratch, first you must invent the universe." That is to say that all filmmaking has its masters with whom we each compromise, and all filmmaking depends upon others to do so lest we fail. Even for "Zero Bridge" - which was basically as independent as anything gets - we still relied upon other people's contributions to reach this point.

Instead, I would suggest that the only useful way to judge any film is not by its mode of production, but by the one thing that actually makes it endure: its point-of-view. A good film may tell its story well and offer the gratifications we separately seek as individuals, but a truly great film distinguishes itself by its encompassing vision of the world. Of the films I saw in 2009 (and forgive me but there are many I still haven't seen as of this writing), here were the ones, in no particular order, that I thought transcended the requisites of good storytelling enough to offer visions of the world:

"Terra Madre" - Ermanno Olmi
"Up" - Pete Docter
"The Hurt Locker" - Kathryn Bigelow
"Parque Via" - Enrique Rivero
"Invictus" - Clint Eastwood
"The Queen and I" - Nahid Persson Sarvestani
"Antichrist" - Lars Von Trier
"35 Rhums" - Claire Denis

And, on what he's got in the works...

I just finished two years' of research and development of a dramatic mini-series for television. It's about the origin, rise, and decline of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. As you can imagine, my favorite theme fits that particular world and its characters. The series bible is currently being packaged.

While that makes the rounds, I'm writing my next film to direct, which is set in the US and is about a crime that anyone could commit.

This is part of a series of profiles and interviews that indieWIRE will be publishing in the days leading up to the 2010 Film Independent Spirit Awards that profiles nominees in the Best First Feature and John Cassavetes Award categories. Previous editions include:

Spirits 2010: "Crazy Heart" Director Scott Cooper: “Truly independent in spirit.”
Spirits 2010 | Tom Ford: "I have always been obsessed by film."

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