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'Project Kashmir' Documentary Seeks to Bring Together South Asians in US


Women directors made most of the films in this year's Traveling Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, screening in 40 American cities through early next year. They include Project Kashmir, a documentary by two American women of South Asian heritage, one Hindu, the other Muslim. When they made their movie in the volatile region divided between Pakistan and India but claimed by both, they found their own friendship also tested by the conflict. Carolyn Weaver reports.

Project Kashmir looks at the conflict over Kashmir through the eyes of co-directors Senain Kheshgi and Geeta Patel. Both were raised in the U.S., but Kheshgi's family is Pakistani Muslim, while Patel's family is Indian and Hindu. “When we first started making this film, we had no intention of being characters in it,” Patel said in an interview with the two directors. “Our number one goal was to create a film that would impact our community and create dialogue, because there was such a divide between Indians and Pakistanis.”

“We thought that if we could go together, we could probably ask questions in Kashmir,” Khesghi said, “because it's a place that our countries have been fighting over for 60 years.” But as young filmmakers with few credits to their name, Patel and Kheshgi knew they couldn’t expect to find financial backing for the project. They borrowed a few thousand dollars from friends and family, and asked another independent filmmaker, Ross Kauffman (who later won an Academy Award for “Born Into Brothels,” another documentary set in South Asia), to shoot the film. The three traveled to the Kashmiri region where India administers a majority-Muslim population.

“You can't fully understand a conflict zone by reading about it or watching the news,” Patel says in the film. “We want to understand the Kashmiri people, what their lives are like, what they want.”

Project Kashmir follows Kheshgi and Patel as they seek insight into the conflict through the eyes of ordinary Kashmiris. They include two journalist-friends, one a Kashmiri Muslim, the other a Hindu whose family was driven out of Kashmir decades ago. It is a friendship severely strained by the conflict. The two filmmakers say that as they became closer to these and other Kashmiris, they were surprised to find themselves also at odds.

“We found ourselves falling into some of the prejudices or ideas that we didn't talk about, because being in America, we could just be friends and not talk about the politics,” said Khesghi. As a Muslim whose parents had immigrated from Pakistan, she said, she had felt her own family touched by suspicion after the 9/11 attacks. “Even though Kashmir is not where I’m from, it felt like home. I could actually go there and be Muslim and not have to feel bad about it,” she said.

Her co-director did not have that experience. “All of a sudden, Senain was Pakistani, and I was Indian,” Patel said, “and personally, I found myself aligning more with the Indian point of view. It was very difficult for me to question what India was doing, and I felt myself having to defend it to everyone.”

“Our friendship became kind of a metaphor for the two countries,” Kheshgi said. “But if you just stop talking to each other, how are you ever going to move forward?"

The two worked through their differences as they made the film. Both say the documentary is just the starting point for a conflict-resolution effort they’re planning among South Asians in the U.S. They are also devising a school curriculum, a video game, and a multi-faith camp for American Hindu and Muslim youth. “It's Day One of what we've always dreamt of, getting this out to these divided communities. Unlike Israel and Palestine, there is not dialogue over Kashmir,” Patel said.

Kheshgi and Patel said they continue to feel whipsawed by the latest news from the region, and at the same time inspired by the Kashmiri friends whose own lives have been torn by violence. “If they weren't there, fighting for the things that they're fighting for, relationships, friendships, the values of our communities living together, if they weren't there, I wouldn't have hope,” Kheshgi said.