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Valley of Saints | Review

Endangered Species: Syeed Offers Temperate Portrait of a Man and his Home Against an Oscillating Backdrop

Reflecting his background within the documentary realm, Musa Syeed’s first feature film encourages a verite approach to the characters as their lives unfold amidst changing times. Valley of Saints acts a balmy reflection on a young man’s life revolving the lake and its changing currents. The multiple prize winning Sundance title was shot on location in Kashmir during an actual military curfew allowing the film to unfold with a rare measure of authenticity. Syeed also has a personal stake in the film: his family was born in Kashmir with his father having been imprisoned for his participation in the independent movement. Such idiosyncratic components help to enrich the overall narrative tapestry of a film which could labeled feeble otherwise.

Gulzar (Gulzar Ahmed Bhat) who lives by the lake both literally and figuratively as a boatman (aka shikara-wala) who shuttles sight-seeing tourists around. Upon his uncle’s departure, Gulzar and his best friend Afzal (Mohammed Afzal) come together to further set in motion their plans to leave their homes to find fortune elsewhere. Unfortunately for them, a curfew has been put in place and they are forced to retreat further inwards to keep from the growing civil unrest. They soon meet Asifa (Neelofar Hamid), an environmental scientist who researches the growing pollution in the lake who puts their friendship to the test as they all struggle to find solace against a quickly changing backdrop.

The film is as contained as the setting itself–the village is surrounded by the Dal Lake which has become even more isolated due to military unrest and looming curfew. Additionally, the minute cast of characters are attached to the lake as it has constructed much of their worldview up to this point. Though they desire to escape, they are somehow drawn to it, connected to it against their will. Much attention is spent on the lake and its worsening conditions to the point where it becomes redundant as an overarching theme. Many of the narrative elements seem inconsistent without a crucial understanding of how they fit into one another. The uncle leaves at the very beginning but the topic seldom revisited until he reappears at the end. The military unrest is mentioned from time to time but only to augment rather than act as an integral part of the whole. The friendship and burgeoning relationship between Gulzar and Asifa, the most crucial dynamics of the story deserved more time.

Despite its inconsistencies, there is a strength that can be culled from what is shared. Syeed creates a world seldom seen or investigated in the naturalistic state that Valley of Saints utilizes. It’s a simple reflection of a man who can’t seem to look past the horizon, who finds difficulty from pulling away from his home and the life he has become accustomed to. There is a reserved beauty in the pollution and the small gestures between the characters resonate. When asked what he believes the problem is with the lake, Gulzar responds that it’s not because there’s a demon inside but that “there are no more saints”, a sentiment that seems to echo the characters who are left to fend for themselves.


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