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LAFF | Making a Feature in Kashmir: “Zero Bridge” Director Tariq Tapa

LAFF | Making a Feature in Kashmir: "Zero Bridge" Director Tariq Tapa

Restless teen Dilawar wants to escape his oppressive uncle Ali so badly that he steals passports and sells homework to old schoolmates to raise the necessary cash. When he meets Bani, one of his recent victims, by chance, however, he discovers that her own dreams of escape vanished with her passport. As he and Bani become closer, Dilawar’s plans start to unravel despite their shared determination to find a way out. [Description courtesy of LAFF]

“Zero Bridge”
Narrative Competition
Directed By: Tariq Tapa
Executive Producers: Tyler Brodie, Hunter Gray, Paul Mezey, Calvin Preece, Ed Branstetter
Producers: Hilal Ahmed Langoo, Josee Lajoie, Tariq Tapa
Screenwriter: Tariq Tapa
Cinematographer: Tariq Tapa
Editors: Josee Lajoie, Tariq Tapa
Cast: Mohamad Emran Tapa, Ali Luhammed Dar, Taniya Khan
Music: Niyaz Ah. Patloo, Abdul Hamid, Majid Ah. Malik, Zahoor Ahmad, Danish Ali-Rather, Shervin Motaharian
U.S.A., 2008, 96 mins

[EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling International Spotlight and dramatic and documentary competition directors who have films screening at the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival.]

What initially attracted you to filmmaking and how has that evolved since starting out?
 
A lot of my childhood in 1980s Manhattan was spent in my mother’s graphic design studio on Broadway across from the Flatiron building. She’d be designing logos at her drafting table and I’d be at my little drafting table at work on something: a puppet show, a comic, a story. I learned to read by her encouraging me to enunciate the ad copy and logos she would be hired to design, like when Nippon Video hired her to do box covers for their VHS release of vintage RKO “toons” — Felix, Popeye, Fleischer’s Superman. She also had some Pauline Kael books on the shelves and I just started reading them aloud. Those books and videos laying around her studio were how I first I fell in love with movies. We lived on East 4th Street between 1st and 2nd, and we went to movies all the time; a pretty wide diet, everything from “The Red Shoes” to “Dog Day Afternoon” to “Three Amigos!” to “Days and Nights in the Forest.” The Kael books were useful for tracking down titles to see either at MoMa, or on VHS at places like Kim’s. It was all the same to me; the cartoons and the Hollywood products and the arthouse classics. I still feel that way, actually. And I even still do my work not a desk but at a drafting table, interestingly enough.
 
When I was eight she also bought a  ½” Panasonic camcorder for her business, but I wound up monopolizing it to make probably a hundred meaningless short films for nearly ten years, with friends. I learned to edit between two VCRs. At that time in school, the closest thing to studying filmmaking was to become an English major, which I decided to be after reading Kurosawa’s autobiography, in which he recommends to all aspiring directors that you basically have to try to read all the great novels and plays in the world, because you really need to be a writer first, and you need to keep a log of your memories and impressions of things because creation is really memory. So, I was constantly writing stories and devouring between fourteen to fifteen movies a week for about fifteen years, and keeping a log of what I’d seen. I still do that too, actually! See how nobody ever really changes?

I worked as a projectionist all through college in Houston, for an amazing film programmer who taught me a tremendous amount; I also spent some time in Paris at the Cinematheque. When I was twenty-three, I entered the graduate film program at CalArts, and was already thinking about synethesizing material for what would become ‘Zero Bridge.’
 
How did the idea for your film come about and what excited you to undertake the project?
 
I’d wanted to make a cycle of films in Kashmir for almost a decade. But it seemed impossible, so to keep the flame burning I did other things: for years, I kept a running file of short stories, drawings, short videos — basically a show bible — organized around panoramic themes of contemporary daily life in Srinagar City. Certain characters would reappear in each other’s stories. I kept them in various notebooks. The stories were loosely based on memories of my many times there visiting family, things I read in local papers, stories my dad would tell about his youth. I was just a magpie, really. And then when the time came to go shoot ten years later, I brought some of this material with me for inspiration. (Other stories I want to film in Kashmir, for this and for future films in the cycle, come from these short pieces.)

How did you approach making the film, and were there any pivotal moments of learning during the life of the project for you?

When I arrived, my cousin Hilal showed his friends the short stories in my bible but crossed out my name to get their objective reactions to what I — an outsider — had written. The reactions were positive; people were entertained and some even felt it was the work of some new local writer. I was in Kashmir for three months before I had the story for “Zero Bridge.” I wanted to write something accurate to how Kashmiri daily life had changed from my memories and received stories, but I wanted to write about matters close to my heart. Using ideas and emotions from some of the stories, I wrote a 140-page screenplay for “Zero Bridge” in two weeks.

But immediately upon finishing the screenplay, I realized it was useless. None of the first-time actors I wanted to cast would understand how to analyze a script the way a trained actor would, much less make sense of the strange screenplay format. So I threw away that screenplay and decided to make things more instinctive. Really, I didn’t need the script anymore. Instead, I wrote a 10-page scene outline that just described the important scenes, who was in them, what happened and why, what the important dialogue was, etc. That’s what we rehearsed with for three months. And that now closely resembles the finished movie.

I didn’t initially anticipate being my sole crew, but the decision to record sound while shooting and directing the actors all simultaneously came really by circumstance. I realized that, in that environment, it was a better use of my time just to plunge in than to wait around recruiting and coordinating a crew. Besides, people shoot documentaries that way all the time, so why not a fiction feature? Some of the inspiration to make “Zero Bridge” and to dramatize people’s daily lives came from Renoir and from Ermanno Olmi, whose films I brought with me and showed to the cast who were delighted by them. They too were inspired by the spontaneity and respectfulness in Maestro Olmi’s work. I decided to apply those same qualities to all aspects of the production while remembering to keep things as personal as possible.

And then actually getting to meet Mr. Olmi at Venice last year for the world premiere was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I mean there I was in Kashmir making my little no-budget movie, some broke film student with a video camera and some DVDs, and whenever I felt like praying, I’d watch one of his movies (made 40-50 years ago!) and feel better and find the strength to keep going; as if he were right there speaking right to me. And then, just a year later, we met face to face and spent a few days together in Venice! It was like magic!

What were some of the biggest challenges in making the film?

Kashmir is an occupied territory partitioned between India and Pakistan, basically still a war zone. This situation causes logistical nightmares simply because one has little control over one’s own destiny in a place where personal safety, civil rights, a fixed price economy, communications, and infrastructure are all deeply, maddeningly uncertain most of the time. A lot of time was spent waiting, planning, anticipating, dealing with endless setbacks such as strikes, violence, protests, curfews.

Casting was also very tough because I insisted on exclusively first-time, non-professional performers, people who didn’t have any aspirations to be on camera. This was generally met with a lot of resistance, sometimes hostility. People in Kashmir didn’t understand why I didn’t have any dance sequences, or why there was no propaganda. What kind of movie was I really trying to make? Most were suspicious. Or sometimes people would finally be cast, shoot for a day and then quit, out of fear or reprisal or because they decided I wasn’t paying them enough. I had casting calls and looked at many people for the lead before realizing my cousin Imran, my production assistant, was already perfect. I went to a construction site and shot a short doc of the crew at work. It was there that I met Ali Muhammed, one of the masons. He was interested in what I was doing and we became friends. I cast him before I knew which part he would play. After casting Ali and Imran, I still had to cast Bani. I found her after posting notices at several girls technical colleges – there are no drama schools – in the city. I decided to cast Taniya, a computer science student, for the role after I had her practice several scenes with Imran. That was enough to start shooting. During the frequent interruptions, I often ran into people who I used to fill out the bit parts.

Are there any interesting anecdotes from the shoot?

On the day we shot the scene with the black market passport dealer, the part still had not been cast. For weeks I had been “reassured” by one of the other bit actors that he knew the perfect guy and I would meet him when the time was right. I didn’t find out he was a gangster until I showed up with my camera and microphones. So, I met this gentleman, very nice, offered tea, a lovely host. And he absolutely looked the part I had in mind, and I liked the way he carried himself and thought he would work out as an actor. When the subject of money came up, he was surprisingly blase about it. He seemed to understand my situation and just wanted to help. So I said “Great, let’s set up, here’s the scene…” and as I was talking he wasn’t really listening because he suddenly started changing his clothes; completely changing his appearance, making himself look, eventually, like a Kashmiri version of Stallone as Rambo, complete with black wife-beater and headband. I said ‘What is this?’ and he said ‘You wanted a tough guy? I’m looking tough for you.’ I explained that that was very thoughtful of him to think of his character but really he was already quite tough the way he was naturally. There was a pause and he looked at me, confused, so I explained: ‘It’s a more realistic kind of story, not Bollywood.’ Another pause. Then he grimaced and yanked off his headband, muttering, ‘Ugh, not another one of those ‘art’-movies.’ I convinced him to do it anyway, and I think he’s great in the movie.

What other genres or stories would you like to explore?

I love stories about boundaries and thresholds – metaphorical or concrete – of one form or another: emotional, moral, legal, geographic. So I’ve always been drawn to characters that credibly accommodate those themes. I’d like to have a two-pronged career; one in the States where I work in the commercial arena, and one where I have this cycle of tiny personal movies.

What other projects are you looking to do?

I have three projects in development to that end. I was commissioned by XYZ Films and Time Inc. Studios to write a mini-series about the origin, rise, and decline of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, from 1919 to 1972. I’ve spent the last 12 months doing the research and writing the comprehensive bible and plots for it. It’s been great: there’s an insane amount of material. People have a cartoonish idea of who this guy really was. The trick has been trying to forget that and just let the characters come to life. I’ve also been developing my next script to direct — a comedy with a large cast, set in the States. I can’t reveal more about it right now. The third script sitting on my hard drive is the next Kashmir film I want to direct; sort of a Kashmiri version of Olmi’s ‘The Tree of Wooden Clogs’; but that will wait for little bit, not for the very next film.

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