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Where a Sikh stands in for every one of us

By Monika Joshi
October 31, 2007 16:01 IST
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At a post-screening discussion on the documentary Divided We Fall that looks into the violence the Sikh community faced after 9/11, an African-American man stood up. He pointed to his braids and said 'My braids are my turban.'

Valarie Kaur, who created the feature-length documentary, says although she set out to capture the Sikh experience, the message that emerged was universal. At one screening, a Jewish man talked about his family surviving the Holocaust and the oppression he faced as an immigrant. Native American groups have expressed this feeling, and Latinos have talked about it after watching the film, she says.

At one screening, a Conservative Republican Baptist raised in the South, who believed immigrants should not speak any language but English, came to her with moist eyes and said he had painful memories of the time he felt like an outsider in the South. "It seems every community that has come to American shores has had this experience of being seen as the other," Kaur says.

Kaur, 26, spoke at Rutgers University's Douglass College Center in New Jersey after screening the film. It was in an intimate setting with about 25 people present, most of them students. Sharat Raju, who directed and co-produced the film, also answered questions.

The 125-minute film, created from 130 hours of footage, traces Kaur's journey through locations where violence and discrimination occurred, which was not limited by a state's rural or urban landscape or party affiliation.

She traveled to Ground Zero in New York, where a Sikh doctor who helped treat the victims after the 9/11 attacks was shouted at two days later; to Richmond Hills in Queens, New York, where an elderly Sikh was hit with a baseball bat; to San Diego, California, where a woman was stabbed while waiting in her car at an intersection; and Mesa, Arizona, where Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh gas station owner, was killed on September 15, 2001.

Kaur's journey began right after 9/11 when she was 20 and a junior at Stanford University, California. She drove for months, gathering stories, with her 18-year-old cousin Sonny, who wore a turban. "Most of these stories were not on the evening news," she says. "I would go to a city because I'd heard of a hate crime there, speak with the family, go to their gurdwara or temple, and 10 more families would be lined up, ready to speak with me."

Kaur, a third-generation American, raised in Clovis, California, says it was her upbringing that shaped her perspective. While growing up, she felt she was neither a part of the Sikh community nor did she belong completely in school. For a long time, she hated this gap and wanted to belong to either side. "I wanted to (either) change my name to Simran or to have my friends at school think I was going to be saved," she says. Her friends and teachers, she says, tried very hard to convince her to convert to Christianity.

While on the road filming, Kaur learned to claim the space between the two worlds as her own. "I could speak from this space; I could see things on both sides that maybe others

couldn't see, and from this space I could tell stories," she says.

Her parents were concerned when she told them she would travel across the country in the post 9/11 world. "But they have always provided this radical, unconditional support for every wild idea I ever had -- from building a hot house in the backyard for a science project to building a set out of PVC pipes to do a play on the Partition (of India)," she says. Her father bought her a cell phone and her mother got a London Fog coat so she would look older.

Kaur's parents, Dolly and Judge Brar, who own a landscape and irrigation business, have since joined Divided We Fall crew as associate producers. Judge's father migrated to Clovis from Punjab in the 1900s and taken up farming.

In 2003, 30 minutes of raw footage Kaur had shot during her journey was shown at the first Spinning Wheel Film Festival in Toronto. It caught the attention of filmmaker Sharat Raju, who was present to screen his film, American Made, about a Sikh American family on a road trip. "It felt like it was on the streets," Raju says of Kaur's footage. "It was a camera at Ground Zero talking to a doctor who had saved people; he was a hero on 9/11, and two days later, he is walking back to his apartment and people are yelling at him to go back to his country," he says. He felt a strong resemblance with the stories he was already telling.

Raju read a copy of Kaur's thesis on the plane to America, and decided to help make it into a larger project. "This was a moment in history we had to share," he says. He also wanted it to be a part of the story of 9/11, which, he says, is complex and multifaceted.

He came on board with the America Made crew, and they traveled for six weeks, collecting more stories. Raju, who directed, produced and co-edited the film, can tell a difficult story about race and identity with compassion and humour, Kaur says. He convinced her to make it about her journey and to have moments of humor throughout.

After one screening, a Sikh man walked past a little girl while on his way to the bathroom. She looked up at him and smiled, Kaur says. "He said that's the power of the movie: To be recognised by this little girl."

Screenings have taken place at Harvard (where Kaur studied religion and ethics) and Yale universities, and also Stanford and Berkeley. The filmmakers have some 60-plus standing invitations to show the movie at other venues, including James Madison University, Virginia, Northeastern University and Boston University.

"A lot of times the ACLU or the Smithsonian or the Gay-Straight Alliance would ally with the university to create this rich-textured event and invite a very diverse audience," Kaur says. Her audiences have included a thousand people at some places and a few dozen at others.

Her aim in making the documentary is to get people to be inclusive and "in our words, actions and hearts, strive for the American mosaic where our differences are recognized and embraced instead of being denied." In Nebraska, the movie was screened to a mostly white audience. "Many people told me afterwards they had never heard the word, Sikh, before," Kaur says. The team got a standing ovation.

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