Valley of Saints: Sundance Film Review

Valley of Saints

World Dramatic Competition

A gentle romance is threatened by unpredictable political and cultural realities in northern India.

Co-winner of this year's Alred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, filmmaker Musa Syeed's tender romance is set during a tumultuous time in India.

PARK CITY — American filmmaker Musa Syeed directs a lyrical, tender film set on renowned Dal Lake in the disputed Indian state of Kashmir with this nimble debut feature. Valley of Saints was the co-winner of the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize at this year’s festival, which will help propel the production onto the international festival circuit, where it could secure theatrical release or broadcast play in receptive markets.

Gulzar (Gulzar Bhat) works as a boatman on beautiful Dal Lake in the Indian Himalayan region bordering Pakistan, paddling tourists out to see the sites. Still in his 20s, Gulzar is fed up with his life of poverty, living with his uncle in a leaky shack that can’t keep out the rainstorms and earning meager wages in the tourist trade. His plans to run off to the city with his best friend Afzal (Afzal Sofi) are disrupted when the authorities put the nearby city of Srinigar under military curfew due to widespread protests – a common occurrence in the conflicted Kashmir region – and they are unable to catch a bus to New Delhi until the curfew is lifted.

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They while away their time goofing off and working at night for one of Afzal’s acquaintances, who hires them to steal building materials from construction sites under cover of darkness. Gulzar’s neighbor, who owns a houseboat on the lake where he rents out rooms to tourists, asks him to prepare meals for one of his guests while he’s stranded out of town by the curfew. Gulzar begins cooking meals and bringing them to Asifa, a pretty, young Kashmiri-American woman scientist doing a water-quality study on the polluted lake.

When Afzal and Gulzar offer to ferry her around to conduct her research, an intense competition for Asifa’s attention develops between them. Afzal’s advances are too crude for Asifa’s sensibilities, however, and she asks Gulzar to be her sole guide around the lake. He’s fascinated by her strange equipment and intense focus on her research and she’s charmed by his gentle, helpful demeanor.

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As Gulzar shows her around the lake’s unfamiliar shoreline, she explains to him how trash, pollution and untreated sewage are damaging the aquatic ecosystem and demonstrates simple technical fixes that locals can adopt to reduce their environmental impacts. As a tentative attraction develops between the two young people, the ongoing conflict surrounding the lake threatens to disrupt their nascent relationship.

By most Western standards, Valley of Saints would barely be considered a romance – Gulzar and Asifa never actually go on a date, barely touch and never kiss. But in a culture that frowns upon unsupervised interaction between unmarried young men and women, the time that they spend alone together is an unanticipated opportunity.

Nonprofessional actors Bhat and Sofi have an easy rapport as the two young men and playing off Kashmiri actress Neelofar Hamid they create a convincing romantic triangle. The naturalistic performances complement the setting, with the majority of scenes shot on or along the lake.

Syeed, whose parents are from Kashmir, has directed several documentaries and his nonfiction experience proves apropos while working on and around the lake, shooting in cramped indoor quarters or aboard boats, mostly with available light. Setting his characters in their cultural setting and against the spectacular landscape, he favors minimal camera movement and fluid editing, picking up the pace when Afzal and Gulzar go into town or steal building supplies. The film’s bucolic mood is constantly threatened by the prevailing reality of violence and injustice in the region, a creeping tension that Syeed carefully calibrates to emphasize the tenuousness of his characters’ relationships.

The Alfred P. Sloan jury presented the Sundance award to the film for its “brave, poetic and visually arresting evocation of a beautiful but troubled region, and for its moving, nuanced and accurate depiction of the relationship between a local boatman and a young woman scientist whose research challenges the status quo and offers hope for a restored ecosystem.”

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, World Cinema Dramatic Competition  
Cast: Gulzar Bhat, Neelofar Hamid, Afzal Sofi
Director/screenwriter: Musa Syeed
Producer: Nicholas Bruckman
Director of photography: Yoni Brook
Music: Mubashir Mohi-ud-Din
Editor: Musa Syeed
Sales: Traction Media
No rating, 82 minutes