Ashvin Kumar's No Fathers in Kashmir is getting one of this week's more selective releases, but it's notable and valuable for offering a glimpse of a part of the world that was tricky to see or get much sense of even before its recent media blackout. As an opening text underlines, Kashmir has been a site of so much tension between India and Pakistan over the decades that some estimated 100,000 lives have been lost there, three times the number lost in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Kumar's film is framed as a journey of discovery for both the viewer and its protagonist Noor (Zara Webb), a selfie-snapping teenager raised in the UK but returned to her absent father's homeland by a mother seeking signatures on official documents. With cinematographer Jean-Marc Selva set to exploring the region's forests, peaks and bombsites, Kashmir is laid out before us as a place of mysteries, of unfinished business. We're invited to wonder just where Noor's father disappeared to, why his conservative college pal Arshid (played by the director himself as an agonised, melancholy hardliner) can no longer have children, and why he's hiding a man in the attic of a boarded-up Internet cafe - an especially evocative location, given recent developments in the region.
Noor, for her part, has been characterised along Nancy Drew-ish lines, as a clear-eyed, pure-souled seeker uncovering the many secrets lying under these rocks; there's a degree to which her progress is meant as educative, as this teen abandons her initial, gauche goal of getting a Facebook photo with a militant and instead uses her cameraphone to document harsh truths. (She has a lot in common with Waad al-Kateab, the fearless student-journalist heroine of the recent documentary For Sama.) Webb is a bright, alert presence in the role: she seems to get older and less coltish the more she finds out, and there's a nice, possibly Conan Doyle-inspired touch as she inherits her father's pipe in the middle of her investigations. Kumar casts well generally, recruiting assured veterans who'll be better known to southern hemisphere viewers (Raazi's Soni Razdan, Kulbhushan Kharbanda from 2014's Hamlet-goes-to-Kashmir update Haider), and he sets up so many areas of inquiry so quickly that he has time to explore them at length: we even get a sort-of holiday romance between Noor and scooter-riding contemporary Majid (Shivam Raina), and the drollest of jokes as souvenir photos taken at a blithe early stage are delivered at an especially inopportune moment. Here as elsewhere, Kumar senses the fraught place images occupy in Kashmir as proofs of life or death. Occasionally, he'll intersperse the dramatised action with flickers of non-fiction captured around the area; perhaps he could have pushed a little more firmly and decisively into that hybrid docu-fiction territory, but the film he turns in is engaged and engaging enough in itself. We usually have to make excuses for images smuggled out of contested territory, pointing out they were shot undercover, or composed in a rush, or that the authorities may have got censorious fingers on them before they reached our screens. The quiet triumph of Kumar's film is that it needs next to no allowances making for it whatsoever.
No Fathers in Kashmir is now playing in selected cinemas.