Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Sikhsim: a Spike Lee joint

Just got word that in Spike Lee's new film INSIDE MAN there is a Sikh actor who plays a Sikh bank hostage, and it provides a brief but potent glimpse into what Sikhs face currently. I really need to see this movie. I had heard that this was the most un-Spike Lee Spike Lee movie to come out, in that it was more about Hollywood action than social issues, but perhaps he was able to slip in a little social relevance into the mix.

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
after all.GO!

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Reviewing my first Sikh footage - Pangs for the memories

As another mode of practical meditiation for this project, I am reviewing the over 100 hours of footage I have shot over the last two years related to my work with the Sikh Community. It is a way for me to do several things: transcribe footage; relive the past and revive memories of not just what I've filmed but what I learned or thought at that time; and confront and critique myself as a filmmaker while also coming to appreciate my development in that aspect over the past two years.

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 last couple days' activities

The last couple of days I've been rather depressed with the huge exception of when I've been conducting on-camera interviews. I've done one each in the last two days after work, and each time as I head towards my appointment I feel a weight being lifted. Not just a sign that filmmaking is my calling (or at least a thereapeutic outlet) but that these interviews are really one of the rare chances I have to really connect with someone and have an intense interaction.

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...

An Introduction

I hate the word blog, it sounds like someone vomiting - which I guess is the connotation: mental/verbal spew. And to be honest, this is what has kept me from posting up until now: the fear that what I write here will puzzle or put off my potential visitors as they attempt to learn more about this project. In the two years that I've worked on WARRIOR SAINTS, I've learned just how many people out there have an active interest in Sikhism and making Sikh culture, identity and values understood and appreciated around the world. Sikhs have been burned so many times by the media's representation of them, that they take public representations of them very, very seriously. Thus any film or artistic project dealing with the topic has a signficant burden to shoulder. It can be very intimidating.

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...

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Warrior Saints Trailer Part III: Finding Home

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Warrior Saints Trailer Part II: Deeper Discoveries

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Warrior Saints Trailer Part I: First Encounters

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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Dastaar: Defending Sikh Identity

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DASTAAR: DEFENDING SIKH IDENTITY presents the struggle of the Sikh American community against discrimination and violence caused by ignorance of an essential symbol of the Sikh faith -- the dastaar , or turban. The documentary begins by observing the simple, quiet act of putting on the dastaar , a daily ritual imbued with the Sikh values of honor, discipline and faith. The solemnity of this ritual contrasts with recent incidents of violence and discrimination against Sikhs due to the wearing of the dastaar, which all Sikh men are required to wear at all times in public. Such incidents include the vicious attack on Gurcharan Singh and Rajinder Singh Khalsa by five men after being accused of being terrorists, two NYPD officers who left the force after refusing the order to remove their dastaars while on duty, and a subway operator who wore his dastaar for 20 years until being recently ordered to remove his dastaar . Even though Sikhs have no relationship with the terrorist networks of the Middle East, they are often mistaken as terrorists due to their wearing turbans. The film explores how images in the media fuel the association of the turban with terrorism, leading to the widespread discrimination against Sikhs. The film also shows the efforts made by the Sikh community to counter this discrimination through a combination of community activism, legal action, legislation and education.