Monday, February 14, 2011

Challenges: Tariq Tapa's ZERO BRIDGE makes New York debut at Film Forum

One of the great gifts to Americans watching foreign language films is the immersion into other cultures these movies provide. And they don't have to be documentaries to do it.  They become learning experi-ences that enrich us, even as they challenge us to empathize with unusual characters and understand what is going on. The first jolt to be felt in ZERO BRIDGE, the not quite new film (made in 2007, it is finally getting a theatrical release) by Tariq Tapa, comes from the young magistrate in charge of what passes for a police station (rats occupy the holding cell) in Srinagar, Kashmir, where the film is both set and shot: "No one is released from jail until proven innocent."

Yet even that statement, as ass-backward as it initially seems, is up for interpretation. The reason we're in the police station is that our (not quite) hero, a boy in his later teens named Dilawar -- whom we meet on the bridge of the title, and who is composing a letter to his mom telling her how very well he's doing -- is awaiting his "cousin," whom he will join in a day devoted to thievery and pickpocketing. Mr. Tapa, pictured at right, whose first full-length fill this is, has certainly given us a complex and not terribly likable charac-ter. Not initially, at least. Yet, as we learn more about him, his life, and the people who surround him -- including his fellow students, whose home-work he does (for a price); his loving but tradition-bound and con-flicted uncle (Ali Mohammad Dar, below, right); and most impor-tantly a young woman (Taniya Khan, who is able to radiate beauty and immense intelligence simultaneously) whom he has earlier victimized but who does not recognize him as her aggressor.

Dilawar -- played very well by Mr Tapa's cousin Mohammad Imran Tapa (above, left) in his first film role -- is a user. But then so, in their way, are all the other characters, who are used in turn by each other and society. For this viewer Tapa's film is finally about the enormous difficulty of effecting change and progress for both the individual and society. In the press materials for Zero Bridge, the director notes that in all his work, he's been obsessed with a certain theme: the weight of the past on present behavior. These two themes work in tandem, I think, and to Tapa's credit, he has told his story so that plot, character and theme reflect each other so well that they are woven seamlessly.

In the character of Bani (Ms. Khan, above) the filmmaker has created a lovely "new" woman standing at the current intersection of Muslim life. Having studied successfully in American and been given more than a look at a freer society, will she be able to move forward in her homeland, or disappear into the arranged marriage her family expects of her?

"What makes us such selfish animals?" Dilawar asks at one point toward the finale -- a question that could resonate through all societies. A gritty film and one that is indeed challenging, thanks to the talent of this fledgling filmmaker, his movie is in no way inaccessible. You may work a bit, but the rewards are bountiful.
Zero Bridge opens at New York City's Film Forum this Wednesday for a two-week run. You can also click here to see the awards and nominations the film has racked up, as well as its earlier, current and future screenings.

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