A World Premiere

The film is done. Completely done. Finished. (Here it is on the big screen.) And now we enter the world…

Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath will make its World Premiere on the eve of the five-year memorial of Balbir Sodhi’s murder, the first “retribution” murder in the aftermath of 9/11. On Thursday, September 14, the Phoenix Sikh community will host the event in memory of Sodhi and all hate crimes victims. The evening will include a Q&A with the filmmakers (Sharat Raju and yours truly) and a dinner reception hosted by the Sodhi family. Click here for the invitation.

This event will launch us on a national film tour, where Divided We Fall will premiere in cities around the country, including New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, and Sacramento, as well as a UK premiere in London. After working on this film for the last five years (one-fifth of my life), I can hardly believe it.

While my team was putting the finishing touches on the movie the last couple of months, I spent the summer traveling in India. It was an extraordinary journey into a deeply religious landscape – from colorful temples in the tropical South to sacred cities hugging the Ganga in the North to the salmon pink desert cities of Rajasthan and the vast green fields of Punjab and finally the monasteries hidden in the foothill of the Himalayas. Wandering through India was my first real break since I began making the film in 2001, and it was an opportunity to put the film – and this moment in history – into perspective.

I have come to understand that suffering has always been part of this thing called life. Deep suffering, deep loss, the kind of pain that won’t go away. The question is how we respond. Do we choose vengeance? Or do we chose that which is only less than vengeance – forgiveness? To me, forgiveness does not mean surrendering justice to some naive sentiment. Forgiveness can be any action that frees and protects the self without causing further unnecessary harm to the one who hurt you. I am learning to practice this form of forgiveness in my own life, but I think it can also apply to our choices in post-9/11 America.

Can we – as a nation – carry out a war on terror that operates on a mode of forgiveness rather than the logic of reciprocity? Can we choose actions that protect ourselves without causing further unnecessary harm – both to our enemies and those who ‘look’ like enemies to us?

When Frank Roque was arrested after murdering Balbir Sodhi on September 15, 2001, he yelled, “I am a patriot.” His actions fell into a cycle of violence: because the terrorists took American lives, Roque decided to take Sodhi’s life. After Roque was apprehended, the state decided that the only fitting punishment was to take his life and sentenced him to death in 2003.

Then it changed its mind. Last month, the Arizona court commuted Roque’s death sentence to life imprisonment, citing low IQ and possible mental disorders. I don’t agree with the reasons- the calculated reasoning in Roque’s murder outweighs the defenses of illness or poor intelligence to me – but I recognize that the decision ends one particular cycle of killing. His punishment is now less than vengeance – it protects society and hopefully frees the family and community without inflicting further unnecessary violence.

Five years after 9/11, my hope is that our film can contribute to an ongoing discussion on how we choose to respond to violence. Through untold stories of hate violence after 9/11, our film explores ‘who counts’ as American in times of crisis, and by extension, who is granted respect and dignity. In this case, perhaps the recognition of Muslim and Sikh faces as ‘American’ would keep fear from steering us to vengeance and bring us one step closer toward a more perfect union.

When I travel to Phoenix with the film next week, I will see the Sodhi family once again. I have interviewed them countless times over the past five years, each time leaving with “it will be ready in six months,” “…twelve months,” “…next year for sure.” This time, the film will be done. Completely done. Finished. And ready to enter the world – the web of relations where our stories are ongoing.

The film will now become part of other peoples’ stories. I am deeply grateful that its official debut can honor Balbir Sodhi’s memory and the strength and resilience of his family and community. They are among the countless Americans whose lives have been damaged after 9/11 and who continue to rebuild. Even forgive.