The 29-year-old Tariq Tapa serves as writer, director and soundman for his affecting directorial debut, “Zero Bridge.” This bittersweet story set in the Kashmiri city of Srinagar follows the plight of 17-year-old Dilawar (Mohamad Imran Tapa). His adopted mother abandoned him at a young age, leaving him in the care of his abusive uncle (Ali Mohammad Dar). Prone to running away from home, pickpocketing for change and charging high schoolers to do their homework, Dilawar lurks in a constantly disgruntled state of mind, dreaming of a better life outside of town.
Only after forging a friendship with Bani (Taniya Khan), a friendly woman from the local shipping office with an American education, does he begin to brighten up. Unaware that Dilawar once stole her passport, Bani takes an altruistic interest in her oft-neglected new friend, a development that gives the determined Dilawar a false source of hope. Could the duo ride into the sunset by the movie’s end? Life isn’t so simple.
Tapa has cited Roberto Rossellini’s seminal “Germany Year Zero” as an inspiration for the movie’s positioning of a relatively innocent observer trapped in oppressive conditions. That’s a high bar for this comparatively tame narrative, but it certainly bears a number of superficial similarities, particularly the use of a handheld camera. Unlike the war-torn streets of “Year Zero,” however, “Zero Bridge” never takes on major historical connotations. The titular bridge is a centuries-old remnant of colonialist rule that provides entry and exit to the city, but for Dilawar it merely represents a way out from his drab routine.
Lacking encouragement to develop his mind, Dilawar applies it in all the wrong places. After being jailed again for pickpocketing, he returns to “the homework business” while keeping his grumpy uncle at bay. Playing budding entrepreneur leads him to continual dead-ends. “I busted my ass for chump change?” he moans to one overlord after a meager payment for bag theft. The man fires back: “Welcome to the work force.”
Dilawar acts out in the hopes that it will allow him to escape his societal constraints, but instead he digs a deeper hole. In Bani, he finds an equal; despite her eloquence and charm, she struggles to accept her presumed destiny in a forced marriage. Dilawar’s initial attempts to woo the older Bani bring a welcome levity to the film, although once she discovers his illegal activities the movie staggers through a conventional series of developments before arriving at its heartbreaking finish.
Although not a groundbreaking triumph of emotional storytelling, the contrast between Dilawar and Bani is compelling. While their different ages and genders present separate socio-economic boundaries, their goals are connected: They want to leave Sringagar and explore the world.
Political only by implication, “Zero Bridge” works in a larger sense as a story of universal longing. Tapa is nominated for a 2010 Independent Spirit award, a year after the New York-set “Prince of Broadway,” a project to which it bears a certain resemblance. That movie, about an immigrant from Ghana selling counterfeit items in Chinatown, features the same rough aesthetic and moody protagonist trapped by his environment.
Both “Prince of Broadway” and “Zero Bridge” are comparable to Ramin Bahrani’s “Man Push Cart” (2005) and “Chop Shop” (2007). Bahrani’s films also emulate Iranian neorealism, which culled from the earlier Italian tradition. This ongoing cycle speaks to the global dimension of such minuscule productions, which allows them to speak the same language. The cultural barriers are heavily fortified illusions, their differences no more impermeable than the bridge that Dilawar desperately longs to cross.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Released at Film Forum this week long after its festival run, “Zero Bridge” should receive strong notices that will propel further attention when it comes out on DVD, although it seems unlikely to become a breakout hit at this point.
criticWIRE grade: B+