Tariq Tapa had a complicated childhood. Not unpleasant, mind you, just unusually busy.
The 29-year-old filmmaker, whose first feature “Zero Bridge” opens here next week, had a demanding schedule, as he recalls it.
“I went to school a lot,” he says with a laugh. “I was in public school Monday through Friday. For six or seven years I went to the Workmen’s Circle school on Saturdays. And I went to the mosque on Sundays. So from the age of 9 until I was 17, I was going to school seven days a week.”
The Workmen’s Circle and the mosque?
Merely a reflection of Tapa’s interesting family constellation. His mother is a Jewish-American graphic designer who met her husband when she was a tourist in Kashmir. His family has a successful tourism business, hosting visitors, leading them on trekking expeditions and such. She was renting one of their houseboats and they met, fell in love and married.
When he wasn’t in school, their son spent a lot of his time in his mother’s studio in the Flatiron Building. He had his own drawing table and “full access to all her graphic ink pens.” He also spent a lot of time looking up movies in an encyclopedic volume of reviews by Pauline Kael, and his career path began to set itself. By the time he was 9, his mother had bought a camcorder and he was on his way. All he was missing was a subject and a milieu and, appropriately, that came from his father’s side of the family.
“Every summer when I was a child my father brought my mother and I to Kashmir to visit his family,” Tapa says in the director’s statement that he wrote for the film. “When war broke out in 1988, the visits stopped. … Although I didn’t grow up on Kashmir, my interest in it grew over the years after those visits, primarily for the rich material that such a world provided for stories.”
The story that became his first film is as simple as its creator and its protagonist are complicated. Dilawar (Mohamad Emran Tapa, a distant cousin of the filmmaker) is a bright 17-year-old who lives with his uncle Ali (Ali Muhammad Dar), more or less abandoned by his adoptive mother with whom he yearns to be reunited. An apprentice in his uncle’s masonry crew, Dilawar spends his every free moment in illegal schemes, trying to raise money clandestinely to enable him to go to Delhi to see her. In one of his forays as a pickpocket, he steals the purse and passport of Bani (Taniya Kahn), a 28-year-old woman who has been forced to abandon her studies in the U.S. and live with her cousins, to whom she is a virtual slave. Circumstances throw the two together again and a friendship develops, but the result is disastrous for both.
Tapa, who notes Italian neo-realists Roberto Rossellini and Ermanno Olmi as his primary influences, tells this story with remarkable control for a first-timer. Both the writing and the direction are deft and sure, and his cast of non-actors is both spontaneous and convincing, particularly the leads.
Dilawar and Bani are at once echoes and yet also inversions of one another, trapped in poverty exacerbated by imprisoning extended families; his reaction is to use his intelligence for personal gain, while she stoically endures. But Dilawar also seems to be a photo-negative version of his creator: smart and driven, but with a divided consciousness looking for the emotional anchor that Tapa’s family clearly has given him.
It is suggestive that the film begins and ends with Dilawar stuck on the title structure, unwelcome on the bridge itself and unable to cross over.
Unlike Tapa, he is deprived of the opportunities that circumstances might have provided. Perhaps it is nothing more than chance and genetics that have made one young man a petty thief and the other an intellectual and artist.
Asked about his own sense of identity, Jewish and otherwise, Tapa suggests as much, albeit indirectly.
“If you’re like me and you believe that identity is never fixed, the process of each of our lives is about trying to find the grace of a given moment in whatever situation you live in,” Tapa says. “Identity is constantly revising itself. One is always exploring ways to discover completely other sides of your personality. Of course, the search is complicated further if you’re a person of mixed race or religion.”
For Tapa, that self-exploration and sense of being internally divided is the essence of the artist’s work.
“The prerequisite to doing any kind of creative work, I think, is a sense of doubleness,” he says. “You are both the observing ego and the experiencing ego, and that’s all compounded by genetic accidents.”
One of the films that helped Tapa shape “Zero Bridge,” even helping him give his own work a title, is Rossellini’s “Germany Year Zero,” a stark drama of a boy in the ruins of post-war Berlin. Tapa notes Rossellini¹s circumstances during the making of the film and draws a parallel that goes to the heart of his own sense of being an outsider in Kashmir, despite his family ties.
“Rossellini was an Italian traveling through a devastated Germany,” the filmmaker remarks. “He was working in a foreign country in a moment of transition and working in a foreign language.”
Although he spent those childhood summers in Kashmir, Tapa speaks no Urdu and has retained little Kashmiri so, like the Italian master, he worked with his cast through a translator much of the time.
“As an outsider in a region in flux, attempting to find the poetry of everyday life, that’s something that having a mixed background is an asset,” he asserts, “because you¹re able to understand the imaginative predicate from the character’s point of view, but you take on an omniscient point of view as an outsider who is telling his story.”
You might say, then, that “Zero Bridge” is a film that only a Jewish-Kashmiri-American could have made, and the logical outcome of Tariq Tapa’s busy, complicated life.
“Zero Bridge” will play at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St., west of Sixth Avenue) beginning Wednesday, Feb. 16. For information, call (212) 727-8110 or go to www.filmforum.org.