‘Ironically, being in Kashmir is most dangerous for Kashmiris’

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW

FILMMAKER,CHRIS GIAMO

In May 2010, Chris Giamo, an independent documentary filmmaker with a background in human rights and South Asian Studies, traveled to India with his brother. They decided to visit Kashmir to shoot a documentary. Initially, he says, they were undecided about their focus, but after interviewing Shakeel Ahangar, it became clear that the Shopian incident would be the subject of their film.   
On May 29th, 2009, Shakeel Ahmed Ahangar returned home from work in Shopian to find his wife and sister missing.  After notifying the police and searching through the night, he discovered their battered bodies in a nearby river.  Although the initial post-mortem stipulated that they had been gang-raped and murdered, Chris says the Indian Government’s Central Bureau of Investigation later changed the ruling to death by “accidental drowning.” The incident immediately sparked massive strikes and protests against the Indian occupation, he says, and continues to be a rallying cry for human rights and Kashmiri independence activism. 
Filmed in 2010, In Shopian presents a firsthand account of Shakeel’s story amidst the current state of social unrest in the capital Srinagar and outlying rural areas.  The film, Chris says, features rare on-site interviews with separatist leaders Syed Ali Geelani, Yasin Malik, and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, as well as street battles between local youths and police.  Shakeel’s story is a contextualized example of the plight of ordinary Kashmiris, he says, and an aesthetic portrait of present-day Kashmir as a torn paradise.  
Chris’s filmmaking and life partner Kelsey Kobik, a graduate from Syracuse University with a B.A. in History and South Asian Studies, left academia to work on this film. Crane Giamo was instrumental in helping with the production of the film. 
In an exclusive interview with GK Features Editor Majid Maqbool, Filmmaker Chris Giamo, who has an M.A. in Documentary Film & History from Syracuse University, talks about the making of In Shopian and the difficulties in shooting for the film in the valley with a small hand-held camera to avoid detection.
How did you come to make this film on the Shopian incident of 2009?
I first read about the Shopian incident in the NYTimes when it was reported in 2009. In May of 2010 I traveled to India with my brother, and the two of us decided to go up to Kashmir to shoot a documentary. Initially we were undecided about our focus, but after interviewing Shakeel it became clear that the Shopian incident would be the subject for the film. 
How difficult was it to shoot the film in 2010, at a time when government forces clamped down on local media, allowed Indian journalists to come down to the valley to ‘report’, and curtailed civilian protests even as people were shot at for protesting against the state atrocities?
 At times the filming itself was quite difficult and tense. During May and early June there were a number of strikes and protests, yet we were fortunate to arrange interviews with Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Yasin Malik, and even Shakeel. Through the help of local individuals in Srinagar, we were also able to embed ourselves in street battles between pro-independence youth and security forces. In mid-July however, after the majority of the killings had taken place and both strikes and army curfew were instated, we were far more cautious about filming.  We did manage to film a lawyer’s protest in Lal Chowk at that time. Obviously we did not have official permission to make the film. Had our purpose been known, I’m sure we would have been immediately detained. I think the fact that we were Western tourists with a small handheld camera allowed us to complete the filming without detection.   
You mention in the trailer released online that “Shakeel’s story is a contextualized example of the plight of ordinary Kashmiris, and an aesthetic portrait of present-day Kashmir as a torn paradise.” How does Shopian incident illustrate the larger story of what is happening in Kashmir?
 The Shopian incident is but one example of what countless Kashmiris have experienced over the past two decades. The cases of rape, killings, and disappearances of ordinary civilians at the hands of Indian forces is a hallmark of the Kashmir Conflict. The Shopian incident is not an isolated incident, but rather one of the multitude of heinous crimes committed by the Indian State during the past 20 years. It illustrates a common trend of occupying forces anywhere that operate with impunity. 
What is your understanding of what has happened in the last two decades in Kashmir and how it gets portrayed in the Indian and international media?
In the last two decades Kashmiris have been waging a popular movement for political independence. Initially the movement was far more militant, yet in the past decade there has been a substantial shift to non-violent democratic tactics, in which Kashmiris are using street protests, sit-ins, and strikes in order to raise their voices. In terms of the international media however, the Kashmir issue is often misrepresented. It is typically portrayed as a territorial struggle between India and Pakistan, where Pakistan uses proxy-militants to carry out their agenda, and India must sustain their occupation as a means of national security. There is rarely mention of the Kashmiri people and their own political aspirations. The international media should focus their efforts on representing the voices of Kashmiris and their leaders.    
CBI has since described the death of two women as “accidental drowning” and charge sheeted some persons, lawyers, and doctors, accusing them of “fabricating the evidence”  and “retracting from their statements.” The charge sheet further stated that the two women have neither been raped nor murdered. What is your understanding of what happened to the two women from what you could gather from your research and interviews of the family members? And how did the state institutions deny justice in this case?
It is my understanding that Asiya and Neelofar were abducted, gang-raped, and murdered by Indian security forces. The CBI’s ruling of death by “accidental drowning” is a blatant denial of justice and a clear attempt to cover-up the truth of what happened that night. 
How does denial of justice, like in the Shopian case, affect a people who are not even allowed to express dissent by the state?
Not only are Kashmiris barred, arrested, and abused simply for airing their grievances in a non-violent democratic manner, but on top of this the Indian State consistently fails to deliver justice for the families that have fallen victims to brutal human rights abuses at the hands of security forces.    
You have said in an interview that “the general public is not as well informed about Kashmir as they are about, say, the Palestinians or Tibet. The conflict is framed as a land dispute between India and Pakistan, but the important thing people don’t know is the struggle for independence.”  How important it is to show to the world the real story of what is happening to the people in this highest militarized zone? How important is that for resolving the Kashmir dispute? 
It is of the utmost importance to show the world the real story of what is happening in Kashmir. This should be the responsibility of both the national and international media. Unfortunately there is a significant lack of awareness about the Kashmir issue, and this is a result of poor international media converge. Creating a greater general awareness of the Kashmir dispute would help put more pressure on the UN and Western governments to intervene in the conflict and resolve it through a democratic process. Kashmir is an integral part not only preserving peace between India and Pakistan, but all throughout South Asia. If there were a greater popular awareness of this fact, is could hasten a solution to the problem.    
In the past Indian filmmakers have attempted to portray what is happening in Kashmir, but they ended up repeating the state narratives, thus misleading the Indian people about Kashmir and the struggle of people.  Given the skepticism about the portrayal of truth by the Indian filmmakers, can Kashmiri people expect better films, documentaries from western filmmakers? 
When I traveled to Rajasthan after filming in Kashmir, I met many intelligent, educated people who bought into the stereotype that the Kashmir issue is about terrorists, not independence.  I feel that Kashmiris can expect better and more truthful films and documentaries from anyone who challenges the state narrative, whether it’s a filmmaker from a western country or anywhere else. 
Beyond spreading awareness about the conflict in Kashmir, what can films like In shopian do to change the opinion in the West about what is happening with the people in Kashmir?   
Besides spreading awareness about the conflict in Kashmir, films like “In Shopian” can help shift opinion in the West by showing that Kashmiris are victims of an unjust military occupation that has suppressed them through brute force and atrocious human rights violations. It is my hope that films like “In Shopian” will convey this fact to a Western audience, and show that the Kashmiri struggle for independence is legitimate and should be resolved diplomatically.    
Where has the film been premiered so far and what was the response of the people who watched it?    
 “In Shopian” was premiered at a small theater in Portland, Maine. It was also screened at the Annual Conference on South Asia in Madison, Wisconsin (an academic conference with professors in attendance who are actively involved in the Kashmir issue). The film has received a very positive response from the viewers, both academics and the general public. The film will continue to be shown throughout this year, and is already scheduled for screenings at Syracuse University and University of San Francisco’s Annual Human Rights Film Festival.   
How did the Indian audience react to your film in the screenings so far in US?
Indian-Americans who have studied the issue and who care about human rights have been overwhelmingly supportive of the film and the message it conveys. The film has also been very much appreciated in Sikh communities in Canada and England, who can certainly relate. I did receive one comment from an Indian expat with family in the Indian military who expressed sympathy for the security forces shown in a street battle with Kashmiri teenagers. She seemed to think that throwing tear gas and brandishing AK-47s was justified because the teenagers were calling them names.
Any anecdote, experience you would like to share while you were staying and filming in the valley?   
I was told before I visited that Kashmir was a dangerous place, but my stay in the Valley was more hospitable than anywhere I traveled in India or the rest of the world for that matter.  Ironically, being in Kashmir is most dangerous for Kashmiris.
 Any plans to screen the film in Kashmir?  
I want to screen the film in Kashmir, although I know this will not be possible as long as the Indian government continues to suppress information. I encourage Kashmiris to share and screen the film amongst themselves and their international guests. Anyone who could somehow organize a public screening has my full permission.  
This film never could have been possible without the help of the Kashmiris who guided us while filming, and who agreed to be interviewed.  The risk they took to participate should be commended. I would also like to say a special thanks to Shakeel and let him know that the film is being shown around the country. 
The Delhi gang rape recently made international headlines and sparked off large scale protests, but when it comes to Kashmir, where the state forces are found to be involved in violence against women, the international media remains mostly silent...  
The gang rape of one woman in Delhi has made international front-page news for a week and sparked huge protests throughout India, but the endemic gang rape of countless of Kashmiri women continues to go underreported. Why?

{ Full movie can be watched here www.penauthor.com/shopian}

Lastupdate on : Thu, 3 Jan 2013 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Thu, 3 Jan 2013 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Fri, 4 Jan 2013 00:00:00 IST




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