Oak Creek and Connecticut

I promised this blog would be about work and I would stay away from politics and current events. But current events continue to intersect with my work, so I apologize – this post might get sad. And I might be slightly all over the place. You’ve been warned.

On Tuesday, we held an advance screening of the Visual Law Project‘s third and newest film, The Worst of the Worst at Yale Law School. It was great – we had more than 200 people pack the largest lecture hall at YLS. People had to stand along the back of the room and extra seats were added in the aisles. The audience was filled with Yale students, former inmates, and Department of Correction officials.

There were also community members from here in New Haven, Connecticut. I wrote out” Connecticut” because now it’s all everybody is talking about. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

The screening of TWotW was bittersweet for us. We were so proud to watch our new team take over, but it also means letting go of the reigns of this little program we created. VLP will live on, and that’s sort of amazing, as I described in a previous post. We held a wrap party with the team – one of the best film collaborations I’ve had the pleasure of being a part of – and toasted to crossing the finish line. Now let’s hope some film festivals pick us up because that would be fun.

Hours later, Valarie and I got on a plane, back to Wisconsin and Oak Creek. Some incredibly sweet and caring people – none of whom are Sikh, by the way – wanted to host an evening of films and art to share the Sikh culture with the broader local community in the wake of the Oak Creek tragedy. They spent months organizing two nights of events for Valarie and me. We came and showed American Made, clips of Divided We Fall and a short we made of Oak Creek.

The August 5th shooting in Oak Creek is now four months in the past. When it happened, Valarie and I grabbed our cameras and headed there to document the aftermath, the memorials, and the community rising up together. We returned several times, were welcomed back into the community as family, and continued to film. We put together a short from the footage, but hadn’t shown it save for a Sikh film festival in New York which was unfortunately held about the time Hurricane Sandy left town.

So on Wednesday, we showed it to an audience filled with people who lived through it.

I had this fleeting thought: Who are we, what gives us the right to show the worst moments of their lives, reflect it back to them, and sit by and watch? It was heavy. But people expressed gratitude to us. Some told us seeing it all again gave them a chance to cry, which they hadn’t done before or had not in a long time. Others found it important, and still others had to walk out because it was still too raw to see unfold on the screen.

I’ll post the video here eventually, but it was definitely heavy to watch it with them, knowing that they were both on the screen and in the audience around us.

The next day, we had the same program thirty minutes away in Racine at the Golden Rondelle – an incredible landmark building created for the 1964 World ‘s Fair by SC Johnson, our venue hosts. It was also a terrific audience of almost entirely non-Indians who appeared to be really engrossed in American Made (which I was forced to sit through for the thousandth time – the lights didn’t dim enough for me to make an escape without people seeing me).

At the same time, I found out that I’m now officially an NBC Directing Fellow. I’ll be shadowing on “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” in February when I get back from our honeymoon. So it was a two-day trip to Wisconsin that was cathartic and rejuvenating.

Today, we returned from Wisconsin and arrived in Hartford, only to see the news as soon as we landed: “27 killed in Connecticut mass school shooting.” The news of course got worse when we discovered that most of the dead were children.

Here Valarie and I were, having come from the site of a recent mass shooting in America, only to find that one had just happened in our backyard. Newtown is only 24 miles from New Haven. So Valarie and I went – no cameras, just as mourners – to the vigils in Newtown.

When we arrived at night in Newtown, many streets were blocked off by police, so Valarie and I walked nearly two miles in the cold. It was surreal. We walked on streets in a New England town that would usually have cars, but it was pitch black with only the light of police high beams silhouetting a person in front of us carrying tripod or a camera. Then we’d come upon an extremely well lit building – the fire station where the families awaited to find out if their child was alive or dead, surrounded by famous newscasters, media, and police officers. We walked some more and got to the little town. Then to the gas station. Then finally a Methodist church where we joined in prayer for the vigil. And then uphill in the dark to the Catholic church.

There were Christmas decorations everywhere – and presents lined the inside of the Methodist church’s foyer. It was unnerving, the juxtaposition of the joy of the season with the sorrow all around us.

And the media. I have never seen so many cameras – maybe at the Rose Bowl, but that’s a maybe. There were photographers and reporters everywhere we turned, giant light panels and literally two or three dozen satellite trucks. Outside the Catholic church, people cried in between faces lit by news cameras with on-board LED light panels. Photographers with long lenses captured teary-eyed children and adults.

We squeezed into the church to hear the end of a sermon, asking us to pray for the children who died. Valarie wrote on the message board set up for memorial messages: “From the Sikh community in Oak Creek, Wisconsin – our thoughts and prayers are with you.”

I still can’t believe this happened today and I was there today, in a town, hours after a tragedy. Again.

I was getting the sense from people – overhearing conversations on the street or in the bar we ducked into for warmth – that they are starting to realize that their little town, Newtown, will be the new Columbine, or Aurora, or Oak Creek. It will join the list of places marred by unspeakable tragedy. The town will be said as short hand – you know, we don’t want another Newtown to happen here. It will never be the same to live in such a place.

I’ve never been very vocal about my beliefs about gun ownership and gun control. But I have to point out something. I grew up in a quiet Midwestern suburb, upper middle class I guess, and not ever in danger for my safety – certainly not like in some areas of the city of Chicago. I’ve never really lived in a big hunting area and I don’t think I personally knew anyone who owned a gun until very recently.

But here’s how many times gun violence has entered my life:

This is insane. This shouldn’t be – not for someone who is seemingly living a safe, “normal” American life. But perhaps this is what is becoming normal.

It can’t. We can’t let it. Somehow, we can’t let this madness drive us to fear, anger, and evil. Somehow, we can’t let it be normal.

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