Oak Creek Part 2

I arrived in Oak Creek last Tuesday and took over Jonathan Smith‘s role as cameraman. He traveled with Valarie to film while I stayed behind to work on The Worst of the Worst. He also had his L Series 24-100mm lens repaired – which is perfect for everything we were doing.

While on a layover in Philadelphia, Jonathan called with unfortunate news: He had accidentally pocketed all the CF memory cards for the Canon 5D Mark II and had already left Oak Creek for Chicago – two hours away by car. So, as soon as I landed, I drove to the nearest photography store and bought a CF card 700x – only one 32GB size. I figured that should last until the next day when the FedEx with the cards would arrive at the hotel. (This will come in to play later on.)

This trip would turn out to help clarify all that went on during the day of the shooting itself and the character of the individuals who died. It’s amazing that not more people were killed. One wrong turn here, one misstep there – more would have been gunned down by this maniac. Through our interviews, we now have a nearly complete “play-by-play” of what happened. The question we still don’t know the answer to: “Why?”

Valarie and Jonathan had done a bulk of the interviewing of family members of victims all week long before I arrived. She also went to the cremation and funeral of Dalbir Singh – murdered in his store, another member of the community, in a botched robbery about a week after the Aug. 5 killing. Many of them in Punjabi – which have been translated and subtitled by Valarie’s mother (my mother-in-law), Dolly, in Costa Rica. In fact, to conduct the interviews, Valarie called her mother and had her be a live translator for the families. Valarie asked questions into the phone, Dolly would ask in Punjabi, and the interviewees – many of whom were from India and spoke only Punjabi – would respond, and Dolly would translate it back to Valarie. Incredible. Valarie and Jonathan also filmed inside the hospital – I’m still transferring the footage so I’m eager to see what they captured.

By the time I arrived, only two of the six families were left to be interviewed. We spent time with the Kaleka family. Amardeep Kaleka is the filmmaker colleague I mentioned in a previous post. His father was killed in the gurdwara on August 5, one of the six Sikhs who died then. Amardeep has become a community spokesperson, appearing on Rachel Maddow and the Today Show, and countless others. We interviewed him, spent time with his family, and interviewed his older brother Pardeep at their home outside of Milwaukee. At one point, the CF card filled up and we resorted to an audio interview with Pardeep. That is, until Amardeep handed me some blank CF cards – he owns a Canon 5d Mark III (also mentioned in a previous post). So, for a second time, Amardeep’s technical assistance saved us a major headache later on. They told us all about their dad, how they found out about what happened on August 5, and what it’s been like since.

On Wednesday, we interviewed the mayor of Oak Creek Steve Schaffidi in his office. The image on the 5D is so good we were able to do a great looking interview in his office with just overhead florescents. I did my best to frame out the signed Packers football behind his head, but it was impossible. As a small town mayor, he told us what it was like to get a call from President Barrack Obama on the day of the shooting, as well as doing hundreds of media interviews and community outreach. He also did a walk and talk with us, showing the letters of support from around the world that have come in to the city. It’s going to be a permanent shrine or memorial when they move into their new civic offices soon.

We also spent time on Wednesday at the gurdwara with Kamal and Harpreet – the two grown children of Paramjit Kaur, the only woman killed during the August 5th massacre. The interview with Kamal was just about the saddest interview I’ve ever had to be a part of. We interviewed him as he sat next to the exact spot where his mother was killed – in the darbar – or main prayer hall – in the back. They had placed a small memorial there so no one else can sit in that spot. It is an wooden table, on its side, with a plaque on it that was given to their mother as a gift years ago. Atop the table are flowers and decorative bunting above. Kamal talked about how he’s now going to come to gurdwara more so he can see his mother. He shared how he’d do anything to eat his mother’s food again. She was a selfless mother, devoted to her children, religious, and the only breadwinner in the family, working from 3 or 4am until afternoon, five days a week.

That evening, the kids and grandkids of the people who were killed and their friends all decided to go bowling. The bowling alley is immediately across the street from the gurdwara. On the day of the shooting, the bowling alley was commandeered by the FBI and police and became a command center and collection area for the victims’ families. We filmed as the young Sikh Americans took to the lanes and participated in that all-American pastime – sucking at bowling. It was the first time all of them had gotten together to do something fun. The fact that it was in this place, the place where many of them learned from the FBI that their family member was killed, was another moment that seemed surreal.

The next day was First Lady Michelle Obama’s visit to Oak Creek. Now, that in itself is amazing. But the event itself was unphotographable – the meetings were private. We spent the morning with Sandip Kaur, granddaughter of Suveg Singh – the 84-year-old man who was killed on Aug. 5. We also spoke with his son, Sandip’s father, and how the grandfather was excited to go to India for Sandip’s wedding this coming winter. Now that wouldn’t happen, and Suveg would never meet his granddaughter’s husband.

We followed them as they were getting ready to go to the high school for FLOTUS’ visit. We watched and filmed as each family arrived one by one and went in. No one was sure when exactly FLOTUS would arrive, or where. So we were pointed to a place outside – a spot that proved relatively useless. I managed to catch a small portion of the motorcade as it whipped past and pulled into a secure area of the school. I ran over to where they were, across the street, and put on the 100-400mm lens and zoomed in. I was trying to capture at least the police presence and hopefully Ms. Obama. Alas, it was not meant to be.

The terrible thing is that afterwards I found out that some media were allowed to photograph her and a representative of the community. So if/when we include that in the story of Oak Creek (however we end up showing it visually), we’ll have to rely on news media footage. Blast.

Afterwards, we asked each family what it was like to meet the First Lady of the United States, back at the gurdwara. And, of course, everyone was very happy with her arrival, how she listened, and what she was able to say and promise – including helping to find a way for Kamal and Harpreet to wear turbans and beards if they choose when they enter either the military or law enforcement. So that’s pretty cool.

We stayed up all night transferring footage and Valarie wrote an Op Ed for CNN before we hopped on an insanely early flight back to New Haven.

Since getting back, I’ve let our Avid system go on its own, importing footage. It’s just about finished now. And I’m on the Visual Law Project Final Cut Pro X again, reworking TWotW, hoping to make the next Sundance deadline.


Return to Oak Creek

After I finished editing and posting the short video of our week in Milwaukee during the aftermath of the Sikh gurdwara shooting, I returned to editing The Worst of the Worst. We’ve restructured the film somewhat, so I spent most of the time just grabbing large chunks from the previous version and putting them in a new order.

I was going to continue to sprint for an August 28th deadline so we could submit to Sundance, but then tragedy struck again in Oak Creek. Another member of the same gurdwara was murdered. This time in an apparent failed robbery at his store. Valarie immediately got on a plane to be there, while I was still sprinting towards the Sundance deadline.

We tried to figure out how I could be in two places at the same time. But then I actually looked up the Sundance deadline, and discovered that there’s a later one on Sept. 17. So we decided to put The Worst of the Worst on hold and I would join Valarie in Milwaukee for the final few days she was there in our sudden return to Oak Creek. The incomparable Jonathan Smith went with her to shoot the first part of the week, and I just arrived to take the reins. Also, this week, First Lady Michelle Obama is coming to meet the families. We probably won’t be able to film it while it’s happening, but who knows – we’ll see.

Mostly what Jonathan and Valarie have been doing, and what I will be doing, is interviewing the family members of the victims. Now that there have been a couple of weeks since the shooting, families are able to talk to us a little more readily. I’ll be using Jonathan’s Canon 5D Mark II again and will hopefully be editing in the evening on our Avid MC v5.

Will report back after a few days of production there.


Since getting back from Milwaukee, we continued the work of relaying and sharing the story of the Oak Creek gurdwara and Sikh community in the week after the tragic shooting. I sat down at our Avid Media Composer v5 and spent about 24 hours importing clips, taking two hour naps, waking up, checking the progress, and clicking “import” on more clips, and napping again. This version of Avid introduced its revolutionary AMA file management system, which allows one to use clips natively instead of having toconvert to MXF files via  import. But… that requires more processing speed than we have available on our six-year-old MacBook Pro, so I had to do it the old reliable way.

As mentioned in the previous post (which, thanks to Valarie, a record number of people read so welcome my new friends), Valarie’s Groundswell at Auburn Seminary collected nearly four thousand signatures from people around the world offering words of support to the Sikh community in Milwaukee. They were printed and filled six spiral bound volumes that presented to the families one week after the shooting in the exact place where it all happened. We were there filming it and I edited together a three-minute piece for Groundswell to share with their membership list and with the people who offered their support.

I edited this in one day. I quite enjoy cutting together things like this because the narrative can be fast and loose – it’s more about emotion and visuals and music. And for me, the thing that takes longest is picking the right music. I selected a track called “Floo” by For a Minor Reflection and I think it worked out well. After that, I looked at Valarie’s speech to the sangat (congregation), trimmed it down to a good length and to maintain its integrity, and laid it down on the A1 and A2 tracks. From there, her speech is vivid and easy to select the appropriate imagery to go alongside it.

The only difficulty was that there is a lot of footage and it’s “new” to me (although I shot most of it), so I had to search and find things I knew were there but the key was locating them quickly. If this is the only problem you have as an editor, then that’s a good one to have. (I’ll spare you the details of the output crashing once and Vimeo crashing twice, however…)

Anyway, here it is. Hope you enjoy it and hope it gives you a small visual sense of what we saw then. More to come.

To add tragedy upon tragedy, another member of the same Sikh community was killed in what officials are saying was a failed armed robbery late Wednesday night – but it piles more heartache on an already beleaguered community. Valarie and our colleague Jonathan Smith (who loaned us his Canon 5D Mark II and mics) are on a plane now back to Milwaukee.

Meanwhile, I’m holding down the fort, returning to editing The Worst of the Worst hopefully in time for some upcoming film festival deadlines.

The Aftermath

[Warning: This is quite a long piece. My apologies in advance.]

About a week ago, I was on a plane to Milwaukee when I wrote the previous post. I’m on the same flight back to New Haven.

It’s impossible for me to accurately convey the entirety of what happened last week. It was a week that tested my abilities as a filmmaker, my emotional and physical stamina, and my ability to remain calm when surrounded by the most intense grief and anguish. I’m going to try to stick to the production aspect of things, but you’ll see that this is a situation where it’s not always possible. The emotional and the production intersecting like it never has for me.

Let me set the scene of what Oak Creek, days after a mass murder and national tragedy, looked like.

The week was a distorted sense of reality. A true surrealism. Everywhere we turned, flags flew at half mast for the six murdered Sikhs – a community of people who have been in the shadows of this country were now mourned with the highest national honor and in the national spotlight.

People we knew, friends and colleagues, appeared on national news talking about the religion and why people wear turbans. People were speculating about whether it would be President Obama, Vice President Biden, or Attorney General Holder who would come to this unremarkable suburb of greater Milwaukee and mourn with the people. Candidate Mitt Romney delayed the announcement of his vice presidential pick Rep. Paul Ryan because the shooting was in Ryan’s home district – Ryan had appeared at the candlelight vigil on Tuesday before we arrived. A grainy portrait with a Nazi flag behind it appeared on television. Police checkpoints surrounded various gatherings of people. The Reverend Jesse Jackson arrived to speak out against gun violence. A makeshift roadside memorial sprung from the ground near the gurdwara. Businesses and churches changed their electronic signs to say “We mourn the loss of our Sikh brothers and sisters.” Spontaneous crying and muffled sobs scattered throughout the week.

And my camera, rolling.

I spent the week trying my best to faithfully capture on camera the experience of what it was like in Oak Creek. But I’m not very good at it, I have to admit. I’m not good at pointing the camera in people’s faces, especially when they’re crying in the arms of another, during the worst, most devastating moments of their lives. I want to give them privacy, to let them grieve alone. I’m a trained fiction narrative filmmaker and I enjoy the control, the manufacturing of emotion and story and situation in a way that feels real. But when it is actually real, I find myself ducking for cover, to let life unfold without my intrusion.

So I spent a lot of time fighting that urge and keep the camera rolling. There’s importance in having the camera on, in showing what true grief is, in showing the consequences of violence. It’s akin to airing flag-draped caskets of fallen soldiers  – this is the cost of war. Look at it, feel, and understand. In the case of Oak Creek – this is the cost of hatred, of bigotry and violence.

This is what happened. Listen-

The shooting was on Sunday August 5. We arrived a couple days later on Wednesday. We didn’t know what would happen when we arrived. Advocates and colleagues were already on the ground and we would get bits of information about events, memorials, meetings, grab our camera, and go.

We had with us our Panasonic HVX200, a Canon 5D Mark II loaned to us by Jonathan Smith, two monopods, a tripod, a really good Rode condenser shotgun mic, another ordinary shotgun mic, and a wireless mic set – as well as our beloved portable Avid v 5.0 on a MacBook Pro, set up in our Best Western “basecamp.”

Wednesday night we went to the other Sikh gurdwara (temple) in town, thus beginning our week of surreality. We arrived as the sun was going down and saw police cars surrounding the place, scrutinizing each car as it arrived to the packed services. Men and women in black suits and earpieces next to black SUVs lined the entrance way to the gurdwara. We found out later that the chief minister of Punjab (governor of the state in India where most Sikhs can trace their roots) had come and brought private hired security.

It was strange. It felt like a community under attack, or like the scene in The Godfather after Bruno Tattaglia was killed (off camera) and the Corleone compound now needed more security.

We only filmed people eating langar, the community meal. Other than security, and signs about donations and remembrances, there were no noticeable differences among the people. All ate side-by-side on the floor, as part of the Sikh tradition. Children ran around, people talked. Many recognized Valarie from her Monday appearance on CNN or in Divided We Fall. Photos of the six killed were placed in a small memorial in the main hall.

But the size of the crowd on a Wednesday and the strangeness of the security made me realize that I was going to need help. We right away called Don Presley, who assisted our cinematographer Matthew Blute on DWF and has been one of our lifelong teammates. He got on a plane, flew from Los Angeles, and joined us the next evening to operate the second camera.

Thursday – Thursday was something else. We started the day at the house of the only woman who was killed, Paramjit Kaur. She had a husband and two grown sons, one 20 and one 18 and was the sole bread-winner in the family. We went there knowing that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was coming to personally meet with the families of those killed. We were speaking with the sons when the governor walked in suddenly. I quickly handed Valarie the HVX and I took the 5D and we rolled as he sat on the couch with a dozen turbaned men, the two sons, an aunt, and Valarie and myself with cameras.

I know Gov. Walker wasn’t prepared to have cameras there since we were the only “media” in the house. His aides, expressing concern, wanted my card which I promised to give them before they left (they forgot). The governor was very good – he expressed concern, spoke in muted tones, and praised the Sikh community’s response by paraphrasing Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Darkness does not drive out darkness – only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

The governor also deftly dodged questions from a community lawyer of the Sikh Coalition who asked about whether this will be classified as domestic terrorism and a hate crime, as well as if Sikhs will be allowed to join the police force wearing turbans and beards – especially considering the two sons both want to enter law enforcement but would be barred from wearing articles of faith under current regulations. Walker said his office could help with that when the time comes and that there are plenty of opportunities in law enforcement if they decide to follow that path.

(Political sidenote: I just want to point out the irony that there are now actually far fewer law enforcement opportunities in Wisconsin due to Gov. Walker’s cutting of public sector jobs and taking on the public sector unions – which is what triggered his recall election not but a couple of months ago… but anyway.)

After the governor and his entourage left, we interviewed Paramjit’s sister-in-law and the two sons, before getting a call that the FBI was finished collecting evidence and turned over the gurdwara back to the community. We scrambled to head over there.

Across the street from the gurdwara is a bowling alley. In its parking lot were five or six news trucks with satellite towers reaching into the sky, surrounded by reporters and cameras set up along the grassy shoulder.

A Red Cross station and police checkpoints stood at the gurdwara’s entrance, making sure that only community members were entering the gurdwara. Meaning – anyone who wasn’t Indian was suspicious. For one of the only times in my life did it pay to be Indian. (The other time is when you wear a suit to a hospital – everybody calls you doctor. Or the times I’ve gotten free donuts at the Dunkin Donuts in my hometown of Darien, Il.) Valarie and I got in the gurdwara without too much of a hassle.

It was unnerving to think that in this place, four days earlier, a madman entered and executed six people. It was a modest house of worship like any I’ve seen.  How could someone come in and do that, here, in this ordinary, calm place? But now, here, nearly a hundred people were hard at work, rebuilding their scarred sanctuary. A community elder gave us a tour of the bullet holes, all but patched up, ready to be painted over. Some shots had gone through one side of a wall and out the other. Some bullets permanently damaged countertops and appliance surfaces.

Then we saw one bullet hole in the door frame to the main prayer area – the one that they decided to leave as is. It was chilling. The showed us the pantry where so many women and children hid for hours as the massacre unfolded just outside the door.

And throughout it all, I was filming with Jonathan’s 5D. Poorly. Trying to keep everything in focus with a 50mm lens while people were scrubbing, vacuuming, mopping, painting, scraping, cooking, lifting, and shouting all around us. It felt heroic, their work. Their labor said, “We will not be intimidated. We will rebuild and rise.”

After whirling through the gurdwara, we were told to make a run for the hospital where Police Lt. Brian Murphy – who was shot up to eight times before he fired at the gunman who then killed himself – was being treated. We were told we could meet and maybe film him, but when we got the hospital, his family decided they didn’t want anybody else to meet him except for one or two of the victims’ family members.

That fruitless trip cost us what would’ve been another  great scene – Rev. Jesse Jackson arriving at the newly opened gurdwara as he met with the community for the first time.

The day culminated in an open town hall, hosted by the Department of Justice. The DOJ, FBI and White House, social workers, legal advocates and community members spoke on a panel at the Oak Creek High School. We were shunted to the media area on the balcony where about 10 other news outlets had set up. Don and I shot with long lenses on both cameras, catching Reverend Jackson in the crowd (from behind, unfortunately) and what was a relatively uneventful and hard to film information session with no really new news. I ran outside and got a shot of Rev. Jackson in the media scrum, talking gun control.

There, after the meeting, media spread out in the crowd and I found my way to Amardeep “Arm” Kaleka. Arm’s father was killed days earlier, having saved lives by attacking the shooter. A fellow filmmaker and acquaintance, I was overwhelmed with how calm and collected Arm was, having become a de facto spokesperson for the community and still mourning the loss of his father. He had the strength to appear on the Today show the morning after the killings.

The next morning, Friday, was the public memorial where nearly three thousand people were planning to come and pay respects to the six killed. Arm told me to come early.

I did, and it made all the difference in what we filmed that week. I arrived at the high school gymnasium wearing an orange ramal (headscarf) and a discreet backpack with the 5D, which allowed me to enter the public entrance instead of the media entrance. (Again – being Indian was paying off.) The gym was lined with hundreds of chairs and the bleachers were pulled out. The front of the gym had an open space on the floor for women family members to sit on blankets. Six empty platforms awaited in the front of the gym. Media was relegated to the back of the gym in a bullpen of sorts.

As soon as I stepped in I saw Arm, dressed in white with the other mourners, his head covered with an orange ramal, too. We embraced and he offered me a deal: I get to be the family’s videographer with free reign to go where the media couldn’t. The only thing I had to do was share the footage with him. Well this was not a deal at all – I would’ve shared it all with him any way. It was flattering that he trusted me from my previous work and trusted that I would be sensitive and discreet. I agreed, he let the police and media handler know I was the one exception, and he gave me his own 16-35mm Canon wide angle lens to use.

This began what was one of the most difficult things I have ever done as a filmmaker. And part of it was because of that lens. The lens, being as wide as it was, forced me to get close, to get right up in the action in order to capture it properly.

I screwed on the lens and soon after Don (who was stationed outside with the HVX filming people arriving and the media assembling) called me and said The parade of hearses are coming with the caskets – come outside now. So I followed the families outside – the only one with a camera allowed to do so – and waited for the six hearses to pull up.

Then, I followed, with my camera on a monopod, as a dozen Sikh men took one casket out of a hearse, carried it, chanting mournfully Waheguru, Waheguru (the name of God) over and over again, bringing the casket into the gym, and setting it on an empty platform at the front.

And then, they did it again. And again. And again. Six times.

At this point, I realized just what this all meant, it all started to sink in. It was a massacre. Sunday August 5, 2012 was a massacre. And the aftermath was overwhelming. I tried (and failed at times) to not cry while I focused on the viewfinder screen. Then the undertakers removed the cloth from each, revealing the faces of the deceased – all turbaned men and one woman.

People around me were wailing, moaning, holding each other up, caressing the faces of their dead loved ones. I tried to film reactions. I tried to film people grieving and mourning. I tried not to let it get to me. I tried to make sure the mixer was on and the battery hadn’t drained. I tried to maintain good composition and framing and exposure and focus.

I tried. I don’t know if I succeeded. I will find out when I finally see all the footage today.

I found myself in a strange place at that moment. I, too, was a mourner. I, too, am a member of the community. I, too, have helped Sikhs fight for recognition, for dignity, for equality in the years after 9/11. I, too, had a stake in these people and their lives. But I was also an outsider, a documentarian, bound to faithfully record what was happening here. I was an observer and had a duty, dharma (sacred duty) and was doing seva (community service).

It would’ve been easier to be one or the other – either a detached reporter doing his job, or a mourner letting it all go. It was a strange thing to be both.

The official public viewing hadn’t yet started, so the mourners were family and community members surrounding the coffins. I found myself drifting out of the crowd to take a wide shot when I caught myself. I realized I was doing this to get away from the grief, afraid to have my camera in there while people were at their most vulnerable. So I went back in and kept it rolling.

And some people did come up to me and ask why I was filming, that I was supposed to be in the media area. I had to explain to them the situation and pointed them to the media rep who knew I had permission to be there. But it was a sensitive time and I didn’t want to get indignant and definitely didn’t want to be part of the story. I had to be invisible, as much as possible.

Soon, people started to come in – thousands of them, all with their heads covered as per the Sikh tradition. A steady stream, a line, that started outside and snaked through the gym, past the coffins, and then into the bleachers. White, Black, Indian, Asian, Latino – all people. The governor, Reverend Jackson, Attorney General, mayors, reps. Three thousand or more.

And the police came in to pay their respects – the police, who stopped the killer on Sunday, who had one of their own in the hospital. Many of them were crying their eyes out. It was shocking to see uniformed officials humanized in a way I had never seen before. I captured most of it, I believe. For some reason, seeing them react that way hit me the hardest.

The official program began, and Valarie and I sat in the bleachers with a spot so I could see the speakers, the caskets, and also reactions in the crowd. I stood the camera on a monopod, screwed on the 100-400mm lens, and did my best to document it. Speakers came up, one by one. Attorney General Holder said that Sunday’s shooting was “domestic terrorism” – a big deal and a statement that made headlines in the national media. And then (our personal hero) Amardeep Singh Bhalla of the Sikh Coalition with Jasjit Singh of SALDEF read the names of the deceased – followed by a moment of silence.  It was beyond heavy. It just hit Valarie and I like a ton of bricks.

For the last decade, Valarie and I had been making projects and working in the Sikh community, trying to tell the world, “Hey, look over here! Sikhs are frequently attacked, beaten, and the target of hate crimes!” But we were shouting and everyone was on the other side of a brick wall. Now, it was if a door in that wall opened and people were saying, “Woah, this was happening? Why didn’t anyone say anything?” when all along we were. That’s the feeling – it’s a terrible validation, and a terrible thing that a horrible massacre had to show people what we knew all along was happening to Sikhs and Muslims in this country. And who are all these people now asking about this all of a sudden? Where were you, Media, when we needed you in September 2001 and afterwards?

The memorial ended and Don reported back to me that he had been capturing the media circus that had gathered outside and the line of people arriving. We watched as the six hearses with the coffins pulled away and drove off.

Driving back to film at the gurdwara, we caught a glimpse of a white man with a head covering sitting in front the makeshift roadside memorial. He was reading from his bible, and we had recognized him from the memorial. So we decided to interview him and he told us an incredible story of not even having heard of the word “Sikh” a week ago, he inadvertently met someone from Oak Creek just a day before the shooting while in Milwaukee on a business trip, and although he lived in Fort Wayne, Indiana, knew he had to come to the memorial after he saw the tragedy. He was a devout Catholic and discovered many similarities in faith – all paths lead to God, the Sikhs believe, and so did this man.

After the gurdwara, we went home and collapsed in total emotional exhaustion. Valarie had been live tweeting the memorial, and thousands including the White House were following along. She was the only one doing so, translating the Sikh prayers into English as best she could with her mother’s help on G-Chat. She had been writing all week for CNN, the Huffington Post and Washington Post, in between radio, television and print media – doing her lion’s share of our media work.

Saturday, MSNBC wanted to use some of the footage we had shot. So I spent time putting together a short clip for them to use. It turns out the card reader I have would transfer media from the 5D in no less than three hours! So I couldn’t give them anything for the memorial (though, I think I wouldn’t have given them anything sensitive), but I did manage to give them seven minutes of footage of the gurdwara being brought back to life from Thursday’s re-opening. Our footage, along with Valarie, were shown on Sunday’s The Melissa Harris-Perry Show.

Sunday was also the first time the gurdwara would be open to the press. And, again, I had freedom to roam wherever I could with Arm’s lens and our camera.

The bullet hole in the gurdwara’s inner door was still there. But a placard was placed underneath it, saying “8-5-12, We Are All One.” Flowers lined the way and large posters with handwritten notes of support from around the world had been taped to the freshly re-painted walls. The place had come back to life.

We came outside where the media had gathered around the Sikh flagpole – an orange cloth wrapped pole that rises above every Sikh gurdwara in the world. The entire pole was lowered down, and Don was in the perfect spot with the HVX as it lowered just in front of him. The cloth was removed, dozens of men scrubbed the pole clean and re-wrapped cloth around.

The new, bright orange pole was raised to prayers and chanting – a symbol of a community rising up again, together. It was stirring.

Where one week ago the gurdwara was lined with bodies, bullet holes, and blood, it was now filled with people praying – and not just Sikhs. They had to stage people outside on blankets. It was incredibly well organized by the family members of victims. Unbelievable.

Speakers addressed the congregation and Valarie finally spoke, delivering the four thousand letters of support sent in to Groundswell from around the country. She presented the six spiral bound volumes to the families, many of whom came from India to the US for the first time.

Photographically speaking, I don’t know if I did anything terribly interesting on Sunday. Don covered from the media area behind me, but I did my best to capture faces and the goings on of prayer at a gurdwara. After Friday, everything seemed like denouement – except, of course, for the people who lost loved ones.

Monday was our final day in Milwaukee and we were planning on trying to film the families from India because they might be not be there whenever we returned to Milwaukee to interview some more. When we called our contact person, he said we’re doing the cremation for the two brothers, Ranjit and Sita Singh who were killed – you should come film. Now.

We previously weren’t allowed to film cremations, but we grabbed our gear quickly and jumped in the car. We made it only as the wake was finishing and in those few minutes we were there, we filmed some of the saddest moments of the entire week. The two daughters of one of the men cremated that day had come from India and had each been married earlier that year. Their father Ranjit couldn’t go to the weddings for fear he wouldn’t have been able to get his permanent resident status if he left the US for India. He hadn’t been home in 16 years.

In the parking lot, they were trying to hold up one of the daughters who was becoming increasingly incoherent. Then, she couldn’t walk any more – she completely passed out into the arms of a friend who carried her into a car and rushed her away to a nearby hospital. We captured it on film but it was tragic and devastating. I could see faded mehndi designs still on her hand – the tell-tale sign of an Indian newlywed bride.

A few hours later, I handed the wide angle lens back to Arm and gave him a hard drive with footage from Friday and Sunday. It was the end of a long, emotional, surreal week. It’s still impossible to comprehend that this happened to my extended South Asian and Sikh American community in the national spotlight. It’s going to take a long time for it to sink in. Soon thereafter, Romney announced Ryan as his running mate and the media evaporated from Oak Creek in an instant.

Now, I’m cutting together a short piece for Valarie and Groundswell. To use our Avid, since we don’t have the most robust processing speed, I have to convert the 5D .mov files to .mxf files instead of using the files natively, as Version 5 is designed to do. It has been taking nine minutes per GB so it has been quite time consuming. I hope that tomorrow I have enough to start editing – I think I will, Friday and Sunday have been transferred by the time I post this. It’s going to be a long Thursday. But I will be doing my small part, doing seva.

Oak Creek

I usually only use this space to write about my professional life and filmmaking work, as a way to keep the two or three people concerned with such things up to date with my goings on. Since starting this a year or so ago, I include very few nods or references to current events. But sometimes current events and my professional life intersect, as they have this week.

This past Sunday, after seeing the images from the massacre at the Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, I was taken back to a time nearly eleven years ago. On September 15, 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot and killed in front of his gas station in Mesa Arizona. A turbaned Sikh man, he was the first “retribution” killing for the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

At that point, I had been in film school for five days. The images for Sept. 11, the uncertainty of everything, as well as the killing of Mr. Sodhi, Adel Karas, Waqar Hasan and dozens more all became part of a new moral and cultural landscape. This swirling, changing, bellicose world would influence me and my creative work throughout my time at the American Film Institute.

In 2003 at AFI, I wrote and directed my MFA thesis film, American Made. In it, a Sikh American family is stranded in the desert on the way to the Grand Canyon. With an incredibly professional, dedicated crew and dream cast (along with some good fortune), I made a pretty damn good film that helped start my career.

Soon after we premiered, American Made found its way to the first ever Sikh film festival in Toronto. There I discovered Valarie Kaur’s work-in-progress – a collection of interviews and footage from a cross-country road trip immediately after September 11, 2001, from the Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu American communities as hate crimes unfolded in the aftermath. Including significant time with the Sodhi family in Arizona.

I knew I had to help make this project, just as I was starting out on my life as an idealistic filmmaker. Valarie and I teamed up, gathered my same crew from American Made, filmed more footage, and created the documentary Divided We Fall. It took us years to finish, and for years after that we were in demand to show the film around the country.

In Divided We Fall, an early scene shows television news footage from Mesa, Arizona on Sept. 15 after Mr. Sodhi’s murder. The newscaster says,

“You’ve seen the patrols before. You’ve seen the crime tape and the detectives at the scene. But when you see the family and friends arrive, you start to understand that there may be something different about the murder of Balbir Singh.”

The family, of course, were Indian, turbaned, crying, embracing alongside their white neighbors, held off behind yellow police ribbon amid sirens.

When I first saw the images from this past Sunday in Oak Creek, I couldn’t shake how similar they were to eleven years ago in Mesa. A photograph online showed an Indian family, the yellow tape in front of them, shielding their eyes from the sun, crying, looking off camera. But this time in the Midwest green instead of the Southwestern beige.

When Valarie first filmed the initial footage that became Divided We Fall, the world was seemingly crumbling after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Few had time to listen or to care or to hear about a Sikh man killed in Arizona or an Egyptian man killed in Los Angeles or a Muslim man killed in Houston. Valarie was on her own with her camera. The Sikh and Muslim communities where on their own, too, with a handful of lawyers doing their best to start legal defense groups, educating the public, and prevent new killings and beatings.

But this time, it’s different. Oak Creek happened in isolation, with only the Olympics and the Mars landing competing for national attention. This time, the cruelty of the killings was obvious – innocents, at a place of worship, on a Sunday, all done by a white supremacist. People who in 2001 might have thought about violence against Sikhs and Muslims in the aftermath, How horrible – but I understand where it’s coming from are now likely seeing Oak Creek as nothing but tragic and repugnant.

And now, after a decade long building of legal advocacy organizations, interfaith partnerships, and a young generation who are social media savvy – things are different. After working in the shadows for so long, trying to undo misinformation and hatred towards these minority groups, the spotlight is now on us and the nation is watching. And, hopefully, learning. Learning about Sikhs, about the struggles of Muslims and non-Christian minority groups, and learning that we have to do something about the rising tide of hatred from the last few years.

There is one other connection I have to the tragic events this past week, and it’s a professional connection, too. In 2004, American Made screened at the Savannah Film Festival, which is hosted by the Savannah College of Art and Design. A SCAD film student named Amardeep “Arm” Kaleka approached me after the screening and told me how much he liked the film, that he was Punjabi Sikh and related to the characters and story. We hung out a few times at the festival, became friends on Facebook, and connected when he moved to Los Angeles, giving me a copy of his script to check out. (Of course, I didn’t get to it and he re-wrote much of it so I still haven’t read it…)

On Sunday, Arm’s father was murdered in the gurdwara at Oak Creek. His father was the gurdwara’s president who apparently saved lives by sacrificing himself. Arm has since become an inspiration, a strong voice to the media representing the community – all while grieving the loss of his own father. When I discovered this connection, I was stunned. The day, the killing, seemed even more tangibly real to me – the father of a South Asian filmmaker murdered by a racist killer.

Fathers, uncles, brothers, husbands. Mothers, aunts, sisters, wives.

I’m on a plane to Milwaukee with Valarie now on a one-way ticket. We brought our Panasonic HVX 200 and Jonathan Smith’s (generously loaned) Canon 5D Mark II. I don’t know exactly what we’ll be filming, or what we’ll make from what we film. But we’ll be there with open eyes and open hearts. And this time, we won’t be alone.

Going to the Dentist

After returning from a great trip helping Jonathan Smith shoot a portion of his incredible documentary, They Go To Die, I settled back into working on the Visual Law Project film. A rough cut screening for VLP advisors was only a week away.

Some team members took up the editing while I was gone, and it was up to me to tidy up the rest into a complete rough cut. I also took a detour to bring our Final Cut Pro X project to Yale’s Digital Media Center for the Arts, and the main man there Lee Faulkner.

Lee is listed as “Associate Direcotr,” but essentially he runs the DMCA as far as I’m concerned. The DMCA is Yale’s film school, or at least its lab where all the editing suites, design studios, studio space, and equipment is housed. It’s not a bad set up, considering Yale isn’t exactly known for its film production program.

But Lee is great and guides us through technical problems and has been assisting us in the ways of Final Cut Pro X. So I took over our drive with our media to see what the problem is and to see if I can recreate the problem on their systems. (It took 15 hours just to copy our media!) I haven’t had a chance to see if I encounter the same slowdowns and inefficiencies that’s driving me crazy as we edit The Worst of the Worst, but I will in a couple of days.

Lee did show me a trick that helped – moving the unused “projects” (used to be called “timelines” or “sequences”) to a different folder in the Finder before opening up FCP X. The program can’t find them and thinks you only have the one or two “projects” – which has seemed to make the system run a tad faster so far.

So, with that, I fired away, sprinting to complete a rough cut for our July 31 screening to advisors. It culminated in a 23-hour work day, followed by one hour of sleep, and four more hours of work, before heading down to New York City for the screening with film in hand.

But yes, we did it – we finally have a rough cut, with only animation/infographics missing. It was really a relief.

The screening was at a fancy Fifth Avenue law firm where one of our team members works this summer. The room featured an incredible view of Central Park and Uptown Manhattan. It was pretty incredible. The dozen or so audience members ranged from lawyers, advocates, and independent documentary filmmakers.

I see these test screenings the same way I see dentist visits – I know they’re good for me, I’m apprehensive before going in, and I’m invariably sore and a little bloody afterwards. But I’m thankful that my overall health is improving.

So that’s how it went. We had some abrasive and brutal comments, with most of the discussion focused on what was wrong with the film and very little about what was working. This was probably my fault in not steering the discussion more (to be honest, I was barely awake after the sprint to finish the film). And as usual, the comments ranged from helpful to idiotic. It’s our job to focus on the helpful.

The film is certainly not bad. But at 54 minutes, it’s long and needs to be more focused. And that was the gist of the entire discussion. So, like I said, a little sore and bloody but definitely good for us to have gone to the dentist.

We’ll likely do a long hard look at the film, craft a way forward on paper (a “paper edit” as some people call it) and get back to business of cutting it. We were hoping to be done within the next two weeks and I think we can still hit that, but there’s work to be done.