The absence of apricots night in the lens

The Absence of Apricots predicates itself on a disaster. Initially it seems like it will be solely about this event, but instead dives deeper, into a well of both arcane symbolism and detailed moments from the changed lives of one family who were uprooted. Early in 2010 a massive landslide blocked the flow of the Hunza River, in the far North of Pakistan, causing a flood that submerged entire villages, as well as the sole highway snaking through the mountains. The villages that weren’t underwater became veritable islands, cut off from one another, now only reachable by boat. These events were just a horrible prelude to the more extensive flooding that would happen later the same year in Ladakh and throughout the Indus River basin, when heavy rainfall swept away vulnerable, unforested terrain, causing many casualties and transforming whole regions.

Eight years on, and shared ferries still service the towns of Upper Hunza isolated by the flood, while vestiges of others – including treetops and electric pylons – barely broach the high, crystalline water.

Below the surface of this newly-formed lake, the camera spins around the concrete beams of a building, which still hold structure, the wear of corrosion making abstract formations in the sunlight. A man emerges, walking up onto the bouldered shore. Surrounded by scree hills, a family of eight stands, facing us, on the pieces of their destroyed village. The waters have since receded from it, but little remains of use, besides the bricks of ruined houses to be broken down and reused for parapets. Sadly they must pick apart their ancestral home, to be of some use today. Together they shovel fertilizer into the back of a tractor, getting whipped by angry, gritty winds. “In winters, when the water goes down, the land is getting visible,” the grandfather tells us. Two young men survey the lake, looking for ducks to shoot. In the next scene one of the dead birds is given to Basit, the toddler, and he runs into the house holding it by the wing. The eldest brother plucks the feathers, and then the father teaches the middle son how to clean the duck’s organs to be cooked.

The film’s guiding myth, which is narrated to us gradually, begins to connect with the reality of the valley’s people, bit by bit. It relates the story of a supernatural ibex with golden horns who sires a son, only to have a presumptuous human hunter kill the baby, having mistaken it for the adult. As the frightened hunter retreats to his village, the ibexes’ guardian fairy brings a stampede down from the mountains to take revenge. This tale of pointless hubris provides an uncomfortable parallel with the real landslide that transformed the valley and its inhabitants’ lives. Obviously, filming real people as well as an array of analogous metaphors puts them all in an outsider’s visualizing. While the film presents layers of cultural specificities (many of which will never be decipherable by its audience) its gestures are thoroughly contemporary, inflected with Western minimalism. At times we feel we are in the bare dreamscapes of Philippe Garrel’s The Inner Scar (1972), a void populated by little else besides tense, purposeful metaphors.

The folktale (or the synthesis of one) is born of a need for connection, for reconciliation with the environment, even while larger forces change the world. It has a life of its own, symbolized by the man traversing the wilderness alone. Perhaps he is the hunter of legend. Standing in the shell of a concrete house, he holds an ibex skull up to the heavens. Meanwhile at the foot of a glacier, we watch as a man in a chitrali cap gathers branches of juniper, armloads of them, for a ceremony. He and the amphibious hunter call to each other across a distance of blasting mountain air. We see the ibex fairy, a shadow-clad woman walking across a plateau. She seems to exist in a twilight reality without water, parallel to the flooded one in which the hunter is stranded.

Apricots are a manifestation of lifeblood, fed off of and fed back into the ground; they are dried until the sugars surface; they are pulverized into flour and stewed. Their kernels provide cooking oil. As the water line slowly drops, only naked branches remain. The grandfather’s gnarled hands tie young branches onto the stumps of old ones with orange ribbons, which hang like prayer flags for the return of fruit. Huge bushels remain in the grandmother’s memory, conveying a time of richness and contentment. Meanwhile the grandfather oversees the young-men hacking branches of the dry, lifeless trees. This former orchard must now be ransacked for fuel. Another hollowed-out memory of a way of life gone. Later we see him digging a tiny irrigation stream to feed new trees. It’s all they have – there’s no choice beside making a go of it again.

The grandmother recalls the day of the landslide, how dust covered everything, even the sun. Did some fool in the community really bring this destruction onto the valley? In reality their only crime was being vulnerable. Climate change caused the landslide, part of the irreparable damage being wrought by us in the developed world. Still there is this sense of guilt. The film’s atavism brings us back to nature, where all human beings are trespassers. Some are made to feel the backlash, while others, far away, are sheltered from it. The film brings us in meditative closeness with a little-known community changed forever, just one part of the ever-mounting toll of the unnatural weather. But it has no invective; it is too ambitious in its rapport, too alive in its vision, to restrain its scope with argument. Things speak for themselves, when they aren’t being drowned out with mysticism.

There are many shots of people looking pensive and skyward. Amplified whispers of narration and insipid portraits – for example, the family standing facing forward on top of the bricks of their ruined house – are queesily reminiscent of countless advertisements and the lazier tendencies of commercial cinema. The inspirational-sounding music, majestic, with strings keening off into the air, gives a similar feeling of resignation to style; it feels like a reflexive blanket that filmmakers fumble for, in order to undergird formidable, elemental and implausible sights, rendering them comfortable and sleek. The stock clatter of drums and bells, usually connoting the Himalayas, thunder across the soundtrack.

In spite of these self-conscious shortcomings and the heavily affected spirituality, the film still treats people with honesty and empathy. It’s laudable that Faezi went beyond a straightforward documentary, and the significant element of fantasy bridges the gap to fiction and even the sublime. While avoiding ethnography endears the film to the international festivals, it also quickens the intensity emotional depth and intimate exploration that would be hard to achieve otherwise. It reaches for a new vocabulary of depiction, even if it falls short. Faezi provides us images, wondrous in themselves, made more striking because they transform through space: the lone man crossing the open country, the trees with scarlet ribbons tied to their dead branches, the ibex skull held as an offering and carried as a talisman. The impression is minimal, the effect ambiguous.

It’s a singular evocation of a place, one laced with spirits and fringed with surprising, miraculous life. While the vistas are large and silent, they also creak with knotted thickets and the susurrations of silt, the crackling of distant glaciers. The hunter walks through the ruins, looking about as though bewildered by the mass exodus that he caused. These aren’t landscapes, meant to stir emotions, but the essential theater of the place. Along the Hunza River, from Gojal to the lower valley, it is impossible to look in any direction and not be assailed by a rising vista of mountains, or glaciers crashing together in slow confluence. It’s an amazingly sheer and clean-looking place, ashen slopes scoured by windstorms, like a prototype for a planet before vegetation and people could be added to it. Villages are made of stones, cement and sickly wood. Water and sky are a crisp cerulean, cloudless.

At the same time the emotional core of the film rests in the documentary scenes, removed from the enigmatic imagery and obscure cultural symbols. In one charming scene, an Urdu-speaking barber applies shaving cream to young Basit’s smooth face and removes his imaginary stubble with a straight razor. The more profound moments are the recollections of the grandmother, telling her grandson about their life in Shishkat, before the landslide; they are the people at work, at rest, and sharing wisdom. The horoscope is poor from here on out. In their diluvial life that has been thrust upon them, warmth comes from memories, and from each other. Nothing has entirely emerged yet from the lake, but that doesn’t mean that it is all dead. Their culture is a guttering flame, somehow kept aglow by the howling wind.

The family puts on life jackets and piles into a motorized pontoon. It is Basit’s birthday, his ruddy, bewildered face watching as his brothers and sister dance around him. The boy grows, like the apricot saplings, year by year. The trees haven’t gone, they’re just small. “Give way to the birth of relief,” the fairy says, bafflingly. This search for “relief” seems to possess everyone, but they all have different ways of understanding it. It isn’t a moment in the future or a feeling or a fact. The hunter walks towards it, forever. He signifies a people adrift, seeking out myths and characters to feel complete again, people who became refugees forced to higher ground. They can’t go home again, but they can carry it with them in dreams.