Pakistani filmmaker Ammar Aziz’s A Walnut Tree examines the plight of internally displaced persons, the aid agency term for refugees who are uprooted by violence and oppression within their own countries. Baba, a poet and a former teacher, lives with his family in one of many tarpaulin covered tents at the Jalozai colony, which was originally set up to house refugees fleeing the Afghanistan civil war in the 1980s. Jalozai has welcomed thousands of internally displaced persons in recent years, including Baba and his family, who were forced off their land by fighting between the Pakistani Army and insurgents.

Baba’s son scrapes together a living by selling balloons and carting around a bioscope. The film simply and powerfully observes Baba’s plight, his futile attempts to kill time, his desperate desire to leave the camp and return to his village, and the larger struggles of other refugees at Jalozai.  The documentary takes a dramatic turn when Baba disappears.

Aziz’s film is one of four documentaries made under the Justice Project. Steered by Indian documentary filmmaker Rahul Roy, the project features films and research papers from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal and explores issues related to social conflict and justice. Roy’s The Factory looks at the Maruti labour struggle. Kesang Tseten investigates the disappearance of Nepalese intellectual Dor Bahadur Bista in Castaway Man. Prasanna Vithanage’s Silence in the Courts reopens a controversial rape case involving a judge in Sri Lanka.

A Walnut Tree has been screened in Delhi, Colombo and Kathmandu, and it will now be shown in the competition section for first-time filmmakers at the prestigious International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (November 18-29).

A Walnut Tree - Official Trailer from Ammar Aziz on Vimeo.

Aziz has previously directed short films on female bangle makers in his country’s Hyderabad region and powerloom workers in Faisalabad. He is now working on a documentary on internally displaced Hindus from Waziristan. “They’re Dalits who were settled by the British in Waziristan to do cleaning jobs,” he told in an email interview. “They’ve been living there for over a century but are still seen as the ‘others’. After the military operation Zarb-e-Azab, they’re now living in Bannu.”

Why did you decide to make a film on internally displaced persons, and why did you choose Baba and his family to tell their story?
Displacement and nostalgia for one’s homeland have always been very personal themes to me. We grew up hearing about the green fields and mango orchards of Hoshiarpur from where my grandmother migrated to Lahore during the partition. When I went to the Jalozai camp, I started spending time with a lot of people and we were actually filming three different families. But there was something about Baba which kept us more involved in him. His sense of loss and the way he expressed it – perhaps because he was a poet – certainly was one reason we chose to tell the story through him. However, until the day he disappeared, I had a very different approach for the film in my mind. I wanted to have at least two parallel stories of different families in the film. It was never meant to be the story of one person. Though now I feel that this one person reflects the shared pain of that land so well. He becomes a metaphor of a cultured past which has been demolished because of proxy wars.

Where is Baba originally from? The documentary leaves his place of origin vague
The family was originally from Tirah Valley of Khyber Agency, one of the several agencies of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. There are subtle hints of Tirah at a few points (which a speaker of Pashto language would understand) but I deliberately chose not to specify the exact area. The only visual gateway to his past is when he shows me a mobile phone video. One word that he uses there and which he’d often use to describe his homeland is “jannat” [paradise]. Like a utopia which doesn’t exist and where he wants to return. It has no name of its own. It reflects the entire blood-stricken land where once people danced and sang poems.

What were your impressions of the Jalozai refugee camp? Is it a shelter or prison or both?
The camp doesn’t play any role in making people feel at home. There’s a consistent reminder of their refugee status: in the tents in which they live, on the mats they sleep and on the food they eat. Loud, ugly logos everywhere reminding them how vulnerable and dependent they are. The camp is a haunting tent city with signboards in foreign languages which people don’t understand. It alienates people in every possible way.

While the film uses an observational style, did your presence catalyse behaviour in any way? Did the filmmaking trigger memories in Baba?
Since I and none of my crew members speak or understand Pashto, it affected our communication with them and at the same time helped us to capture their truth whenever they’d communicate with each other. The fact that we don’t understand their language somehow made them feel more comfortable. I don’t know if our presence triggered Baba’s memories – I really hope it didn’t.

Has the film been shown the film in Pakistan? Is there enough debate about the status of displaced persons in civil society there?
The film hasn’t been shown in Pakistan yet. I don’t think the issue of internal displacement is even seen as an issue in Pakistan’s “civil society” – a bunch of pro war on terror liberals who often have racist views when it comes to the Pashtun community. Their views hardly differ from what we see in the American propaganda shows like Homeland; they consider every bearded brown man a terrorist and assume Pashtun women don’t have a voice of their own. That said, I don’t deny the patriarchal practices which exist in the Pashtun culture or the dominant religion there, for that matter. And as a feminist, I unapologetically oppose that.

Within the “civil society”, IDPs [internally displaced persons] are usually seen as “terrorist-looking natives” merely with carnal needs. Who cares about their traumas, disorders and fears as long as they’re getting USAID flour?  For example, Sharmeed Obaid Chinoy infamously tweeted that “IDPs should be contained in camps in KPK.” Need I say more?

Filmmaker Ammar Aziz.