Through-line in a land of complication: "Project Kashmir" screens in the Human Rights Watch series at YBCA.

Politics Get Personal in 'Project Kashmir'

Jonathan Kiefer March 19, 2009

The 27th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival was atwitter with talk of interactivity. Center for Asian American Media Executive Director Stephen Gong was shooting the opening night crowd at the Castro with his Flip video camera, encouraging festival-goers to participate in the Best Fest digital photo and video competitions, before he even started in on his welcoming remarks. It was funny to routinely hear plugs throughout the festival for participating in up-to-the-minute virtual attendance in the same breath that audience members were reminded to not text during the screening. To some extent all the Web 2.0 hype seemed to point to the interesting crossroads SFIAFF finds itself at.

This year, SFIAFF feels like it has truly arrived as an internationally recognized platform for cross-Pacific cinematic exchange, thanks to the curatorial savvy and risk-taking of Festival Director Chi-hui Yang and new Assistant Director Vicci Ho, taking the baton from the irreplaceable Taro Goto. Each component of the Festival’s name felt like it had been given equal weight. In addition to feting local talent, and having the pleasure of getting to hear such established directors as Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Ang Lee talk about their work, there were some smart re-envisioning of Asian American life that presented new takes on old identity politics. Film festivals are always a mixed bag, but SFIAAFF27 seemed especially attuned to the points of resonance, as well as dissonance, in its disparate cross-section of films from home, abroad and places in between.

At the same time, SFIAAFF—like many film festivals—has to contend with a changing film marketplace, which is slowly being de-centered by new channels of distribution and exhibition, such as streaming media. I’m not sure if the Festival’s stabs at digital DIY are necessarily going to address the larger issues presented by this shift. Then again, I’m reminded of web critic Clay Shirky’s recent salient point about media sea changes: "The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen."

Whatever the near future holds, it seems there will always be a soft spot for minor key romantic comedies; at least on opening nights. Lee Yoon-ki’s My Dear Enemy was safe and sleepy considering some of the livelier—and perhaps no less crowd-pleasing—films in the festival’s line-up. By the fourth quarter, I had stopped caring if the two exes at its center ever fully kissed and made up, but would light up anytime female lead Jeon Do-yeon focused her kohl-rimmed eyes into a perfect expression of exasperation.

The big ticket on Friday was Tokyo Sonata, the latest film by Japanese auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who also received a mid-career retrospective. My observation on this site last week that Kurosawa’s studies of people in trouble are good medicine for tough times, seemed born out upon re-watching the remarkable final shot of Sonata with an equally breathless audience. Although, I’m not sure if my theory holds water when applied to the revenge diptych Serpent’s Path and Eye of the Spider, which a handful of Kurosawa devotees soldiered through at the Castro late into the night. Even the director jokingly admitted in his gracious prefatory remarks that those coming from the earlier Tokyo screening were in for a "rude awakening." The same could be said of the experimental short films of elder statesman Takahiko Iimura, which delivered a wonderful jolt of energy, absurd humor, and conceptual clarity on a drizzly Saturday afternoon.

Iimura’s precise, short shocks made for a interesting contrast with Dirty Hands: The Art and Crimes of David Choe, Harry Kim’s exhaustive and exhausting decade in the making sprawling portrait of street artist and all around enfant terrible David Choe. Kim’s cut-a-minute editing barely manages to keep up with his subject’s stream-of-consciousness oversharing and ADD-addled globe trotting, which is part of the film’s appeal, even if there were a few editorial calls that erred on the side of Vice magazine rather than sound judgment. But I don’t think the heavily tattooed and edgily coiffed capacity crowd cared too much.

After the heavy-handedness and mixed results of Heaven on Earth, Deepa Mehta’s magical realist tale of a Punjabi woman’s struggles with married life in Toronto, and Kanchivaram, South Indian director Priyadarshan’s noir-ish tale of one silk weaver’s political awakening, local polymath H.P. Mendoza’s Fruit Fly was practically rejuvenating. Making its world premier on Sunday night to a Castro packed with the film’s cast, crew and friends (and many folks who could claim all three titles), the CAAM funded film was a raucous and raunchy love letter to SF in the form of an extended music video. Although Fruit Fly felt less realized, in some respects, compared to Colma: The Musical, the Mendoza and Richard Wong collaboration that was the toast of SFIAFF ’06—Mendoza packs so much enthusiasm, ingenuity and flawlessly catchy music into his directorial debut so as to reduce any sustained attempts at criticism to mere quibbling.

Although Mendoza was only joking in the post-screening Q&A when he cited his "half-Asian, half gay" mixed identity as the inspiration for Fruit Fly, hybrid identities—specifically in regards to multiracial Asian Americans— was one of the more interesting and noticeable threads running through the festival. The most ambitious of the Festival’s interactive initiatives is the launch of, a multimedia online community for multiracial Asian Americans to share their stories. Several films also addressed the experiences of Asians with mixed race backgrounds.

Among these, Diamond Head (1963), the festival’s "Out of the Vaults" rep pick, and local filmmaker Jennifer Phang’s ambitious and beguiling Half-Life, made for interesting bookends to our country’s long history of tongue-tied ineloquence and repressive silence in regards to mixed race identity. It’s easy to laugh off Charlton Heston’s racist pineapple tycoon—apoplectic over the impending marriage of his kid sister to a native Hawaiian—as camp. But the one-drop paranoia of the Mad Men-era isn’t that far removed from the conflicted and often specious commentary about Barack Obama’s background that dogged the Hawaiian native son during his campaign.

The dystopic, near-future America depicted in Half-Life carries the faint whiff of another Bush régime, yet the film still speaks to the seductive and dangerous fiction of a "post-racial" America that many see (literally) embodied in the current administration. The Wu family is splitting apart faster than Kurosawa’s Sasaki clan in Tokyo Sonata, and the suburban bubble of the Diablo Valley is as much a prison as a shelter from a planet on the brink of collapse. Phang borrows from (Donnie Darko, American Beauty) and tries out (animated sequences, genre-bending) a lot of things in Half-Life — at times, too many things. But her writing is sharp enough, and her lead actors (many of whom are happa) talented enough, to touch on multi-hyphenated identity politics in a way that’s smart and never preachy or reductive. At this moment, it might be difficult for programmers to be able to see the forest for the trees amidst a changing media landscape. I don’t know about Twitter accounts, but continuing to present films such as Half-Life seems to be a solid step in the right direction.

The wind is always blowing in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s films. Like the torrential rain of so many horror films that is only a road-sign for the creepy old house up ahead, the gusts that whip and toss Kurosawa’s characters are the sighs of a world in flux. Though his dizzyingly prolific filmography includes a wide cross section of genres—police procedural, family melodrama, yakuza revenge tale, supernatural thriller—the central drama of most Kurosawa films can be boiled down this: the world is changing—or has changed—and the measure of each character is how successfully or unsuccessfully they can adjust to the new parameters unfolding before them.

It is a simple conflict, in a way, but the choices and outcomes that face Kurosawa’s characters—however melodramatic or fantastic—are no less resonant with our own current political and economic climate of crisis. The choice of Kurosawa as the focus of a special retrospective by the S.F. International Asian American Film Festival, opening Thursday, is a timely one. Kurosawa is a good director to watch at this moment when the world feels as if it is on the edge of collapse. His is often a cinema of disaster: characters face the worst, or are living in its aftermath. Like the audience, they are provided with no easy answers. But watching them shakily reorient their moral bearings makes for fascinating, if not always exemplary, viewing.

The apocalypse looms large in the loose trilogy of existential horror films—*Cure* (1997), Charisma (1999), and Pulse (2001)—that initially put Kurosawa on the map for Western viewers. In Cure, Detective Takabe (played by Kurosawa regular Koji Yakusho) arrives at true self-knowledge at a price: He becomes the next agent in the viral chain of self-actualization-through-murder he was initially trying to stop. In Charisma, Yabuike (again, played by Yakusho) winds up making good on the kidnapper’s request at the beginning of the film to "restore the rules of the world." Realizing that either saving the special, potentially poisonous tree or the rest of the forest is a false choice (but a nice metaphor), Yabuike lets nature takes its course, as it were. At the film’s end, we see the city in flames. In Pulse, which is one of the films featured in the retrospective, the dead return via dial-up modems, but as one character states, the other side is "right now, forever." The difference between a ghost and a depressed shut-in is simply a matter of degree, and a soulless, depopulated world is but one outcome of mass-mediated existence.

Kurosawa has said in interviews that, despite the atmosphere of gloom and dread that permeates these films, the shifts occurring within them are not necessarily for the worst. In License to Live (1998), which also gets retrospective treatment, a twentysomething man wakes up from a coma and attempts to reconnect with the family that had slowly drifted apart over the course of his absence. "The world wont be quite as you remember it," warns his doctor—but in Yutaka’s case that may be for the best. Rather than attempt to recover some irretrievable past, Yutaka treats his lot as a chance to re-make his splintered family, in possibly a better-off incarnation than before.

It is a theme taken up again in Kurosawa’s latest film, Tokyo Sonata, which is also his strongest in quite some time. A darkly comic update on Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa’s pillow-shot portraits of the Japanese nuclear family, Tokyo Sonata trades the unsettled spirits of his earlier films for the shade-like salary men and disaffected youth left in the wake of the bubble economy’s collapse. The wind blows sharply as each member of the Sasaki clan slowly spins off into their own private eddies of secret joy and stifled pain until, inevitably and spectacularly, they crash back into each other’s orbit—and, even more spectacularly, into a certain grace. It is good medicine for these trying times.

If you were to close your eyes and only listen to the voices of Project Kashmir, you’d hear a tangle of Hindi, Urdu and Kashmiri, in addition to variously accented English. Even if you knew the place well, you probably wouldn’t be able to perceive every nuance of what’s being said. But you would be able to hear the mutual despair.

Many people who do know the place agree that it is among the most beautiful on Earth, just as readily as they disagree on who belongs there. Thus the Kashmir status quo, as one New York Times headline glibly if correctly summed it up, of "terror in paradise." More than 68,000 people have died from violence there during the past 20 years, more than 30,000 still live in refugee camps, and more than 6,000 are reported missing. Of course that means it is one of those places where people don’t just disappear, they get disappeared—and then their loved ones get exhausted from looking for them, and give up, and get exhausted again by the guilt of giving up.

This can’t just be about obvious tensions between India and Pakistan, between Hindu and Muslim. If there is one single, indisputable fact of life in a place beleaguered by half a century’s worth of political, cultural, national and religious friction (and that’s only counting as far back as the region’s contentious partition in 1947; the full history, of course, goes much deeper), it’s that the situation is drastically complicated.

But at least the Project Kashmir concept was mercifully simple: Co-directors Senain Kheshgi and Geeta V. Patel, two American friends with family ties to opposite sides of the conflict, went there together to see what they could learn—and what the rest of us could. In other words, if all you really know with any certainty about the area is that it shares a name with a single Led Zeppelin song, do not be afraid to make a date with Project Kashmir.

It may sound like heavy going, and it is, but Kheshgi and Patel’s film already has proven its versatile appeal. Having sold out limited engagements in other American cities and recently screened to full houses in the documentary competition at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, Project Kashmir also plays on Thursday, March 26, under the banner of a month-long mini-fest of Human Rights Watch films at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Part of what makes this film so compelling is its near-total lack of vanity. It is anything but a shrill pronouncement-maker, and that alone should count as a victory. Thanks in part to the democratization of filmmaking and journalistic technology, not to mention the Internet-shrunken world, there’s no shortage nowadays of motion-picture documentaries—but one obvious side effect of that proliferation is a noisier chorus of voices. The pronouncements pile up, and real clarity gets even harder to come by. So Kheshgi and Patel do themselves and their viewers a great service by acknowledging at once—and throughout the film—just how daunting and confusing their subject really is.

As soon as the women are warned, early on, about discrepancies between what they’ll be told and what they’ll actually see, the enormity starts to show in their expressions. And so here they are, "with no provision but an open face, along the straits of fear," as Robert Plant would have it. Anyway, that warning about the dubiousness of information, among others about the potentially fatal dangers of gathering it, comes from a local Muslim journalist, Muzamil Jaleel, who also serves as one of their guides.

In a typically brisk and potent scene, Jaleel strolls through a so-called "martyr’s graveyard," pointing out the tombstones of teenagers he used to know. "The story of Kashmir is right here," he says. Then he and the women are all in a car together, and he’s elaborating his expectation that the next ten years will bring a whole new generation of extremists. Then he’s thinking aloud about where next to bring his guests. "We’ll try to go into my school, if they let us in," he says. Now it’s a security-force camp."

"Is it not a school anymore?" one of the women asks.

"It’s a school as well."

Again, their faces darken. Eventually they do get inside the school, but the armed guards don’t like the looks of their camera (the film is attentively shot by lauded cinematographer Ross Kauffman, of Born Into Brothels). Well, they were warned.

One lesson Kheshgi and Patel learn is that seething is contagious. Strains on their friendship erupt and subside, movingly, as they discover and deal with the latent biases lurking under their admitted ignorance. Patel can’t help but feel self-conscious a Hindu Indian woman in a mostly Muslim culture controlled by Indian military administrators. Kheshgi finds herself speaking up on behalf of those who oppose the occupation. "It feels so good to not feel like a minority," she adds. "I finally feel like I’m a part of this Muslim majority." Hearing this, her friend looks stricken.

But maybe it’s a necessary step toward proper acclimation. Other guidance, of sorts, comes from Khurram Parvez, a human rights activist who lost his leg to a car bomb, and Aarti Tikoo Singh, a displaced Pandit Hindu who returns with the filmmakers to the rubble of her childhood home, where a former neighbor greets her insists that she join him for tea.

It’s a beautiful scene—maybe not enough to fully mitigate the overwhelming awareness of how many angles there are on this pervasively debilitating trauma, and how they’re all so personal, but at least enough to quiet, briefly, all those weary voices. If you were to close your eyes, you might miss it.

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