The filmmaker Tariq Tapa on growing up Jewish and Muslim in New York, saying the unsayable, and the future of horror films.
Zero Bridge, the first narrative film to emerge from the devastated state of Kashmir in forty years, had its theatrical release earlier this year at the Film Forum in New York City. It is the first feature film from Tariq Tapa, who made it more or less on his own: he wrote it, shot it, cast it, even gaff-taped the microphones for it, with only the equipment he could fit into a backpack and for less than what some filmmakers pay for a single camera. The New York Times called the film “a moving slice of life from a corner of the world usually seen only in news reports or as a mountainous backdrop for Bollywood musicals.”
The movie subverts expectations a viewer is likely to have for a story set in Kashmir. The region has long been a place of violence and has been a primary cause of conflict between India and Pakistan since the 1947 partition. An indigenous movement for independence exploded there in 1989, leading to India’s military occupation and a period of vicious guerrilla combat. Violent uprisings against the Indian army have occurred regularly since the end of the 1990s, and thousands—some say tens or hundreds of thousands—of Kashmiris have been killed or disappeared since the start of the insurgency. Fighting, poor infrastructure, poverty, and unregulated pollution have eroded the region’s stunning natural beauty.
Zero Bridge does not deal directly with any of these issues, however. Instead it offers an expert telling of a simple, personal story, conveying the grim reality of the place through the lives of the characters depicted. Its protagonist, Dilawar, is a misguided seventeen-year-old, whip-smart but always making the wrong choices. His abusive caretaker, a bricklayer who took Dilawar in when his adoptive mother abandoned him, pulls him out of school early and puts him to work. Desperate to earn enough of his own money to escape, Dilawar steals a young woman’s purse and passport and charges his former classmates to do their math homework. When he later befriends his pickpocketing victim and cons her into helping him complete the homework, he learns the devastating consequences of his actions.
Tapa, 30, was born to a Muslim father from Srinagar and a Jewish mother from Atlantic City. He spent summers in Kashmir but grew up mainly in New York City’s Lower East Side at the tail end of the mean-streets era. He recalls a game he used to play as he walked up Manhattan’s First Avenue on his way to school every day: seeing how many empty crack vials he could step on along the way. His working-class childhood contained elements of harshness and was tempered only by his love of movies; Film Forum, where Zero Bridge opened, was one of his earliest refuges.
One of the mantras that guides Tapa’s dedication to craft comes from the title of a treatise by Soren Kierkegaard: the purity of heart is to will one thing. Now a resident of northern California, he maintains a strict routine of writing and reading from 9 to 5 at least five days a week, living as cheaply as possible, swimming regularly, and spending time with his partner, Josée Lajoie, who was also the co-editor and co-producer of Zero Bridge. When Tapa was in New York for the film’s premiere, I caught up with him in his old stomping grounds, the Lower East Side. I was struck by his intensity and seriousness, both of which were frequently and delightfully undermined by his wise-ass sense of humor.
Zero Bridge is now playing at the Silk Screen Asian American Film Festival in Pittsburgh. In August, it will be shown the Cleveland Museum of Art. Other national screenings have not been announced.
—Amy Rosenberg for Guernica
Guernica: You’ve mentioned an earlier idea you had for a film in Kashmir, one that seemed to deal more directly with social issues in a troubled region. How did you end up with a movie that acknowledges those issues only indirectly?
Tariq Tapa: Well, I knew I was going to have to acknowledge whatever past associations viewers might or might not have with Kashmir, in terms of the political situation and the culture, et cetera. At the same time, that was not going to be the locus of the drama. Had I made the politics the focus, it would have been too confrontational and would have ruined any chance for the viewer to come to the story with an open heart. Even just saying the word Kashmir is enough to start an argument!
So I felt that I would have to create a surrogate character, someone who’s just trying to read the action for his own credible dramatic reasons. And I felt that this surrogate ought—without, at all, being allegorical—to somehow embody, through his own dramatic needs, certain aspects of the environment. And that that would be the way to talk about the issues facing the region—without violating the willing suspension of disbelief.
That’s why, like the region itself, Dilawar is a kind of orphan, torn between two warring parents. He does what young people do, and what the region has done, and seeks his own autonomy. But autonomy is fraught with all kinds of moral ambiguities. In other words, I wanted to make flesh and blood out of all of these things about Kashmir that have remained either inaccessible or abstract.
The notion of an educated, 25-year-old male with a Muslim name traveling alone with a bag full of electronic equipment to make a movie about a little girl must have made them suspect me.
Guernica: Can you say more about the film you originally set out to make?
Tariq Tapa: [It was] a two-pronged project. One part was a documentary about my eight-year-old cousin’s daily routine and how that reflects the ways the education system and Islam are impacting girls’ and women’s roles in Kashmir. The other part was a fictional version on a similar theme, starring the same people. I spent two years putting together the idea and writing up a proposal, preparing the contacts, studying the context, making preproduction trips, and I got a Fulbright scholarship to do it. Everything was set up. And then I got there and everything fell apart in the first month. So I basically just started from scratch, and then had to focus on only the fictional part of the project.
Guernica: Fell apart how?
Tariq Tapa: Well, I guess when some bureaucrat in the government looked closely at my project, the notion of an educated, 25-year-old male with a Muslim name traveling alone with a bag full of electronic equipment to make a movie about a little girl must have made them suspect me enough to want to reverse my acceptance. A month after I arrived, the Fulbright was rescinded and I lost about 90 percent of the funding, which also meant my research visa, which meant no access to any institutions. I was just a free agent at that point, floating by without any affiliation—a little bit like Dilawar. I had a Person of Indian Origin card, though, and that made the visa irrelevant, and as long as I had my health and my camera, nothing could really stop me from remaining in the country long enough to do what I wanted to do.
But then another separate but complicating factor was that there was a major sex scandal two and a half months before I arrived, involving a series of underage girls who had been kidnapped and brainwashed and forced to act in pornographic films, and it concerned high members of the state. So, as you can imagine, this inflamed tensions in what was already an unbearably tense place. When I began trying to film the story about my cousin, the answer was: “Forget it. You’re not even going to be able to be seen with a girl and a camera outdoors. It’s entirely out of the question.”
It showed me that movies are really about what you already knew but couldn’t say. Maybe you couldn’t say it because you either couldn’t describe it fully, or you felt ashamed of what you were feeling, like it was stupid or not good enough.
So, now no money and, worse, no trust. I tried to push on, but I learned the hard way a few times—there was violence directed at me and my cast, which I’d rather not go into, but it involved an angry mob and some incarcerations. So it just became, for the sake of personal safety, no question, cannot do the old project as originally conceived. So I went back into my file of short stories, ideas I’d sketched out to develop someday, and started expanding the story that became the film as it is today.
Guernica: Are you religious? You’re Jewish and you’re Muslim.
Tariq Tapa: Yeah. I used to like to tell the joke that when I go into a building, I don’t know whether to buy it or to blow it up.
Guernica: What was your religious upbringing?
Tariq Tapa: I went to school every day of the week. I was in public school Monday through Friday. On Saturdays I went to Workmen’s Circle—schul, basically—and then on Sundays I went to the Medina Masjid on First Avenue with my father. That was from when I was nine until I was about seventeen.
Guernica: Was that confusing?
Tariq Tapa: The whole imaginative predicate is based upon that otherness: the ability to will yourself into the skin of another being. There’s no limit to the imagination, to how it allows us to will ourselves into another skin. It just takes time. The doubleness, if you can use it eventually, can be confusing, it can be painful, but it’s what you need to begin creating.
Guernica: But did you consider yourself Jewish or Muslim, one or the other?
Tariq Tapa: Well, I had already found my religion.
Tariq Tapa: Yeah. I appreciated what was being put in front of me, but by the time I was eight or nine I already knew what my religion was. I knew what my temples were and I went to worship every day.
Guernica: Who are your favorite directors?
Tariq Tapa: Bergman, Olmi, Kubrick, Ford, Disney, Kurosawa, Capra, Kazan, Dreyer, and Renoir. But my favorite of all time might honestly have to be David Lean. I mean, from his first film all the way through to his last, he never once made anything less than superb. The bastard! His choices as a director always work, even in some of his flawed masterpieces. Actually Lawrence of Arabia was the first film I saw in a theater. My parents took me to see the restored version at the Ziegfeld. It was four hours long, and it was great. The scene where the kid dies in the quicksand—I screamed out loud. It was the most terrifying thing I’d ever seen. I wouldn’t go in the sandbox after that.
I needed a context that was different from the one that was immediately available to me—Kashmir, for example, rather than New York—that would make it possible for the viewer, and for myself, to suspend disbelief.
Guernica: When did you first know you wanted to make films?
Tariq Tapa: One of the first films I remember seeing—I was about eight years old—was Take the Money and Run . When Woody Allen tries to play the cello in the high school marching band and has to keep moving his chair forward ten feet, I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. He sits, plays one note, then has to get up and do it again. I’ve now learned that this is what shooting a film is like.
After I watched it, my mother said, “Oh you liked that, huh? You should read what the review said.” She handed me this gigantic book of reviews by (former New Yorker film critic) Pauline Kael. So I read the review, and it mentioned other films and other filmmakers, and I read about those, and I slowly began to cobble together my own curriculum in the era before Netflix or IMDb. The films I saw that made me want to make films, I saw at Film Forum. So having my first film now play there is really, really special for me personally.
Guernica: What films were those?
Tariq Tapa: Well, you know, Dog Day Afternoon was definitely one. Talk about your films with a foreground story and a background story. It’s one of the least subversive kinds of movies there is—a crime movie. And the audience says, “Oh, I love that. Friday night? Great, I finally get to relax and just watch a crime movie.” But you get to the end of that story, and you realize how subversive it really is. You say, “My God, this is about all the people I live among, whom I never even acknowledge.”
I was probably nine or ten when I first saw it. Then I didn’t understand how two men could be married, but I understood that the guy was in pain and felt trapped. That was the first time I saw a movie where I remember consciously thinking, “That movie is different from other movies I’ve seen.” And then I thought about it some more and I realized, “Oh, that movie’s different because I know that world.” It showed me that movies are really about what you already knew but couldn’t say. Maybe you couldn’t say it because you either couldn’t describe it fully, or you felt ashamed of what you were feeling, like it was stupid or not good enough. But seeing that movie was so familiar to me that it freed me in some way from all that.
Guernica: What was your first idea for a film?
Tariq Tapa: It was too close to my situation, so I could never finish it. [It was] too painful to confront it directly. I wasn’t brave enough.
Guernica: What was painful about it?
Tariq Tapa: Well, you know the phrase “the willing suspension of disbelief”—it really refers to the social contract that’s made between a viewer and a storyteller, which says that the viewer will accept what is put in front of him by the storyteller, so long as the storyteller doesn’t get too confrontational by, for example, invoking taboos—otherwise the story is rejected. But on the other hand, the only lasting, meaningful stories are the ones that address human taboos, which try to say the unsayable. So, then, how do you say the unsayable in a way that gets people to listen?
You know, with Dog Day, what makes that movie so powerful is it’s really a story about the freaks of society. But that only sneaks up on you later in the film, once you’ve already been seduced by the seemingly benign variations composed of the laughs and thrills—the theme, in other words—of the bank robbery story, which is the accessible metaphor to get the audience to identify with the hero. That is, until the audience realizes he’s actually a freak, and that they were cheering for the very freak—“Attica! Attica!”—whom they would normally shun in real life. At fourteen, I couldn’t articulate that as a strategy for telling a story, but I do remember feeling that way intuitively about storytelling, wanting to do something similar—because I was kind of a freak myself.
But my stories always lacked an accessible metaphor. I needed more distance in order to gain a perspective that would allow me to write a complete story with emotionally real characters. I needed a context that was different from the one that was immediately available to me—Kashmir, for example, rather than New York—that would make it possible for the viewer, and for myself, to suspend disbelief.
And the hardest part [of filmmaking is] not the fundraising or writing or the actual physical work that goes into it. By far the hardest thing is choosing the right story. That can just take forever.
Guernica: What are you working on now? Another film about Kashmir?
Tariq Tapa: No, it’s a horror film. It’s set in the States. Perfect timing, right? I’ve been wanting to make one for seven or eight years. Fear is a very powerful emotion. It drives most of our behavior. So, a story about fear can lead to that ever-elusive accessible metaphor for looking at how a society operates.
Guernica: That seems so far from the realism of Zero Bridge.
Tariq Tapa: To me, the scariest films, the ones that I really respect, are the ones that seem most real, where the horror is within the family and the community, where the nuclear family is the accessible metaphor for creating a model of the world. Think of The Shining or Cape Fear or The Vanishing or Psycho. In a sense, good horror films are really just domestic dramas that have one extreme element that’s been added or exaggerated to push the film along. But otherwise what grounds a horror film, what makes it truly frightening, truly disturbing, is how ordinary, how plausible, and how close by the horror is. I mean, there’s nothing scarier than the thought “I am not safe even in my own home—and that is because even my own family is trying to destroy me.” And really that’s the premise of Zero Bridge too, isn’t it?
Guernica: And what’s the story about?
Tariq Tapa: I hate revealing the plot of any movie to anyone. I mean, if it was up to me they wouldn’t even have trailers. You only have one shot at a first impression. So I can tell you just that it’s loosely adapted from a series of appalling, uncanny crimes concerning a family I read about in the news some years ago.
Guernica: The films you like most are big-idea, big-context films, ones that I imagine must be very expensive to make. When you’ re starting out as a director, how do you get yourself into a position to make movies like that?
Tariq Tapa: For me, the key is to find something that’s doable from where I stand now in terms of my young career and that also meets my own various criteria to make it worth doing. And then, if the gods smile down and it’s a success, maybe I’ll get to graduate to bigger budgets for the bigger projects I’ve written and continue to dream up.
With this horror film, I gave myself practical limitations to make it commercially viable: small cast, one set, a story in English, not dependent on expensive effects or locations. Those are the production and career criteria. As for my own personal criteria, there are a lot, and they’re private. But high among them is that it has to have a background action and a foreground action.
A hard lesson I’ve learned during the release of Zero Bridge is that today in America the only original films—I mean ones not based on books—which the power structure—and for that matter, the greater public—will ever support are either horror or science-fiction/fantasy. Even a mediocre superhero movie or mediocre horror movie will make a profit in the way that, say, a better foreign-language movie with no stars or sex, won’t. However, if the film is excellent, then over time it will make a fortune, no matter what genre it is. But no investor can bet on a film being excellent and still have his job. So, genres go through industry cycles, which usually last about five years, where the so-called smart money says, “That genre is now dead, and now this is what people want to see.” In the ’50s, the prestige blockbusters were westerns, and sci-fi/fantasy was only for a devoted minority. Now, those genres have swapped positions in the culture.
Well, I don’t really care what genre the film is—it makes no difference to me, because I believe you can tell a human story about anything if you dig deep enough. And my interests and knowledge are broader than Kashmir, so I’m fine with adapting my stories into a horror context. But not knowing much about horror movies, that meant I had to spend a while sinking the roots deep, getting familiar with how they work, what their components are, what the viewers will expect to see. You know, it can’t be “the idea of being scary”—it’s actually got to be scary, yet without succumbing to the common genre pitfalls of being either silly or tacky or obvious or implausible or the stakes being too low. It has to have humanity or else it’s junk, even if it’s arty junk.
Guernica: But is there something about the horror genre in particular that appeals to you?
Tariq Tapa: Dealing with social taboos was exactly how the very first horror genre, Gothic literature, evolved. Back then, it was the only way a writer in the nineteenth century could actually raise taboo subjects. You know, if you wanted to talk in a mass medium about the slave experience, or the Native American genocide, or gender inequality, you could only do so by playing up how frightening those things were. An Irishman created Dracula as a metaphor for the larger social anxiety everyone then felt about Charles Parnell and Irish politics. In The Shining, Kubrick added all kinds of subtle references to the Native American genocide. You know, A Clockwork Orange has a great science-fiction premise—“if we could behaviorally condition our society to be free of violence, should we?”—which is a really elegantly sneaky way to get people to think about taboo subjects like medical ethics, behavioral conditioning, criminal rehabilitation, the broken penal system, state control, free will, and so forth. And that background context is what gives that film—or any film—its meaning, and what separates it from its endless copycats.
You know, making a movie—any movie, in any genre—is a very long and tedious process. And the hardest part by far—it’s not the fundraising, it’s not the writing, it’s not even in the actual physical work that goes into it. By far the hardest thing is choosing the right story. That can just take forever. You have no idea where it’s going to come from. You don’t know when it’s going to hit you. But you’re waiting for that thing that’s going to perfectly crystallize and encapsulate all your concerns enough in order to get you into that obsessive state that you will require in order to sustain the entire effort of getting through. And maybe making it perilously close to actually being good, or even great.
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