In House

So a very short update here.

This past week I only worked on a couple of things. I’m mostly supposed to be finishing up a 5-minute thing from the footage we shot in Oak Creek, but I ended up cutting a 2-minute short segment on something else. Amar at the Sikh Coalition asked us if we had footage of the Oak Creek police chief John Edwards talking about how he’s not able to categorize the murders at the August 5 gurdwara as crimes against Sikhs because that category doesn’t exist.

We shot the interview right before we left for Washington to attend the hearing about hate crimes and domestic terrorism – as spurred by the killings in August. It will probably help in convincing the FBI to update their forms and their reporting metrics for law enforcement across the US.

That was simple, so I put together something quick for that.

Yesterday (Friday), we showed our current cut of The Worst of the Worst both to our Yale faculty advisor and to one of the experts/subjects in the film who runs a clinic at the law school that’s taking on solitary confinement in the Connecticut prison system.

Both internal Yale screenings went really really well – much to our surprise. They were well received by both audiences. The first one was just one law professor while the second on was a crowd of about 10 – and people who had clients who appear in the film.

We were most concerned about the latter wanting us to change anything about their clients or to make them more sympathetic – but their suggestions and criticisms were minimal. We, as independent filmmakers, are not obligated to make any of the changes they suggest. But we’re open to them, particularly if we have anything factually incorrect.

We didn’t, and we are going to make tweaks over the next two weeks and finish this sucker.

This next week we’ll be working on the edit for the Worst of the Worst while I continue on Oak Creek.


The United States Senate

After staying up all night to output The Worst of the Worst for our Sundance submission, I got up early to get on a flight to head back to Milwaukee and Oak Creek. Our primary objective was to film the preparations of Harpreet Saini, the 18-year-old son of Paramjit Kaur, as he was rehearsing and preparing to testify before the United States Senate Judiciary Committee. Paramjit was the only woman killed on August 5, 2012 at the Oak Creek gurdwara.

Harpreet was testifying a mere 45 days after she was killed along with five others. The hearing was historic – it was the first hearing on domestic, non-Islamic terrorism, in many many years. There have been dozens of hearings on Al Qaeda and foreign terrorism, but none in the post-9/11 era.

And – Harpreet was going to be the first turbaned Sikh to testify before Congress in US history. So a lot was riding on it and we wanted to see how preparations were going. I took Jonathan Smith‘s now-familiar Canon 5D Mark II and microphone and joined Valarie in Milwaukee. We followed around Harpreet as he rehearsed his testimony with lawyers from the Sikh Coalition, bought a shirt and a tie, and packed for their first ever trip to Washington, DC. We also interviewed John Edwards, police chief of Oak Creek, who Valarie and I had seen many times on television in the news coverage but finally had a chance to sit down and talk to him. It was supposed to be only about thirty minutes, but he was great so we ended up spending about an hour and a half talking to him at length about his life, that terrible day in August, and what comes next.

We then followed around Harpreet and Kamal at Milwaukee Airport and joined them on their flight. Harpreet and his brother Kamal are two sweet, innocent kids of a hard-working immigrant mother. Immigrants themselves, they all came to the US about eight years ago and struggled as their mother worked factory jobs and saved up so her children could have a better life. No one could have imagined her life would’ve ended so tragically, or that all eyes would be on her son as he testified about her in front of the center of the free world. These are two ordinary kids suddenly thrust into extraordinary circumstances.

Wednesday, the morning of the hearing, Valarie and I first arrived at the Department of Justice where a briefing was going on. We filmed clips of a Sikh employee of the DOJ who was giving a turban tying demonstration as part of an overall briefing about Sikhs and Sikhism. They then unveiled a slick DVD meant to educate American law enforcement officers about Sikhs. It was okay, maybe slightly problematic in some places, but it ended up freezing half way through so I guess I can’t evaluate its effectiveness completely.

We then made our way back to Valarie’s old stomping ground – the Senate’s Hart Building, next to the Capitol. (Valarie worked for then-Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold in the Senate Judiciary Committee in the summer of 2009.) I filmed as the line formed outside the hearing room and as media assembled to interview the Saini brothers before the hearing began. I followed as they were led upstairs to Wisconsin Senator Herb Kohl‘s office – their senator. Playing the Indian card, I got to follow them in as their videographer whereas the news media had to stay outside. Senator Kohl offered the usual condolences and small talk and I was able to film it which was cool.

Then I followed them downstairs into the hearing room where it had filled up completely – the same room in 2009 where Valarie and I watched the Justice Sonia Sotomayor hearings. There were about 400 people this time – 300 in the hearing room and more in an overflow room. Lots of men in turbans, but also lots of people from all walks of life.

So, I didn’t have a media credential and therefore couldn’t go up into the media room. I also was instructed that I couldn’t record from my seat – although photographs were okay. I don’t know how they could make a distinction whether I was shooting video or taking a still, but it definitely forced me into shooting terrible footage and backs of heads. I figured that most of the footage I’m going to use from the hearing will come from C-SPAN anyway – that’s the angle and audio quality I need.

The hearing room was lined on each side with large photographs of each person killed, and of Lt. Brian Murphy who was shot more than eight times and survived. We all sat down as Illinois Senator Dick Durbin called the hearing to order. He was the only senator at first until Sen. Kohl joined as did Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal.

The hearing was incredible, actually – due in large part to Sen. Durbin. Department of Justice, Homeland Security and others testified about statistics and their efforts in combating domestic terrorism, and Sen. Durbin asked all the right questions – direct, firm, and important.

Then Harpreet testified and started by sharing a story. The Tuesday after the shooting – two days after the shooting – he and his brother found leftover rotis and food her mother made. They ate them, realizing this was the final meal they’ll ever eat made by their mother’s hands. It brought the hearing room to tears. He spoke well and ended with a request for the FBI to track hate crimes against Sikhs – something they don’t do now – so they can understand the size of the problem and combat domestic terrorism more effectively.

Harpreet made us all proud. He made Sikhs everywhere proud. Afterwards, I filmed the press conference which included a statement by Valarie on behalf of Groundswell.

We left the Senate when everyone filtered out. After dinner, we joined the brothers, Amardeep Kaleka (son of the gurdwara president who was killed) and the team from Sikh Coalition and SALDEF as we took a a nighttime stroll to see the Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lincoln Memorials. At MLK, one of his quotes particularly stood out – and it’s one I’ve mentioned in a previous post: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred, only love can do that.” Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker shared the same quotes to the brothers when we filmed them last month.

Although dark, the 5D can go quite high in its ISO range (12,800) so I have some great – if not noisy – night footage from the evening. It was a terrific, all in all. Some good footage on an historic occasion.

Now back in New Haven putting it all together. We have a deadline coming up for a 5-minute piece to show in two weeks, so I’ll be hitting the Avid pretty hard. In the meantime, I’m also trying to rev up the writin’ arms again, now that the Visual Law film is nearly finished. More to come on all this soon.

Remember 9-15-01

These last few days I’ve been trying to edit two things at once. Predictably, I have been doing a mediocre job on both.

During half the day, I’d edit the fine cut of our Yale Visual Law Project film The Worst of the Worst on VLP’s Final Cut Pro X, while Jonathan Smith would work on the footage we shot in Oak Creek, helping us put together a short piece.

Then, I would pick up on the Oak Creek footage on our Avid Media Composer 5. I’m not writing this to show off that I know how to use both major editing systems (okay, maybe a little), but I’m just pointing out how it’s sort of not a good idea to do this. I ultimately didn’t get as much done as I would’ve liked, but we didn’t really have  choice.

First, for WOTW, we are racing to submit (tonight, in fact) to Sundance. We’re still not totally finished, but we finally have some animation in it, courtesy of long-time collaborator Chuck Dulin and a new one Laney Wunderli. As I write this, we’re putting some finishing touches before we output and upload to Withoutabox for the Sundance submission. (Sidenote: I have never once had a non-stressful outputting of a film. NEVER.)

Second, for Oak Creek, we learned that the US Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) is holding a historic hearing at the Senate Judiciary Committee about domestic terrorism and hate crimes – and members of the Oak Creek Sikh community will be testifying. So, we are using that (which is this Wednesday) as a deadline to put together a clip from what we’ve shot. Jonathan’s done an amazing job with his half of it. I’m hoping to finish up a rough cut of something very soon, if not tomorrow. Also, I’m getting on a plane to join Valarie in Milwaukee to film 18-year-old Harpreet as he prepares to testify and then to Washington, DC for the hearing itself.

Let’s look at this for a moment. It’s 2012 and we’re having a hearing on hate crimes in America after a shooting at a Sikh house of worship.

Eleven years ago, this past Saturday on 9/15, marks eleven years since the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, the first man killed as “retribution” for 9/11 at his gas station in Mesa, Arizona. Sodhi’s murder and the waves of hate violence post Sept. 11th is the subject of our film, Divided We Fall.

I’ve written about this in previous posts, but I can’t believe this is where we are in 2012. I never thought that eleven years later, after the changing face of America and of the great work done by our colleagues at the Sikh Coalition and SALDEF and others to educate folks about Sikhs and Sikh Americans, that we’d be now going to the Senate for a hearing. Where was this 10 or 11 years ago? There was a Congressional resolution condemning hate crimes post 9/11 in the month afterwards (also sponsored by Sen. Durbin) but it was largely symbolic. A hearing then would’ve been incredibly helpful – who knows what it could’ve done, but it could have saved lives, as far as I’m concerned.

And I can’t believe we’re going to testify after a massacre that happened at a gurdwara. It’s still hard to comprehend.

On this 11th anniversary of 9/15/01, in the house of the American people, we’re going to honor those lost last month,  those lost over the years, and on that Saturday in September in Mesa. Hopefully things will begin to change – again.

Eleven Years Ago

Eleven years ago today I started my first day of film school at the American Film Institute. I like to think that this means I began my life as a filmmaker at that moment – September 10, 2001 – even though it was probably more gradual than that.

So, where have I been, what have I done in my first decade as a filmmaker? And where am I going? (Boy, I ask myself all the time…)

I felt like reflecting yesterday while I was walking through Lower Manhattan on a 9/11 memorial with an interfaith crowd where we were urged to recollect where we were eleven years ago. Let me back up and start at the beginning of yesterday first.

In the morning, I joined my producing partner/wife Valarie on an early morning ride down to New York City. Valarie was invited to be a guest on the “Melissa Harris-Parry Show” on MSNBC, and we were being driven in a hired car to 30 Rockefeller Plaza – “30 Rock” – for the live recording. The NBC flagship building is really cool – 1920s Art Deco, black with gold trim. We were brought up to the third floor where it appears all of NBC News programming is filmed including NBC Nightly News.

Everything for MSNBC appears to happen in Studio 3A – which is both a working newsroom and a studio set. I love watching live television production. Although different in its artistic approach and its immediacy, it has the familiar aspects of motion picture production – focused and professional crew, on camera talent, production assistants, abundance of coffee, etc. I peeked into the control room a couple of times, which was cool. I also watched the crew change the backdrop from the “Up With Chris Hayes” show to the “Melissa Harris-Parry Show” in one commercial break. It’s all one swing set with the backdrops on rails and a digital screen that changes with a click.

Also – the cameras moved by themselves. True. All remotely operated, except for the jib.

During the show, before Valarie was introduced, they showed clips of our film, Divided We Fall – the film that inadvertently helped make Valarie into the public figure and media presence that she has become.

Afterwards, Valarie spoke at the 9/11 Unity Walk and we were implored to remember where we were on Sept. 11, 2001. I did that, but I also thought about the strange, circuitous path I’ve taken over the past decade. I was in film school, suddenly in a post 9/11 world, came out with a successful film, nearly had a screenplay made by a famous filmmaker, nearly created a television show. Then, I met a girl with a documentary project. We made that film, fell in love, and somehow that film became successful (we married eight years later). The mentor who started my career died. I had another screenplay that someone paid me to write, another project that nearly was made, and then I made a few more small projects that kept me alive. I became a directing fellow at a television network, wrote scripts, optioned a book, met producers, started a documentary film program, taught a little, and moved out of LA (for a short while). And I watched my wife become star of sorts – which brings me to Studio 3A and yesterday.

None of it was planned. When you get out of film school, and you have a good short film, you sort of assume the trajectory is as follows: good short film+good feature script equals a shot to make your own movie or getting a script writing job. I had that happen, but in a totally different way than expected. I’m still, of course, trying to make my first narrative feature film. (If I told that to my 24-year-old self, I would’ve not believed it.)

We came back to New Haven and returned to our film world – one film in post (The Worst of the Worst), a documentary concept being hatched (Oak Creek), a narrative film in pre-production (The Infected) and two documentaries about to shoot and start in Year 3 of the Visual Law Project and a script that I’m talking to a producer about next week. Not to mention, the sudden increase in demand for both Divided We Fall (including a random Indian television broadcast of the film in August) and American Made (unfortunately because of the shooting in Wisconsin – but at least they’re being put to good use).

So, all in all – somehow, these last eleven years, I’ve put together life as a filmmaker.

The next decade? Feature films, television directing, teaching – all of the above. Who knows. I’ve learned that you can plan to a certain extent, but much of it is up to fate/luck/karma – to paraphrase Bill Murray in Ghostbusters.

Back to editing both Oak Creek for a few online venues and The Worst of the Worst for the Sundance deadline.

Two Weeks

In two weeks, we plan on finally locking picture for The Worst of the Worst.  Now that school has started at Yale, our Visual Law team is back in action and handling a bulk of the editing. We’re hoping that infographics will be wrapped up in the next few weeks as well, one of them being created by Chuck Dulin, a long time collaborator of mine.

In the meantime, we (Valarie, Jonathan and I) have been pulling together selected clips from what we shot in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, to show to some documentary film programmers. We’re also working on putting together a handful of smaller shorts and putting them online within the next two weeks. Things were going fine, until the screen on my MacBook Pro died, thus rendering my Avid system useless. After two annoying trips to the Apple Store and a day of backing up the software, I forked over the three hundred bucks and had them send it away to fix it. I’m crossing my fingers that they didn’t have to wipe the computer clean, because it will be a huge pain to put everything back in place.

And, because of the Labor Day weekend, I probably won’t get the computer back until Friday. So that’s a whole week of editing lost. Blast it all.

I’ll keep myself occupied by writing in the meantime. In case you missed it, here is an interview I did for ITVS about American Made and Oak Creek.