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.


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