Film-making beyond borders: The process is the message

Pawan Bali is a journalist working in Delhi, India. Here she gives the inside story about her collaboration on documentary film A journey through River Vitastathe first to be filmed on both sides of the divide

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My first phone contact with my new colleague Mohammad Arif Urfi was through a UK-based mobile phone. Urfi was to be my partner on a documentary film project over the next few months – a faceless partner for now, but one who I would collaborate with to produce the first ever joint film on Kashmir.

Making the initial connnections

Jonathan Cohen from Conciliation Resources was visiting Muzzafarbad in the Pakistani side of Kashmir, where he had met with Urfi. I was based in Jammu, on the Indian side of Kashmir.

Phone calls between both sides are restricted. While you cannot make a phone call from the Indian side of Kashmir to anywhere in Pakistan, incoming calls from the Pakistani side are monitored stringently. It was no surprise then that a UK-based mobile number connected both of us for the first time.

Urfi is a journalist based in Muzaffarabad working with a Pakistani news channel, Geo TV. His heavily toned conversation, peppered with Urdu couplets assured me that the next few months would be interesting.

So they were. We set out to make a film on Jhelum river – also known as Vitasta – which originates from the Indian side of the Kashmir and culminates on the Pakistani side.

It was a perfect cross-Line of Control (LoC) theme to begin with, we thought.

Speaking the language of peace

The first script Urfi sent me was mainly in Urdu, a language I strain to read. On the other hand, Urfi would frequently joke about his constraints of using English. Across the distance, we began by overcoming our language barriers.

As we started filming on each side, contact between both us was becoming an everyday challenge.

Initially, Urfi and I had decided to meet for the first time at the LoC crossing point. We thought it would be the central idea of the film – our journeys along the river, and how we finally meet at the LoC. But due to travel restraints and inability to communicate, we were unable to fix this meeting. 

Left with few options, without a clear outline or a storyboard, we began to film our own divided portions. Months later, a meeting in Dubai was facilitated by Conciliation Resources to enable us to link together our separate pieces of work.

Bridging the divide

The raw footage was like a jigsaw puzzle, most of it randomly shot with different perspectives. We had a script to finalise, a film to edit and most importantly, layered differences that we needed to iron out.  

The biggest challenge, perhaps, was reaching a common terminology for the film.

Initially we referred to the two sides of Kashmir as 'LoC East' and 'LoC West' to avoid any political connotation. But these terms seemed vague, even more so for an audience who didn’t understand Kashmir well.

Later, after several debates the terms 'Pakistani side of Kashmir' and 'Indian side of Kashmir' were decided upon as the most neutral terms for reference. Though when it comes to the sensitive issue of Kashmir, no term can ever be neutral.

The theme of the film too had changed from just the story of the river, to the stories of divided families. Another conscious decision was to avoid prodding into the history of the divide. The film was more about the pain of separation rather than what led to these separations.

It is important to highlight the human dimension but be cautious in apportioning blame.

Audience feedback after viewing A Journey Through River Vitasta

After our brief meeting in Dubai in 2010, Urfi and I continued to work on the film, editing it via skype, constantly struggling to maintain a balancing act.

The purpose of the film was conciliation, not aggression. We were not merely journalists, but two people trying to build bridges. Perhaps, that will explain why there were soft undertones in the film and not aggressive opinions. 

Lessons for life

The film process has been a lesson for both of us. It taught us to understand nuances, to reach common ground despite differences and be sensitive to each others' problems.

It bridged our perception gaps. Since both us have histories of divided families, the film was an exercise in both analysis and empathy.

The process taught us that the constraints of borders and line of control can be challenged. This 16-minute film has overcome the set restrictions of film-making. Importantly, it has overcome some divides of the last few decades.

The strength of the film is that it goes beyond propaganda.

Audience feedback after viewing A Journey Through River Vitasta

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