A scene from Musa Syeed's "The Dispossessed"

Sundance ’19 Interview: Musa Syeed on a Modern Portrait of an Ancient Faith Healer in “The Dispossessed”

When Musa Syeed told his family that he would be filming a short film about faith healers in Kashmir, it wasn’t exactly greeted with approval, even with a history of practitioners in the bloodline.

“After my grandfather, people in my family have generally had a negative view of these kinds of people because they’re often seen as opportunists or people who take money to do exorcisms,” recalls Syeed. “There’s a lot of skepticism about them, so a lot of people in my family were like, “Oh, why do you want to make a film about that? These people are just charlatans.”

Whether they are or they aren’t isn’t at the root of Syeed’s inquiry, however, in “The Disposessed,” making its debut this weekend at Sundance and online as part of New York Times OpDocs. Instead, Syeed uses the brief time he spends with Hazari, a faith healer who is renowned for freeing people of the Muslim faith of the nefarious spirit known as the jinn, to explore how this practice has entered the 21st Century, particularly when the trauma of living in continual conflict in Kashmir has an all-too-human explanation. Bearing witness to an exorcism and seeing Hazari offer care to clients that can often be more psychological and spiritual, perhaps owing to what he overhears at his day job as a Xerox technician for a local medical school, Syeed’s return to Kashmir where he last filmed his sensational narrative debut “Valley of Saints” is just as thought-provoking and memorable.

Shortly before “The Dispossessed” hits Park City, though you can watch it here right now, Syeed spoke about telling a larger story of his birthplace through the short and the intriguing ways modern medicine and ancient beliefs have commingled in treating what ails people in contemporary Kashmir.

How did this come about?

My family is from Kashmir where I made my first feature “Valley of Saints” back in 2012, and I had been wanting to follow up and make another film there for some time. I was particularly interested in ideas around mental health and faith healing because my grandfathers were actually faith healers in Kashmir, so I was interested to see what roles pirs or faith healers play today. I went back to Kashmir, just trying to chase down different leads with Azfal Sofi, who’s my producer and also one of my actors from “Valley of Saints” who became a filmmaker in his own right. And we found [Hazari] and shot with him for a few days. It was an unexpected subject for me to come across, [but somebody who] embodies the sometimes contradictory nature of this traditional role in a modern world.

Actually, the way I found Hazari was through a medical doctor at the government hospital at the psychiatric department who referred me because they refer patients back and forth because they each see the value in each other’s work, and it speaks to [Hazari’s] unique view on what he does that he believes that there are these supernatural things happening, but also he believes in depression and trauma.

When it’s a sensitive situation like visiting a clinic with a camera, did it take a while to build a trust?

We actually didn’t spend much time with him once we got the phone number from this doctor. We called him and right away, he was okay with us filming. I think he has so much confidence in what he’s doing that he was happy to share and that made people in his clinic comfortable with us too because he was so firm in his belief, so it made it a pretty easy shoot. For me, I was more cautious at times because you’re in this one-room clinic with all these people sitting shoulder to shoulder and everyone’s talking about these personal problems and getting these treatments in front of everybody in this public way. So maybe I was a little shy at first, but he encouraged us to keep the camera rolling. She me people didn’t want to be filmed, so we were respectful of that.

At first, we recorded what a lot of people were describing as what brought them there and initially, I wanted to include more of that [in the final film], but I just felt ultimately it wasn’t that important [because] we can fill in the blanks a bit without having to expose too much of their personal problems. And we were a very small crew, just me and Afzal, and I had this small Black Magic pocket camera, just sitting on the floor with them, [not] trying to film it as being some exotic weird thing. Also, Afzal submitted himself for treatment – he talked to Hazuri and as you see in the film, [Hazuri] writes out these [little] pieces of scripture that’s meant to protect you from something, so Afzal got one of those written out for him and he took it seriously. That helped us gain some credibility and trust with Hazari and the people in the room that we were willing to accept what he was doing or explore it with an open mind.

That could’ve been it, but did anything happen during shooting that changed your ideas about what this could be?

It was just [Hazari’s] perspective on it. I wanted him to believe that something supernatural was happening, but [It was surprising] the fact that he admits or understands that a lot of these people just have depression and he’s giving them what they want and hope that helps relieve some of the mental burdens or trauma that they’re going through. Hearing someone like him have that understanding and be able to reconcile these things was the most surprising for me, and to see that he works in a medical school and has that exposure as well. It speaks to the way a lot of people in their everyday lives reconcile these things in an interesting way and that they’re able to see the world in a very complex way.

The depression would seem to connect to the instability in Kashmir – was it difficult in editing or piecing this together, figuring out the balance of larger society versus just this one man?

Yeah, I always hope to call attention to the fact that there’s an ongoing conflict there, but in a way that doesn’t make the film feel like it’s only about that or that it explores it through the perspective of a unique individual. In this case, it wasn’t hard to do that because he’s treating people who have been under a lot of stress for a few decades now because of the conflict. The last portion of the film, where he does that final exorcism, I had initially edited it with some images of the conflict cut into that, but I eventually took it out because I didn’t want to say that’s the only reason why these things are happening. I wanted to leave it up to the audience to decide what they think, knowing all these things about this man and the context that these people are living in. Is this [patient of Hazari’s] possessed or is he just depressed or suffering from something else?

One of the things I thought you did so well is the sound mix – how did you want people to experience what the people do on screen sonically?

I wanted to try to root people in the perspective of the people in the room and the people in the room believe there is another unseen reality around them, so how do you bring that out in a way which is invisible to the eye, but is still a presence? That’s why it was so important in the sound mix to try to find a way to make the presence of the Jinn feel real and we worked hard on giving the Jinn a voice and a recurring theme in the film sonically. It was a fun collaboration with Luke Allen, the sound designer who was also the composer, because he got to treat the music and the sound design in a very holistic way. A big part of telling this story was about how do you make this unseen reality felt to a viewer and we were able to do a lot of that just through the sound and the music.

Are you excited about Sundance and putting this out there?

Yeah, I’m excited to be back at Sundance, especially to bring my producer Afzal from Kashmir. [Although] he was in this film I did that was at Sundance in 2012, he wasn’t able to go, but this time we were able to get him a Visa and get him a flight, and it’ll be his first time in the U.S. and first time at Sundance, obviously, so I’m excited to bring him and connect him to this experience.

“The Dispossessed” will screen in front of screenings of “Midnight Family” at the Sundance Film Festival on January 27th at 3:30 pm at the Ray Theatre in Park City, January 28th at 3:30 pm at the Redstone Cinema 1 in Park City, January 30th at noon at the Sundance Mountain Resort Screening Room, January 31st at 9:45 pm at the Broadway Centre Cinema 3 in Salt Lake City and February 1st at 2:30 pm at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City.