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