While an impoverished Muslim Kashmiri boat man and a middle-aged, closeted homosexual dairy farmer in the Netherlands would seem to have little in common, two films featuring such characters share overlapping themes of sexual longing against a backdrop of death and decay, as well as uncommon insights into the human condition.
“Valley of Saints”, which opens today at the Quad, tells the story of Gulzar, a twenty-something man who dreams of escaping the economic misery and wartime hardships of Kashmir. Death is all around him, either the mounting casualties imposed by an occupying Indian army, or the slowly dying lake upon which he plies his trade, taking European tourists around to see the sights.
Also opening today at the Anthology Film Archives, “It’s All So Quiet” is about the main character’s troubled relationship to his father, who is bedridden, virtually paralyzed, and close to death. The son, named Helmer, is duty-bound to look after his father, feeding him, bathing him, and cleaning his soiled bedclothes but all the while looking so balefully at him that the father asks whether he can’t wait for him to die.
Despite the grim subject matter both films will be deeply rewarding experiences for those looking for art rather than entertainment.
Too poor to start a marriage, Gulzar’s only real companionship is with his best friend Afzal, who is also poor, Muslim and anxious to leave Kashmir. In a state of arrested development, they play childish games and rib each other to pass the time, waiting until they can gather the funds to go to Delhi.
Into their bromance steps Asifa, a young, beautiful and educated woman who is in Kashmir to conduct an environmental study of Dal Lake, that is nestled in the Kashmir Valley and surrounded by awe-inspiring mountains. Gulzar is hired to ferry her about and Afzal tags along as she takes water samples from the heavily polluted waters. As Gulzar’s attention and emotions fixate more on the new person who has entered their world, Afzal begins to grow resentful.
As is the case everywhere in India, there are pressures on the environment from the needs of an impoverished population trying to survive. The poor people keep encroaching on the lake, using it for a toilet. Trying to be helpful, Asifa recommends a composting toilet to Gulzar that will relieve the pressure on the lake as well as enrich the soil. Afzal interjects himself into the discussion: We Kashmiris do not have time for such nonsense; we have no jobs, are under curfew, and being killed. Even Gulzar questions the worries over the death of a lake. Everything must die, after all.
Musa Syeed is an alumnus of the NYU film school as well as the Middle Eastern Studies Department. Born and raised in Indiana, he knew about Kashmir from his parents who were from there. In the 1960s his father was arrested for participating in the Kashmiri Independence movement.
He visited Kashmir a few years ago with the hopes of connecting with his roots. Unfortunately, his inability to speak Kashmiri and cultural differences made him feel like a stranger. But worst of all was what had happened to Dal Lake:
When I saw the lake, which had been the setting for several Bollywood films (not to mention for my own parents’ early days of romance), it was clearly past its glory days. Though still quite stunning, it was cluttered with garbage, choked by weeds, and inundated with untreated sewage. It struck me that the lake was a plain allegory for Kashmir as a whole: great beauty surviving in the face of death and decay.
After overcoming his initial disappointment, Syeed stuck around and began to put together a screenplay that imagined a reclaimed Dal Lake, a symbol not only of India’s struggle against environmental ruin but also one of Kashmiri hopes for freedom.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this altogether remarkable film was the casting of Gulzar Bhat as Gulzar. Bhat is an actual boat man that Syeed first met doing research on the film. His passion for telling his people’s story made him the most compelling and effective choice for a nonprofessional in a leading role since Gillo Pontecorvo cast Brahim Hadjadj as Ali La Pointe in “Battle of Algiers”.
“It’s All So Quiet” stars Jeroen Willems as Helmer, a taciturn and stoic man who seems made for the unglamorous and demanding routines of farm life. Much of the film depicts him tending to a variety of chores such as feeding hay to the cows or shoveling manure.
He has inherited the farm from his father Vader (Henri Garcin) who he tends to as if he were just another animal, bring him his meals and cleaning up after him when he soils his pajamas. Although Helmer never shirks his responsibilities, you do feel that his father got it right when he asked him if he was waiting for him to die.
In an early scene, you get a sense that there is something more to Helmer than meets the eye when he stands naked in front of a mirror, examining himself closely. When you begin to see his face take on a strange transported look, you cannot escape the feeling that he might be masturbating. Since “It’s All So Quiet” succeeds by subtraction rather than addition, you are left to consider what this was supposed to mean. Since Hollywood and even American Indie movies do not trust an audience to make up its own mind, you feel a sense of empowerment watching a film that respects your intelligence.
Eventually we learn more about Helmer, including his sexuality that was the source of his emotional rift with his father as well as his reaching to other men in a social setting that has little in common with San Francisco or New York. While “It’s All So Quiet” eschews the victimization melodrama of so many American films about gay men, it is still a reminder that being closeted is not necessarily a choice but a survival strategy.
The film was adapted from a novel by Gerbrand Bakker by female director Nanouk Leopold. When asked by CineEuropa to describe her film in a sentence or two, she answered: “It’s about someone who’s not allowing himself to be himself and who has to explore who he really is in order to be happy. It’s really a coming-of-age film about someone who’s 50.”
She got that right.