Here, Billy speaks to Raindance Film Festival about making a sustainable documentary.
“Last year they fired missiles at us again”. The tourist policeman pointed high up to the hillside where vines were starting to recolonise the previously disturbed area at the foot of a camouflaged military post along the Neelum Valley road. At points here, the controversial India-Pakistan border is no more than a stone throw away. This is the intimidating introduction that most people expect from Kashmir, especially along the Pakistani side. After spending 5 months in and out of these secretive Himalayan foothills I can assure you that it isn’t the real picture .
We eventually got turned away from the check post as uninformed officials prodded and poked at our NOC (No Objection Certificate). This would have unlocked the true ‘Heaven on Earth’ that Kashmir is otherwise renowned for; the lakes of Ratti Gali and Chitta Katha, the grassy hillsides of Kel and Taobat. Much like how people assume that you’re heading into a warzone when you mention Kashmir, aim to step through this checkpoint with a camera and no one can believe that you would rather film these natural wonders than the strip of barbed wire fencing patrolled by teams of nervous military men.
Our trip to Neelum was a shot in the dark, but until it happened, so was the rest of this film.
No one could tell me for certain if I could film in Azad Kashmir or not: not the embassy, not the client, not the local producers. Most people were certain that as a foreigner, I wasn’t even allowed into Azad Kashmir and those with experience warned me that I would need a full security escort.
Making Pot of Gold didn’t just allow us to tell a beautiful human story about resilience and innovation – as beekeepers in one of these remote valleys negotiate a future filled with climate chaos – but it has allowed us to portray Kashmir honestly; separating the militarised-political history with that of the real life, of real people, in this moment, who much like us have real struggles – bringing the world that little bit closer together.
The bottom-line is that Azad Kashmir is one of the most dramatically beautiful places I have ever visited. Each morning, Olivier Richomme our Director, Zarak Jehan our Assistant Producer and I – our entire crew – squished ourselves and kit into the pimped-out Suzuki Carry to drive across the bumpy tracks linking the valley. And every morning I had to remind all of us to not forgot how beautiful this place is. Once you broke through the thick tunnel of pines and traditional mud outhouses, you had an uninterrupted view for tens of kilometres of cascading ridges dotted with tiny houses sheltered under the treeline, all gradually blending into the mist – a landscape unlike any other, a lived landscape where people weren’t separated from their environment and a landscape that steadily grows towards the ceiling of the world, the Himalayas.
We passed people on the roads shepherding their mixed flocks of sheep and goats towards fresh pasture; almost getting run over by water buffalos being herded back into their sheds by an old woman and the power of a small stick; men toiling in the fields as young kids carried bales of grass to use as animal feed; and Shakeel, as he moved from house to house extracting the purest organic honey from indigenous mountain bees brought up on the rich, endemic, medicinal flora.
From first impressions, life here hasn’t appeared to change much from the early 20th century archive footage I’ve been digging through. But life is changing. The abundance which used to easily sustain the population without care for conservation is thinning out and unemployment is at 14%, with 1 in 10 people working for the government. This makes the resurgence of the cottage beekeeping industry that we were documenting even more pertinent, once again driving the communities to wholeheartedly, independently reconnect with their land and its health, whilst driving the sustainable development that this area so badly needs.
‘To get in and out as seamlessly as possible, without disturbing but leaving a positive trace’ is a mantra of mine when passing through other people’s lives whilst on the road. This separates off into 2 alleyways: sustainability and low impact. For this job both are almost interchangeable. With the distance from Manchester to Islamabad being 6000kms, the main concern with sustainability was answered when just Olivier and I touched down from Manchester to Islamabad and got picked up by our third Musketeer, Zarak.
Once in Dhirkot we were isolated. We could carry all that could fit in our Suzuki, and we had the run of whatever we could find or have made in the local area. My favourite of these was renting a handmade fruit cart which we found chained up along the high street to be used as a dolly whenever we fancied doing a tracking shot. From beehives to onion bags and gold watches to vintage kerosine lamps, anything was possible here.
I say our team was 3… but such is the culture in a small town like this, everyone is on your team, and someone always knows someone who knows someone who can help. The team at Human Appeal and everyone involved in beekeeping were completely onboard, helping us with Facebook castings, street castings, taking people to the barber for their first shave and dealing with me asking to strap 4 beehives to the back of a motorbike.
The most obvious conflict was our perception of time. There was never any rush. Sitting around and chatting was an important part of the day for everyone and to the delight of Zarak & I there was always time for some backyard cricket. Activities too were collective, friends would seemingly pop by unannounced and even the art of beekeeping was collective with the experts offering up their time to the younger, newer members.
My approach to being in places such as this is integration, to get to a point where we feel like we can blend into the background and to be part of the infrastructure of the place. As far as integration is concerned, we were afforded a level of curiosity given the rarity that people like us pass through this area, and traditional hospitality is still alive and well – to the detriment of our schedule. Everywhere you go you’re presented with diabetes-inducing chai and a spread of cakes, biscuits and miscellaneous deep-fried bits and pieces, often before lunch is put on the agenda.
I class this integration as a key component of low impact. There were no conscious decisions to ‘integrate’ but merely a mindset of wanting to belong. This is where I’m thankful for my travel experience, after sleeping under a rocky ledge in the rainforest in Sierra Leone, or a day and night crossing the desert of Mauritania on a bed of Iron Ore atop a train – different ways of living and surviving are not alien to me, and both Olivier and Zarak were the same. It comes from a desire to observe, and fit in.
My previous travels to every country in the world and the joy of making this film has inspired me that there is something we can all learn from the knowledge and experiences of people across the planet. Beyond the headlines, these places are hotspots for creativity, ingenuity, resilience and admirable mindsets. Whereas the distance and experiences between myself here in the UK and my friends in Kashmir can sometimes seem a million miles between, there are many contexts in which we are all the same and with the very real environmental crises occurring across the globe, there are lessons we can take from stories if we take the time to discover and listen to them.
We can only do that if we’re willing to break down the barriers and step into the unknown, and for me that is what the making of Pot of Gold allowed me to do. Beyond the scope of this film about the transformative potential of beekeeping, the experience shows Kashmir for what it really is, and always has been, Heaven on Earth.
To read the article on Raindance, click here.