Cassie de Colling was determined not to give up on Kashmir. She knew she could find a story waiting to be told.
The Australian director had come to Gulmarg, a snow-swept town in the western Himalayas, to film a not-for-profit project.
But that plan fell apart when the organiser disappeared without explanation.
“I had a load of camera equipment and thought, ‘I’m not leaving until I shoot something,’” says Cassie, laughing.
That’s when a chance encounter inspired a different story. While trying to capture scenic shots of Gulmarg’s skyline, a snowboarding brother and sister invited her to meet their family.
Over tea, the complexity of life in Kashmir quickly became clear.
Prolonged border disputes between India and Pakistan have resulted in as many as many as 70,000 deaths since 1989.
In July, the killing of a popular rebel commander triggered some of the largest protests against Indian rule in years. Kashmir has been under a security lockdown ever since.
Yet despite warnings by Western governments not to travel to Gulmarg, skiers and snowboarders from around the world are drawn to the ‘line of control’ it straddles between India and Pakistan.
On one side, Asia’s highest cable-car ferries tourists 13,000ft up Mount Apharwat. In the near distance, armed forces watch their every move.
That divide between civil unrest and backcountry hotspot inspired Cassie to make Gulmarg: Paradise on Earth.
As she and co-producer Tamie Wexler explain, packing that fractious mix of despair and optimism into a documentary short proved challenging.
What were your expectations going in and how did your experiences contrast with that?
Cassie: I felt like I was going to quite an uncharted place but I didn’t expect to see Westerners there drinking and partying. I expected it to be more pristine, in a sense.
That became one of the things I wanted to explore in the film: the blending of Western society into a once-undiscovered Muslim village that’s now a ski town.
Tamie: I knew it would be crazy. Luckily, Cassie painted the picture that anything goes in Kashmir. You can’t really put it into words. You just adapt by melting into the environment and learning to laugh at things that just don’t go your way.
Cassie: Because it’s such a multi-faceted topic, some people were quite extreme in their views that Gulmarg should remain a highly religious place where Westerners shouldn’t be coming – or if they do come, it should be with a lot more respect.
The flip-side is that tourism is bringing in money. With some people I spoke to, there was a sense of saving grace – it felt like they wanted to say that, culturally, it doesn’t sit well but, financially, it sits really well.
So it was one of those things that took a bit of digging around. But that feeling of being in a developing country that’s becoming a playground for Westerners was quite apparent.
What about the foreigners? Did they feel conflicted at all?
Tamie: Some of them didn’t realise, actually, but when we spoke to them about it they understood how hard it must be for the locals.
Cassie: There’s always a superiority with Westerners coming into developing regions.
Andy [an interviewee] was very conscientious of the influence it’s having but he also had the view of, ‘Well, I want to share my culture with you guys – and my culture is that we all have a beer after we’ve been skiing.’
How did the local react to Westerners introducing safety regulations when it comes to the snow? Did they recognise it as valuable or were they more like, ‘Don’t tell us how to do things’?
Cassie: Life and death goes hand-in-hand in places like Kashmir, especially in the mountains.
People constantly die in conflict and I felt like there was this feeling of, ‘A white guy gets killed in the snow – who cares?’ There was just a different regard… but it’s hard to generalise.
Tamie: That said, the avalanche safety was definitely respected by local guides who wanted to be part of the tourism trade there.
You get the sense that this culture clash is just simmering indefinitely. How do you see it developing from here?
Cassie: There’s huge uprising at the moment in Kashmir, with tension building between the locals and the army again. Since Ramadan, there have been riots and a lot of people haven’t been able to leave their homes for the last month.
In the future I can’t really see anyone investing seriously [as a destination]. It’s not like Mexico or Bali. There’s a huge amount of civil unrest there still. I can’t see that going away anytime soon.
People are talking about it being a potential [terrorism] target because there are so many foreigners going there now. It’s definitely a melting pot of chaos.
Gulmarg: Paradise on Earth will screen at the Joshua Tree International Film Festival, California and the Breckenridge Film Festival, Colorado in September before receiving a wider release.