This week, I came home. On Sunday night, we screened Divided We Fall at Stanford University and then crossed the San Francisco Bay on Wednesday night for a screening at UC Berkeley. Although these two schools are divided by the bay, not to mention decades of rivalry, I crossed the bridge between them more times than I can remember as a college student: my weekdays were spent on the sun-drenched Stanford campus (pictured) and my weekends in the down-to-earth streets and cafes of Berkeley.
Nearly four years after graduating, I returned to Stanford to share the film that began as my senior honors thesis. Stanford had given me the initial grant to get on the road, the Religious Studies department had supported my research, Linda Hess (Professor of Religion, pictured with me) was my main advisor, my thesis won a prize in the humanities, and I spoke about my journey as graduation speaker for my class. The film began with Stanford money and mentorship, and now I was able to show them the fruits of their investment: the first feature-length film on hate violence in the aftermath of 9/11.
On Sunday night, Linda welcomed nearly 200 people in Annenburg Auditorium – students, professors, local Sikh community members – and introduced Sharat Raju and me with her wonderful warmth and humor. As we watched the film from the back, I began to think of certain people in the audience – advisors, mentors, and family who made the film possible: Joseph Brown, my social psychology advisor who is fantastic in the film – Rob Reich, an advisor who made me believe my scholarship could affect the public good – Mandeep Dhillon, a Sikh activist and lawyer in the film who set me on a path to law school – Carl Bielfeldt, director of the Religious Studies department who supported all my untraditional projects – Linda Hess of course, the life-long mentor who set me on the road with the words enter the whirlwind.
My parents were also there, and Jagie Auntie and her daughter Neena who gave me a second home at Stanford (pictured with my mom before the show). Two of my past philosophy students who now attend Stanford, Jennifer Wolochow and Alyssa Martin, also made it (below in the second row). And Rachael Neumann was there, seeing the film for the first time (you can find her sitting in the middle of the audience). Her interview is one of the most powerful and transformative in the film.
The film screened perfectly and we had a serious exchange with the audience afterward, focusing on one man’s question, “How do we prevent our natural response to divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’?”
A Muslim man (pictured) shared, “I came to this country decades ago thinking that America was for equality and freedom, but then I faced discrimination – ever since the Iran crisis. How do we change this?”
“There are two Americas,” another said. “We need to show this to the other America, the one in the middle.”
“Yes, there are two Americas,” I reflected, “but they are not simply divided by geography. Both of these Americas exist here locally in every city and oftentimes within the same person. One embodies the commitment to equality and respect and the other runs on the fearful impulse to exclude others. We can’t force change upon others, but we can allow the stories in the film to make us aware of this natural conflict inside all of us and help us expand who counts as one of us.”
We carried the conversation across the bay to Berkeley where nearly 200 students filled the auditorium on a Wednesday night, sitting in the aisles, standing in the back, buzzing with noise and excitement. Jaideep Singh – long-time friend and older brother figure, now a professor at the Pacific School of Religion – had organized the screening. He introduced me gracefully with of course the mandatory ridiculing of my Stanford degree.
I welcomed the audience and the film began.
From the first moment, the audience was alive – I could hear laughter, exasperation, tears throughout the entire film – the soundtrack to an emotional journey. It was one of the best audiences we’ve ever had. The audience applauded hard when I took the stage. One man yelled, “Thank you for making this film!” and another woman followed, “Tell people to bring tissues!”
A man from the Punjabi community (pictured) asked the first question: “I work at a gas station and after 9/11, I told our Sikh employees to be careful – to keep low and distinguish themselves from Muslims. During World War II, Chinese Americans wore buttons that said, ‘We hate Japs more than you do.’ They tried to distinguish themselves from Japanese Americans. Should Sikh Americans do the same? Do you think that’s counter-productive or necessary?”
“This response deeply troubles me,” I began, “because while I understand the immediate reaction to defend oneself, I see the danger and violence in placing blame on another innocent community.” I went on to reflect on the pressing need for solidarity across communities in responding to the ongoing aftermath.
“I’m so glad you said that,” said a woman in the audience (pictured in green). “My name is Shirin, and I’m a Muslim lawyer. I worked with the Sikh Coalition, including Amar Bhalla, on hate crime cases. In my present job at the Asian Pacific American Caucus, I continue to work on these cases everyday – and yet I cried during the film! Even though this is the work I do every day, these stories deeply moved me. Thank you so much for your solidarity with the Muslim community.”
“So you are a warrior,” I realized, “you are out there fighting the good fight. Every day. What gives you hope?”
“Things like this – when people come together,” she said. “That gives me hope.”
The questions continued. Harpreet Sandhu (pictured), a leader in the local Sikh community who appears in the film, asked, “You’ve been around the country with this film. What sort of responses have you had? Has it been as energetic and warm as this?”
“Yes, it’s been phenomenal. That’s what most surprises and overwhelms me. From New York to Miami to San Francisco to the middle of Illinois, we have been received with such warmth. At our screening in Bloomington, IL, where there was perhaps one Sikh in the audience, the entire audience stood up. An African-American man pointed to his braids, and said, ‘My braids are my turban.’ This gives me hope in the power of these stories.”
A Berkeley Sikh student said, “I’m a freshman here, and I just can’t believe someone in our community has done this! I had no idea. It inspires us. That this is possible for us.”
There were of course a handful of people in the audience part of this whole filmmaking journey. I thanked them for believing that such dreams could take flight: Harpreet Sandhu, Sikh activist recently elected to Richmond City Council – Sharon Gibson, the film’s story consultant and family member – Karuna Tanahashi, my jewel of a friend who shot footage for the movie – Kulwinder Dol, long-time friend and supporter – Jaideep Singh, a role model who I’ve known since I was sixteen when he came to my house with footage on Sikhs in World War II and made me think, “so, we can make movies too.” My brother Sanjeev Brar was also there – he shot the most important scene in the film, my visit with the widow in India. And my parents Dolly and Judge Brar of course.
We spent the rest of the night celebrating our Berkeley-Stanford premieres. I met with Jaideep, holding flowers that another past philosophy student Ashveer Singh handed to me.
And here is our illustrious director Sharat Raju with lovely Linda. We may have had a little too much fun, but what are homecomings for?