Monday, May 15, 2006
Friday, May 12, 2006
The other development of the past few days has been increased instances of socializing, which has done wonders on my state of mind and mood! Starting with last weekend's camping trip/ co-ed sendoff for a Sikh friend of mine who is getting hitched later this month. About 30 of us went to White Haven, PA for grilling and white water rafting. The guest list read like this: Singh, Singh, Singh, Singh Lee, Singh, Singh... In fact at one point I was called "The Token White Guy" which was pretty funny since I've done that with my white friends sometimes. I was treated to some beautiful renditions of Punjabi songs and poetry while we ate smores around the campfire. Then someone looked at me and said "Okay now it's time for you to sing a song that we can't understand!" So I did a Chinese love duet by myself and got a lot of applause -- it was great because I admit I was a little apprehensive about not quite fitting in, but everyone made me feel welcome. And as the days passed I came to realize that even among such a uniform-looking group of young Sikh Americans, there were significant cultural differences. When it came to group singalongs, some people insisted on the traditional Punjabi songs around the campfire, while others felt that the best they could offer were the old school rap hits they knew by heart in high school. Hearing them back to back, I couldn't help but wonder what Guru Nanak would have thought, and my guess is that he would have appreciated the beauty of human creation to be found in each, as well as in all manifestations of God on earth.
So in the midst of all the food and fun I had an embarrassing moment (and I'm not talking about when I called someone by someone else's name, which earned the response "That's okay, I know, we all look the same!"). Some of us were talking about Sikh books, and I, fresh of my last blog posting, mentioned W.H. McLeod. They looked at me like I was crazy. "McLeod? Most Sikhs wouldn't touch him with a 12 foot pole." I then said that Arvind Mandair at Hofstra taught him, which prompted them to wonder why Prof. Mandair would do such a thing. "McLeod, he was 'first to market' in that he was the first Westerner to do significant research on Sikhism, but that doesn't mean his scholarship is reputable." They said he took an Orientalist approach to the subject matter, among other objectionable issues.
It then occurred to me that this was the very scholar whose work Prof. Mandair had criticized in the lectures I attended last year! So how could I have been so horribly mistaken? Perhaps because McLeod was the only Western author who showed up in my library's catalog on Sikh books, and somehow I assumed he was the one to read.
An instance like this makes me feel really foolish and unqualified to explore the topic much less share my thoughts on it. To set the record straight, the Western scholar whom I was really thinking of in my last post, the one that Professor Mandair studied with and approves of, is Christopher Shackle. I am going to write to Prof. Mandair and ask him to state for the record what the objections are to McLeod's research. What's doubly embarrassing for me in all of this is that McLeod's research is a sore topic among many Sikh scholars, as evidenced by this intensely critical article on McLeod that goes so far to psychoanalyze McLeod's authobiography to undermine him as a human being as well as a scholar!
Reading something like that linked article, I actually feel compelled to finish reading my copy of McLeod's book so I can judge for myself what the problem is. And of course I will supplement that with materials that others find more commendable. In fact when I go to the Sikh Coalition offices today, I'll ask them for the recommended reading materials that they've drafted to present to schools across the country to properly educate people about Sikhism. Slowly (and surely with some forgiveable missteps here and there) the pieces will come together.
Monday, May 01, 2006
I wanted to mention that I've been reading a most excellent book on Sikhism. It is "Sikhism" by Hew MacLeod, an Australian scholar who has published extensively on Sikh religion and culture. He first came to my attention in Professor Arvind Mandair's class at Hofstra. I think the Professor studied with MacLeod and has a similar approach, one I would describe as having a greater socio-historical emphasis than past research on the subject. They don't take a lot of handed down knowledge for granted as historical fact -- if something that has been commonly accepted as history does not have significant documentation to back it up, they'll say as much, however much that might raise the ire of more dogmatic practicioners of the faith. In this sense their work is kind of comparable to the Historical Jesus movement that raised a lot of questions about traditional beliefs towards Christianity.
To follow MacLeod's and Mandair's lead, I really should give some examples from MacLeod's book to illustrate what I'm talking about. The one that stands out in my mind is MacLeod's speculation that 1699 may not have been the actual year that the Order of the Khalsa was created. For whatever reason the year has been institutionalized as historical fact. Sikhism has such a long and legendary history, perhaps it's inevitable that facts get obfuscated here and there, or events get exaggerated. I wonder how many Sikhs really believe that Baba Dip Singh was able to fight off hundreds of Muslim invaders while holding his own severed head in one hand? Still, an image like that certainly fires up the imagination, which I think is ultimately the point, and why there's always going to be a volatile relationship between the history that actually happened and the myth that we carry in our hearts. It's no different that what I am doing as a filmmaker, trying to distill all my experiences and encounters into a story that will work with people.
I was also reading about the emergence of the Tat Khalsa from the Singh Sabha in the 19th century to become the dominant voice in Sikhism and firmly establish the concept that to be a Sikh requires joining the Khalsa, an idea that seems to be taken for granted today but a century ago wasn't so firm. This is the complicated history that I'm still getting my head around,and may not end up being discussed in my film, but it helps to enrich my understanding of the faith and how it evolved through many circumstances. It's important not to take what I understand about Sikhism for granted.
I'm going to try to make it more of a daily habit to write reflections as I keep reading through MacLeod. In the meantime if anyone reading this has any suggestions as to great books on Sikhism, please send them this way.
Also I want to post some pictures from last Saturday's Sikhism parade, but I think I need to free up some drive space first. Too much good stuff to be done!
Thursday, April 27, 2006
My it has been busy. I keep meaning to check in here to post my movements in the world of Warrior Saints, but then something else comes along and adds to the heap of news items to report. Finally I’ve decided to cut my losses and just list what I’ve done over the past month, just for the record. I can’t go into nearly as much detail as I’d like with each of them. Maybe this means I need to get involved in fewer activities so that I can get more out of the ones I decide to do?
There is no question that this project for me has made me more sensitive of the need to be mindful and conscientious about how one goes through life. That is perhaps the single most important tenet of Sikhism, because from that state of mind springs all kinds of enlightenment, goodwill and peace both inside and out. It’s a great state of mind to be in, and not one that happens as often as I’d like, at least with myself. But just typing these words helps me to get there. I can just recall the past month of activity and not feel compelled to write grandiose accounts of each thing I did to impress anyone who reads this. I can let them rest simply as markers of past experiences that I will always enjoy remembering.
First, to wrap up my March trip to
Friday 3/24 - Met Gagandeep and Mansheel Singh, two University of
Saturday 3/25 - Visited Yuba City California, the historical heartland of Sikh America. There, a kind gentleman by the name of Dr. Jasbir Kang showed me around and helped me to interview two people who are firsthand witnesses to the plight of Sikh Americans post-9/11. Gurpal Singh is a truck driver who was roughed up by the Oregon Highway Patrol when they suspected him of being a terrorist because of his turban. Harbans Singh is an 80 year old gentleman who was pushed off his bike and taunted by kids because of his turban.
Monday 4/10 - My brother competes on Jeopardy and pulls off an incredible comeback victory, thanks in part to a category called “Hide and Sikh”. You WILL get to watch this on my site – I’ll try to post it early next month.
Saturday 4/15 - Rajinder Singh Khalsa's daughter's wedding in Richmond Hill Queens, a gorgeous occasion – I may try to post photos later. The second Sikh wedding I’ve attended (and apparently not the last – I have a bachelor camping trip to attend next weekend and a bicoastal wedding in September).
Thursday 4/20 - Submitted a major proposal for funding – a real learning experience for me that changed my perspective on my own work.
Friday 4/21 - Spoke at the 2006 Ethnic Pen Conference at
Saturday 4/22 – Screened Dastaar at a Sikh Immigrant History celebration at the Queens Central Library in
And this Saturday I am looking forward to the Annual Sikh Day Parade in
Wednesday, April 12, 2006
Saturday, April 08, 2006
The week of March 20th was a triumphant homecoming to San Francisco for the San Francisco Asian American International Film Festival. Dastaar screened in a program called "Grassroots Rising" a collection of shorts depicting social activism campaigns throughout the Asian American community.
The other films were great:
Therese Thanjan's short WHOSE CHILDREN ARE THESE? enters the world of three South Asian youth navigating a post 9/11 federal program called Special Registration. The film is a deeply moving portrayal of how these young people deal with their unfortunate circumstances with wisdom and dignity way beyond their years.
Robert C. Winn's GRASSROOTS RISING takes a close look at the lives of immigrant workers from Asia working in Los Angeles. Revealing their heart-wrenching stories of abuse and tragedy, GRASSROOTS RISING shows how these workers use their experience to fight for justice in spite of the threat of imprisonment and deportation.
All the films received a tremendous response from the audience. Here's a picture of me unfortunately blocking Leslie Ito, producer of GRASSROOTS RISING. More visible are Therese and Robert handling Q&A:
Therese and Robert's films were sponsored in part through the Center for Asian American Media, the largest Asian America media organization in the country and organizers of the SF Asian American Film Fest. I had a good time meeting some of the Center staff and learning more about the opportunities for support provided by their Media Fund. One thing that's keeping me busy these days is funding proposals -- not much that's sexy to write about there, but that's what I'm doing.
Though I was busy with work, I did get to see a few other films while I was there. I got to rewatch THE CRIMSON KIMONO, a brilliant 50s detective move by the great Sam Fuller, starring James Shigeta in a rare Asian American lead performance, a cop who goes into an Othello-esque tailspin when he finds himself in love with a white woman. My favorite film of the fest was THE BURNT THEATRE, a beguiling blend of documentary and fiction concerning a drama ensemble in Cambodia struggling to find ways to pursue their passion after their theatre has burned down. LINDA LINDA LINDA was a really fun SCHOOL OF ROCK-esque tale of three high school seniors who form a rock band and set out to give a performance to blow the school's roof off. As my brother put it, no other film quite captures the feel of what it's like during one's last weeks of high school, marking time while trying to come up with one big way to leave one's mark. Lastly, I was really impressed by the festival's closing night feature, Ham Tran's JOURNEY FROM THE FALL, a gut-wrenching saga of a family torn apart by the Vietnam War. It was as powerful and accomplished as THE DEER HUNTER, only told from the point of view of Vietnamese who suffered through so much upheaval and bloodshed.
Big thanks to Chi-hui Yang and Taro Gato for leading the festival to another stellar year -- I'm really grateful that I got to take part this time.
Thursday, April 06, 2006
My brother William is competing on Jeopardy! this Friday (4/7) and next Monday (4/10). Check your local listings for channel (I think ABC carries it in most cities) and airtime (usually 7pm). New Yorkers can see it on WABC 7 at 7PM.
For the Monday episode (which according to my brother is one of the most exciting Jeopardy! games ever) I invite all those in NYC to join me live to watch it on a bigscreen TV and help me cheer him on (the show is pre-recorded but hey, any excuse to cheer is a good one). Apparently all my documentary work in Sikhism helps him pull off a stunning comeback when he unexpectedly lands on the category "Hide and Sikh" (I kid you not). You have to see it to believe it.
I'll be at Samplings Bar + Restaurant, at the lobby of the Crowne Plaza Hotel at 48th and Broadway, next to the Hershey Store. Take the 1/9 to 50th, N/R/W to 49th or B/D/F/V to Rockefeller. I'll be there starting at 6, the show comes on at 7 - hope to see you there!
"Dastaar: Defending Sikh Identity (2004 directed by Kevin Lee), Langer Seva (2005 directed by Kevin Lee), and Warrior Saints(2005 directed by Kevin Lee) are all concerned with Sikhism. I would imagine that few people in the United States actually know any Sikhs, but I'm not one of them. There are two Indian restaurants in the city where I live. The one I prefer serves beef, which prompted me to ask the woman who runs it if she and her family were Sikhs. It turns out that they are. They come from the Punjab region near the Golden Temple. This explains, somewhat, why an Indian friend of mine prefers the other restaurant--it's closer to the cuisine he's used to ("just like mom used to make it," he says). I preface this because my favorite of these three films, "Langer Seva," concerns itself partly with food. There is a variety of food being prepared in this film, and every so often I would spot a dish that I know. The film depicts the preparation of "blessed" food for all comers in honor of The Guru, but it's really a vehicle for Lee to question his own methods of filmmaking. He's uncomfortable with an aesthetic version of quantum mechanics: the act of observing changes the conditions of what is observed. Lee is also at the mercy of his guide, who he suggests is the REAL director of his film. He chooses to forego the food all around him, which is a shame. There were some good eats at that festival. "Dastaar" is closer to home: a depiction of the Sikh experience in New York after 9/11. It doesn't cast a favorable light on the toleration of Americans, nor of their general education, but that should come as no surprise to anyone who lives here. Ignorance, it seems, is only slightly less common in the universe than hydrogen. Alas. "Warrior Saints" makes use of a lot of the material from the other two films and tends to recap their main points--but fills it out with some background information on Sikhism. The main attraction of this film--apart from the prospect of a much longer, more in depth film down the road--is the voice it gives to Sikh women."
Thanks Chris! Hope I can send more your way in the near future.
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Reviews of Waris Singh Ahluwalia in new film "Inside Man"
One of the bank's hostages is Vikram (the excellent Waris Ahluwalia),
a young Sikh whom the robbers release early with a message tied
around his neck. The NYPD officers on the scene assume he's Arab and
that the message is a bomb. They rough him up, then swipe his turban.
When Frazier and Mitchell interrogate him later in a booth at a
diner, Vikram refuses to discuss the heist until his turban is
returned, then condemns his harassment. When he's done, Washington
says, ''But I bet you can still get a cab." In this single moment,
which is more vivid than almost all of ''Crash," we see the sad
modern hierarchy of American bigotry.
As one might expect from the director of "25th Hour" and "Do the
Right Thing," Lee also takes time to explore the cultural landscape
of post-Sept. 11, 2001, New York. When a young Sikh - played with the
perfect level of exasperation by Waris Ahluwalia - is released from
among the hostages into the street, the cops worry less about his
safety than about the possibility he is of Arab descent.
And one of the hostages, tossed by his captors into the street to
deliver a message to police, immediately becomes a suspect by virtue
of the turban on his head.
"He's an Arab!" one SWAT officer yells out in fear.
"I'm a Sikh," he explains.
Finding out what's the difference -- and doing so with vibrant
dialogue and unsettling humor -- is what makes this a Spike Lee Joint
Wednesday, March 15, 2006
I've just finished watching footage from my first ever Sikh shoot -- March 6, 2004. Unity Day at Half Hollow Hills High School, Long Island New York. My job: to film the Sikh exhibition put on by the local Sikhs (including my coworker who brought me into this). Both sobering and fun to watch what I shot and how I shot it. I was so chicken about interviewing passersby -- the way I frame them I can tell I was tentative and nervous about asking them questions about a religion that even I did not understand. And there's one 20 minute stretch where I, presumably on a break, start wandering the halls with the camera running as one long take. I must have recently watched Gus Van Sant's ELEPHANT. But the camera just whizzes down the hallway gazing blankly ahead as dozens of parents and kids pass by. In a weird way it reflects my state of mind at the time: unfocused, distracted, chaotic.
The Sikh presenters are a real contrast -- the way they talk to non-Sikhs in explaining their religion is so forthright and assured. I remember being intrigued by what they said about their religion, but also impressed by how they carried themselves. A real contrast to my state of mind and how it must have projected itself externally for others.
But yes, the hallway footage intrigues me in how unintentionally revealing it may be about the person filming it. I do want to keep looking at this footage as if it were shot by someone else and see what it may say about the person -- it's not merely a sign of technical (in) competence but something more on an expressive level. This is something Werner Herzog understood about the footage that Timothy Treadwell left behind in GRIZZLY MAN, one of many great documentaries that I hope will light my path...
The one on Monday was with Retu Singla, the civil attorney for Rajinder Singh Khalsa, one of my main subjects. She was very articulate about the challenges facing the South Asian immigrant community in finding and utilizing the legal resources that are available to them. Hopefully Khalsa's case will make those resources more visible and encourage South Asians to access them. More on the civil case later as the trial progresses...
Last night I had a very enjoyable evening with Varinder "Vindi" Rathore, a psychologist who has been very active in bringing social health services to the Sikh and Punjabi immigrant community in New York City. I showed him footage that I shot from a health fair that he helped organize in a gurdwara in Richmond Hill, Queens, in which free health screenings and other services were provided for community members. I also showed him footage that I shot in Amritsar, India last summer, as part of an experimental short I am working on exploring how different viewers, Sikh and non-Sikh, respond to the same footage. More on that as that project continues...
And at the same time, the way I'm approaching this project -- as a personal journey -- seems to run counter to the ostensible mission of presenting an expansive view of a major global religious community. As this project has become more and more personal, I fear that the personal aspect risks distracting from the subject of Sikhism and the travails of its 25+ million followers around the world. But I feel like the path I have taken is justified, if not inevitable -- for what significance does religion and spirituality have if it is not a sanctuary to discover and express one's innermost self? This is the paradox of religion which has taken me years to understand, and through a religious tradition that two years ago I knew nothing about.
The japji, the most sacred text in Sikhism, is commonly perceived as the word of God as told to Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. But one fascinating interpretation I've heard is that it is really Guru Nanak dictating to himself, while in a state of intense meditation -- it's as if he is having the most intimate and probing conversation that he's had in his life, and he's having it with himself. Imagine having the biggest heart to heart you can remember, magnify that by a hundred, and then picture yourself doing this with yourself. That is a level of self-knowledge and self-communication that I both envy and crave for. And so much of my journey with the Warrior Saints has been not just discovering an entire new world of people, culture and conflicts, but a world within myself. And the more I've learned about Sikhism, the more I've come to embrace the idea that one can discover the world through oneself as much as one discovers oneself through the world -- the two can go hand in hand in a stream of harmony.
So the purpose of this blog is to take the two halves of the WARRIOR SAINTS project, the personal and the public, and bring them to a point of daily confrontation and reconciliation. I need to do this to get to the heart of this project and bring it out as much as I can. This blog will serve as a regular meditation forum for me as I work through the project: completing production, reviewing and editing footage, community outreach and many other aspects of what it takes to get a movie made and seen. This has been an incredible learning experience for me both professionally and personally -- it has forced me to confront my fears and rise to the challenge of making what I hope will be a significant documentary on an amazing topic.
So as my first bit of news to report, I am proud to say that I am the recipient of a quadruple rejection from the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival -- four pieces I submitted (three of which were Sikh-related) were turned down for the May event. I shudder to post this here for fear of the doubts it may cast on my work for anyone reading this. But this is exactly what Sikhism has taught me -- to take those fears and externalize them instead of let them consume one from within -- to turn symbols of shame into emblems of self-acceptance, pride, and progress. There is simply too much work to be done to be bogged down in discouragement. And so, let's begin...