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.


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