The Sodhi Family
After a weeklong break in production, we hit the road again. We spent five days in Phoenix, Arizona, to revisit THE SODHI FAMILY whose story set this film in motion nearly four years ago.
On September 15, 2001, BALBIR SINGH SODHI (pictured) was standing in front of his gas station, preparing to plant flowers. A man in a black truck pulled around the corner and shot him five times. Balbir, 52 years old, was the first person to be killed in a post-9/11 hate crime. When arrested, the man yelled, “I am a patriot. Arrest me and let those terrorists run wild.”
Over the last four years, I have visited the Sodhi family several times, talking with them and filming their stories. The brothers and their wives and the children are all very close, and their togetherness and their spirit have always moved me.
After the death of Balbir Singh, their private mourning was made public, and the brothers found themselves in the spotlight. They chose to speak out against hate crimes, so that “no more innocent people would be killed.”
One year later, one of Balbir’s brothers, SUKHPAL SINGH SODHI (pictured) was shot and killed while driving his cab in San Francisco, just when plans for the Iraq war were emerging. Over the next months, his murder was followed by the shootings of three other turbaned Sikh cab drivers in the San Francisco Bay Area alone. Although the police had no hard proof for the motives, the families and larger communities have felt the repercussions of hate crimes.
When I visited the Sodhi family after the second brother was killed, I spoke with DAMAN SODHI, their young nephew. When I asked him how he felt, he said that he didn’t cry as much when his second uncle was killed. “Crying is not going to do anything,” he said, “I already tried it. I guess I just cried enough.”
ON THURSDAY, when we visited their house, DAMAN (pictured) was the first one we interviewed. He was in fifth grade the first time we met, and now he’s starting high school. Always soulful, he shared memories of his uncle:
“He was killed because of the way he looked. It’s so stupid. They call that guy a criminal, but I call him a terrorist. Terrorists kill innocent Americans and that’s what he did… I used to call my uncle ‘fatty’ and chase him around the couch, laughing and stuff. For hours. We would just do that for hours…”
Daman began to cry. And I began to ache. How can I keep asking this family these difficult questions? How can I keep asking them to remember the darkest part of their lives and share it with me, over and over?
“I’m so sorry, Daman. I should just stop doing this.”
“No, I’m glad you ask me these questions,” he said. “Otherwise, how will anyone know what I’m feeling inside?”
I thought that on this visit, years after both murders, our interviews would show how things had improved in Phoenix. But when we talked with the brothers HARJIT and RANA SODHI (pictured), I realized that I was wrong.
“Just a week ago, after the London bombings, a man came to my gas station and yelled, ‘Go back to your country!’” said Rana (pictured). “I told him that I would call the police unless he left. This discrimination is still here.”
After the interview, the entire family gathered together for chai and biscuits in the living room—aunts and uncles and children spanning all ages, talking and joking and laughing. Then the WIDOW of Balbir Singh Sodhi, whom I call Auntie Ji out of respect, joined us. She was wearing white, the color that widows wear. We embraced and sat together.
I didn’t want to interview her. Every interview about her husband had always brought tears, and so this time, we played with her grandchildren, who made her smile so much. It wasn’t until we left that I realized it was August 4th, t
he 3-year anniversary of the murder of Sukhpal Sodhi.
ON FRIDAY, the next day, we visited the home of GARY GIETZ, President of the ARIZONA INTERFAITH MOVEMENT, an organization that has supported the Phoenix Sikh community through the epidemic of hate crimes. Only minutes into our conversation, it was clear that this man had felt and thought deeply about the exclusion and violence caused by fundamentalism and nationalism. He pursues interfaith work committed to the message of religious pluralism. In his genuine manner, Gary shared his memories of Sodhi’s murder:
“Right after September 11, I was invited to speak at the Sikh gurdwara that Sunday, because the CHILDREN were scared, and I was supposed to tell them that it was alright. But then Mr. Sodhi was killed. And my message came too late. It was not alright. So instead, my wife and I spent all day at the gurdwara to help get their story to the media. What I remember most was the fear in the eyes of the children, the real fear…”
Tears began to well up in his eyes, and we stopped for a moment.
I have come to believe that real sadness is buried deep inside many people. One would never see it in daily interactions, but it only takes someone, even a complete stranger, to ask the right question: who are you? Suddenly, one touches that sadness in peoples’ hearts, and the tears spill easily. I wonder how many people walk around protecting this part of themselves, afraid of the question, never asking others this question, or worse, never having been asked.
ON SATURDAY, we visited the gas station where Balbir Singh Sodhi was killed. As we approached, my body tightened. This place is like ground zero to me. It is ground zero for the epidemic of fear and hate against our communities. Inside the store, I look up to see a sign that has hung on the wall since the murder. It is the theme of our film
SUKHWINDER (GOLDY) SODHI now runs his father’s gas station. The first time we met was soon after his father’s death. What I remember most was his sadness when he said to me, “My dad will never know his grandchildren.” Goldy now has two young children, a girl and a boy (pictured).
Goldy walked me to the street and showed me the memorial they placed where his father fell. The plaque reads:
In memory of all the souls who lost their lives on September 11, 2001 and all the backlash victims. “We don’t want any other innocent people hurt.” – The family of Balbir Singh Sodhi (1949-2001). On Saturday, September 15, 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh, was shot here at this corner while planting flowers in front of this shop. In the tradition of the Sikh faith, he wore a turban and beard. He was killed simply because of the way he looked. Sikhs believe: In one God. That all religious paths lead to God. That all people are equal in the eyes of God. In peace, and love for humankind.
We stood gazing at his father’s memorial until I broke the silence.
“Life is good these days?” It had been two years since we last met.
Goldy shrugged and kept his eyes on the plaque. “It’s alright… It could be better,” His voice was quiet. “It would be better with him. I still miss him a lot.”
I did all I could to keep the tears from welling up again. No one can measure the loss of those we love. And when the motive is hate, and the murder is public, the grieving process itself becomes amplified. I put my hand on his arm.
But then I made a resolution: This camera will not capture a manufactured moment. I must never become one of those reporters who laugh right before they deliver some grave news into the camera. I must never misuse the power of this camera.
And so for the first time, I ignored my crew completely. I walked to the memorial and placed the flowers before it. “Balbir Uncle, I am trying.” I said in my mind. “I am trying to do my part.”
TODAY IS SUNDAY. We spent the morning filming the beautiful service at the Guru Nanak Dwara Ashram (Sikh house of worship), where the Sodhi family worships. The sangat (community) embraced us. We filmed the service and then shared langar (the community meal) before we drove back to Los Angeles.
Our director Sharat Raju, cinematographer Matt Blute, and first camera Don Presley (pictured above) were joined in Phoenix by our new excellent sound mixer TIM FORREST (pictured left). They have endured 12-hour production days in the heat with little or no pay, simply because they believe in the message of this film. I do not know how to thank them.
The Dream Team stayed at the home of Jaskanwal (Sweety) Sachdev, my long-time friend and sister. She and her husband cared for us, while their five-year old son Hargun provided the best entertainment in town. We felt so much love from the Sachdev family, the Sodhi family, and the greater Phoenix community. I can’t wait for the day we return to Phoenix to show them the final film.
A big thank you to JESSICA JENKINS, our Director of Research based in Washington, DC (left), and TRACY WELLS, our Communications Director based in Cambridge, MA (bottom right) and their teams for researching and scheduling all our interviews this summer.
They make a superb group, and without them, the final journey of this production would not be possible. They could always use more devoted volunteers, so contact us if interested.