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Reel Asian Film Festival Review: Valley of Saints

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When we think “Asia,” many of us tend to assume countries like China, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan, or in other words — we seem to associate Asia with what is known as East Asia, ignoring a whole host of other countries, including India. So, in order to include all of Asia, Toronto Reel Asian Film Festival screened its first South Asian feature film this year. That film was Valley of Saints, written and directed by the American filmmaker Musa Syeed. Aside from being the first South Asian feature to screen at Reel Asian Film Festival, Valley of Saints is also Musa Syeed’s first foray into feature filmmaking, so it is rather inspiring that this U.S./Kashmiri drama turned out to be such a delightful experience.

The film is set in a small village by the Dal Lake in Kashmir and tells the story of two best friends, Gulzar (Gulzar Ahmad Bhat) and Afzal (Mohammed Afzal Sofi), both of whom yearn to escape to Delhi or some other big city to find a better life. Since they are both poor working class boatmen, it takes them a while to accumulate enough wealth to afford their escape, and once they do, their plans are thwarted by a temporary military curfew that prevents everyone from leaving the area.

While trapped in the village, Gulzar and Afzal befriend an American scientist named Asifa (Neelofar Hamid), who came to the village to conduct research on the Dal Lake. Slowly, but surely Gulzar develops romantic feelings for Asifa, which creates a rift between him and Afzal. Asifa also learns the lake is incredibly polluted and encourages Gulzar to find ways to save it.

In essence, Valley of Saints is about the relationship between those three characters, two of which, Gulzar and Afzal, are played by the actual Dal Lake natives that haven’t done any acting prior to Valley of Saints. However, they are both so good at playing their parts that I would have never guessed that they were in fact non-actors.

The use of the actual Dal Lake and its actual residents gives Valley of Saints the sort of sincerity that can be rarely found in the majority of motion pictures today. On top of that, the movie’s script mixes humour and seriousness so well that it makes everything feel very life-like — as if all of the events in the film have transpired in reality.

Of course, one cannot discuss Valley of Saints without talking about its amazing atmosphere and cinematography. Musa Syeed has done such a masterful job of blending documentary with fiction that it is impossible not to feel immersed in the lives of these characters. For instance, when Gulzar and Afzal spend their time on the lake, the camera is always steady and each shot takes its time to play out, giving the lake a feeling of serenity and peace. But once the characters step off the boat onto solid ground, the camera switches to being shaky and unstable, while the editing becomes much more frenetic, making the viewers feel like the characters are more comfortable when they are on the lake. What is great about the look of the film is that it does not draw too much attention to itself, but it still manages to enhance the story and characters in a very fundamental way. Musa Syeed is undoubtedly one of the most talented up-and-coming filmmakers out there.

If Valley of Saints ever gets a wide release either in theaters or on Blu-ray (there is no reason to believe that it wouldn’t), then you should definitely watch this masterpiece of a film. For now, do yourself a favour and catch more awesome movies at Reel Asian Film Festival by purchasing your tickets right here: The festival ends tomorrow, so don’t wait!

Rating: A

By: Taras Trofimov