How the Film Began

How the Film Began

Once again, I am living out of my suitcase. This happens a lot. Ever since September 11, 2001, my suitcase has been my home. That single event, that single day, has determined every part of my life. What I study. What I do. Who I know myself to be. And where I am.

On this particular night, I am in Los Angeles, writing from a production office—a film production office. The place is an organized mess. Two rooms packed with editing equipment, camera gear, computers, stacks of papers and to-do lists, and my personal stash of chocolate Luna bars. There are papers taped to the wall behind me — a summer production schedule that outlines the cities we will visit, the people we plan to interview, the final plans in the documentary film I am making, DIVIDED WE FALL: AMERICANS IN THE AFTERMATH.

Sometimes I cannot believe it is actually happening.

I have worked on this film for four years now. I did not plan to make this film. It planned to make me, or unmake me. It appeared before me like a terrible wondrous whirlwind, and although my fear made me hesitate, I took a deep breath and stepped into it, into the whirlwind. It has been four years now, and it has not let me go.

HOW IT BEGAN

It began as a student project in summer 2001. I was a twenty-year old Stanford student, majoring in religion and international relations, home for the summer before my junior year. But I was not planning to be at Stanford in the fall. I had gotten the school to pay for a trip to Punjab, India, where I would spend four months wandering through villages that bordered Pakistan, asking people my grandparents’ age to tell me their memories of the 1947 PARTITION OF INDIA — that terrible violent event when Britain freed India but left it bleeding in two pieces. Muslims were ordered to migrate to Pakistan, and Hindus and SIKHS to India. Madness broke lose and neighbors began slaughtering one another. Rioters burned down my great-uncle’s lumberyard with him inside. They say five million people died, but nobody really knows the numbers. They didn’t keep count.

The Partition had fascinated me since childhood, when my grandfather Papa Ji first told me how he survived. I wanted to hear more Partition stories, but they were nowhere to be found in the history books used in Clovis, my small California hometown. So now in college, I was going to India to record some of these stories on my own. And I was going to sneak in some questions about the MASSACRE OF SIKHS IN 1984, in the spirit of further examining undocumented religious persecution in India. I had an old high-8 video camera. And my cousin Sonny agreed to go with me. He was eighteen, just graduated from high school, and spoke Punjabi fluently. It was a perfect plan. We were planning to leave for India late September.

I was in my pajamas in front of the television set when it happened. And I could not move. After mug shots of a turbaned and bearded bin Laden, the president appeared on teleivion and said that the country was unified in grief and resolve against the terrorists.

But on email lists, I began to hear stories of violence against brown-skinned Amerians on our own streets:

One man is running alongside thousands to escape the collapsing twin towers when people start pointing at him, yelling, “You terrorist, take off that turban!” He finds himself running for his life for the second time in one morning.

Later that day, an elderly turbaned man is nearly beaten to death in front of his temple.

The next day, an innocent turbaned man is arrested on a Boston-bound train as the first suspected terrorist, a crowd of people yelling “Kill him.”

Hundreds more are driven off city roads, threatened, beaten, stabbed; thousands hear taunts to go back to their country and confront daily subtle discrimination on street corners and playgrounds, changed voice tone, averted eyes, mistrust that make them feel like they no longer belong. They are Sikhs, Muslims, Arabs. They are Americans.

Four days later, on September 15, 2005, there was news that a turbaned Sikh man was killed in a hate crime in Arizona. His name was Balbir Singh Sodhi. He was a friend of family friends in Phoenix. The one who killed him, yelled, “I am a patriot.” His murder felt like the death of an uncle.

I escaped to my bedroom, closed the door, and read all three Harry Potter books. I prefered this black-and-white world to the complexity outside my window. I did not want to claim my place in this world — as an American whose country had become so afraid, or as a college student whose books were of no help, or as a Sikh whose community had become so disempowered.

Then I began to remember. The violence of the Partition was never really documented. Neither were the murders and disapperances of Sikhs in 1984. So too these full stories of hate crimes against Sikh, Muslim, and Arab Americans were not making headlines. I had a camera. I had time. I could document them…

As soon as this thought occured to me, a thousand doubts overcame me. I was only twenty years old and had no film experience — how was I qualified to do this? I was a third-generation Sikh American born and raised in California and had never experienced such violence myself, who was I to gain their trust? These questions formed a gulf of fear before me, too vast to cross alone.

But I was not alone. My grandfather’s voice came back to me and gave me a central tenant of Sikh scripture: Naam Daan Isnan. In order to connect with God and realize yourself, you must act.

I sat down and wrote an email to my advisor at Stanford, now a beloved friend and mentor, Linda Hess. I told her about the idea. She wrote back:

“It is not only a good idea but a brilliant profound, appropriate response to the situation. You’re in a position to enter this unique moment in history, the huge energy generated by these events, and catch the life of it. It’s like entering the whirlwind. That sounds more dangerous than I want it to sound, but I mean this is a moment to connect with powerful forces that have been let loose…”

It was sealed. I submitted a new proposal to the university and asked to redirect my grant to document the hate crimes against the Sikh, Muslim, and Arab communities in America. They approved. Within days, I was on the road in my old silver Honda with my cousin as cameraman. He held the camera, I held the list of questions, and we entered the whirlwind.

ON THE ROAD
For the next four months, I traveled across the country, up and down California, across to Arizona, over to Washington, DC and New York City. We spoke with dozens of Sikh, Muslim, and Arab American families and captured their stories in over 100 hours of footage. They were stories of fear and unspeakable loss, but also resilience and hope. The journey ended in Punjab, India, where I met and interviewed the widow of Balbir Singh Sodhi.

We spent four months on the road. Fourteen American cities. One hundred hours of footage. Two students. And the question: why. The stories I heard moved me deeply. They deserved recognition. I wanted so badly to raise them up into the light and get them to the big screen, but I didn’t know how.

When I returned to Stanford, I published my interviews and analysis in my honors thesis, which won the Golden Medal in the Humanities Award. And I spoke about my experience as the student graduation speaker for the Stanford class 2003. I spent a year after graduation, traveling to different cities across Northern America, presenting my work at community centers, conferences, and film festivals. News about my journey and project appeared in Wiretap, Tolerance.org, Little India, The Sikh Times, NRI-Pulse.com, and Frances Moore-Lappe’s book You have the Power: Choosing Courage in a Culture of Fear.

My deepening desire to understand the intersections between religion and violence drew me to Harvard Divinity School, where I now study ethics. All this time, I was planning on turning my footage into a one-hour educational video, until I met director Sharat Raju.

At the Spinning Wheel Film Festival in Toronto in fall 2003, where I featured my work-in-progress, Sharat Raju featured his highly-acclaimed short film AMERICAN MADE, winner of seventeen international awards. American Made is about a Sikh family stranded in the American desert after 9/11. Basically, at the same time I was on the road shooting the documentary, Sharat was making the fictional version. We had a lot in common.

Sharat was moved by my footage and believed that these stories deserved to be seen by larger audiences. I invited him and his team on board. We produced a film trailer and official film website, all supported by grassroots support from individuals mostly in the Sikh community. And I formed New Moon Productions, named after my grandfather’s village in Punjab. What began as a student project thus evolved into a feature-length independent film production, DIVIDED WE FALL: AMERICANS IN THE AFTERMATH.

FAST FORWARD TO NOW

In two days, I’ll be setting across the country once more, this time with a film crew. The crew will travel with me to re-trace my journey across the country as I interview again the people who first told me their stories four years ago. On this second journey, I will ask people to reflect on what has taken place in their lives and in this country in the four years that have passed. And I will ask them about what has changed, and what has remained the same.

For me, many things have changed in the last four years. I am stronger and steadier than when I first set out across the country to make this documentary. But in other ways, I feel the same as I did at twenty. I am nervous and vulnerable. My fears are still with me.

And once again, I am thick in the confusion of events outside my control. It is just days after the terrible bombings in London. And there is news of backlash against Sikhs, Muslims, and Arabs in Europe. In fact, I have just posted more articles on the NEWS BLOG for the Discrimination and National Security Initiative, our academic project at the Harvard Pluralism Project, which examines the treatment of minority communities during times like these. Mosques and Sikh gurdwaras and have been vandalized. The tension is high. Yet again, there is a need, a life-and-death need, for us to hear each other’s stories.

My hope is that this film tells a rich and complex story about the impact of fear and division in America and abroad. The story is about the struggle for recognition. It is an American struggle, the struggle for human dignity. In a nation and world where divisions abound, this message is important now more than ever.

And so I take to the road and enter whirlwind one more time. I do not know what I will find. But I know the journey will be worthwhile. This time, I want to share it.

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