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.