Sometimes magic happens. Last fall, through a series of coincidences, I met a woman named Valerie Courville. “My name is inside your name!” I told her. We took it as a sign. Valerie (pictured) introduced me to her 9 year-old son Dylan, an old soul with light in his eyes. They both grew close to my heart. It wasn’t long before they offered to bring Divided We Fall to Dylan’s school – the Fayerweather Street School in Cambridge, a private pre-K to 8 school that focuses on social justice, creative exploration, and ethical citizenship.
Tonight, we had our first screening of the new year in Fayerweather’s school gymnasium. The Fayerweather Diversity Committee transformed the gym into a theater: they set out rows of chairs and a large projector screen, hooked up speakers, brought down the lights, and soon nearly 150 people filled the room sharing tea and brownies.
The principle of the school Ed Kuh welcomed the audience of parents and neighbors, including my friends from kathak class, and affirmed the school’s commitment to diversity and dialogue. Valerie then warmly welcomed me on behalf of the school’s diversity committee. As I introduced the film, I could see Dylan in the very back, sitting eagerly, pushing away his long brown hair, bright eyes sparkling – he was so excited. They had worked so hard to make this night happen.
The film began. I had not watched it in more than a month. Since our last screening at George Washington, I had been buried in my books struggling to get through my last final exams at Harvard and thus complete my masters degree. My greatest excitement was doing two radio interviews with the BBC. Tonight, I realized that I am most in my element when in the life of the movie.
This time, I sat next to Dylan to try to see through his 9 year-old eyes. He watched with tremendous attention and calm. The stories came alive, became fresh, turned anew when I imagined what they showed him about the world.
When the lights came up, the audience applauded hard. I thanked my dear friend Shil Sengupta who had watched the complete movie for the first time tonight after reviewing countless rough drafts last year (he also played photographer tonight – except for our picture). Then I opened for questions. Absolute silence. No one moved. After a moment, a hand went up – and then another and another and it wouldn’t stop.
One parent in the audience Laurie spoke with tears in her eyes: “The film impacted me deeply. It was so powerful that I think I need several days to process it all. Right now, we just feel speechless. The more personal the stories, the more universal your journey became.”
A teacher at the school Joanie shared: “I’m African-American and I’ve always felt different – my community has felt different for a very long time. Whenever something bad happens, we’re prepared for racism. I was so happy that you included the segment on the Japanese American Internment, because it shows how racism has impacted many people in our country’s history. I’m also very happy that you talked about the power of storytelling! I believe that too, and that’s what I have my kids doing in class.”
Joanie’s comment launched me into a reflection on how storytelling can change people more than rational argument. I shared my encounter with New York City Councilmember James Oddo as a testament to the common ground possible through stories.
A parent then asked, “How do we get this film to a wider audience? How do we make a difference?” I shared our hope to secure distribution and the power of word-of-mouth and grassroots support in getting these stories to mainstream America.
A woman in the front row offered: “My name is Cecilia, and I’m a foreigner. The focus on ‘who counts’ as American troubles me. Maybe the problem is identity itself. Do we need identity?” It was an important question.
“After 9/11, who we counted as American in this country equalled who we counted as human – who we gave full rights, recognition, and respect.” I responded. “Since erasing identity is impossible, I think we must expand who counts as one of us to include diverse identities, so that America’s metaphor of the melting pot which absorbs identity is replaced with the mosaic which values and celebrates identity – and includes all of us. Every multicultural nation faces this same struggle.”
Another hand went up. It was someone I knew. Corey Davidson was my student at a high school philosophy program at Stanford, and now he’s in college. I hadn’t seen him in three years (our reunion pictured). He shared his love for the film and reflected, “The images in the media are just so powerful – they are everywhere – and they keep reinforcing the stereotypes in our minds. On the television show 24, the terrorists are Middle Eastern men with Russian accents! It’s crazy. But I still watch it. It takes a lot not to absorb these stereotypes… It was this kind of misinformation that mad
e us go to war in Iraq.”
“Do you feel empowered in the face of such overwhelming forces? Do you think you can change it?” I asked.
“No, I don’t. I don’t know what I can do.”
“There is reason for hope,” said the man next to Corey. “The results of the recent election makes me hopeful. People can come together to make a difference.”
A mother in the back raised her hand: “What I found remarkable is that the film shows how we are all the same. This makes me hopeful. We have our differences but beneath everything, we are human. These stories show that, and my hope is that more people are able to realize that.” The little girl she was holding in her arms began to imitate her hand gestures, trying to say what her mom was saying. “You are the hope!” I laughed.
After the Q&A, the audience was buzzing. A man approached me and said, “I was an observer to the film, a bystander, until Gary Gietz said, ‘We should all put on turbans for a week… standing together.’ That made me realize that it isn’t enough to recognize difference – we have to embrace it.”
I chatted with Shil, Corey, and Brian Rothschild a new friend I met on a plane ride (he had already heard about the film in the Boston Globe when I told him about it!). Then Dylan handed me a heart made of marizpan, and we all took pictures.
Later Dylan quietly reflected on the film, “You expect these things to happen many years ago but not so recently, not now.” I wonder about how he will one day decide to respond to the violence he is now beginning to understand.
At the night’s end, I read through the audience comment cards. One was written by the only turbaned Sikh man in the audience. When he got up after the movie, a little girl smiled at him. “That’s the power of this film,” he realized, “the power of these stories.”
They are my reasons for hope.