A Film about Post 9/11 America

Although the attack of September 11, 2001 was directed against the twin towers of the World Trade Center, but perhaps the single largest community which suffered the most collateral damage, was the Sikh community of America. The only person to be killed in a hate crime post 9/11 was Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner in Phoenix, Arizona, and countless others since have been subjected to varying degrees of taunts, discrimination and violence.

Five years on, Sikhs continue to be at the receiving end of hate crimes, but a concerted effort to fight for their rights through legal advocacy and spreading awareness through education of the wider community is finally turning the tide.

A short documentary "Dastaar - Defending Sikh Identity" captures all of this in graphic detail and was recently aired on PBS. Just 12 minutes long, what is truly amazing about this multi-award winning documentary is how much ground it covers and how hard it hits. What is even more amazing is the fact that the person who made the documentary is neither Sikh, nor Punjabi, nor South-Asian. In fact, he is 31 year-old Chinese-American Kevin B Lee.

If you talk to this mild-mannered New-York based film-maker, and he knows you're Punjabi, then he'll probably begin the conversation with "Sat Sri Akal".

He describes it as instant immersion: "The reaction to the Dastaar broadcast on PBS illustrates my own amazement at how much I have become involved with the Sikh community. Two years ago I didn't even know what a Sikh was!"

But his documentary has woken up millions to the plight of countless Sikhs subjected to physical and verbal abuse, as well as employment discrimination across America. Usually, these would be rationalised as cases of "mistaken identity", but Dastaar, really does define and "defend the Sikh Identity".

Already, Dastaar has been felicitated at dozens of film festivals and has been awarded best short documentary at Dallas Asian Short Film Festival, San Diego Asian Film Festival and Eureka! International Film Festival. It is being used as a tool to train Police recruits in USA, and is also being incorporated into the school curriculum, to promote awareness about Sikhs in the wider American population.

But for Lee, this journey began in 2004 when a colleague invited him to film an event at his son's high school. Recalls Lee, "There was a Diversity Multicultural Day at the High School and some Sikh parents had prepared a presentation about their religion for the rest of the school community. I had just gone along to film it at my friend's request. I was really moved by the amount of trouble these parents had taken to prepare their presentation and by their eagerness to share their culture and beliefs. Personally, I was hearing for the first time about Sikhism, about its concepts of equality among all races, genders and classes and I was really impressed at how clearly and coherently these parents were describing their faith. But I also noticed that other parents, would just peek into the presentation room, see a few people with beards and turbans, and quickly move on to the next room without even bothering to listen to what had been painstakingly prepared. Instantly, the difference between the 'outside' and the 'inside' struck me. These gentle people were probably being regarded as terrorists because of their outward appearance and I was inspired to do something about it - to clarify the misperceptions and to present the reality, as I saw it".

Lee got in touch with the Sikh Coalition, a leading Sikh advocacy group, run primarily by volunteers and learnt about the stark cases being pursued by them. Dastaar opens with one such case, that of Rajinder Singh Khalsa, who was brutally beaten up by a group of youths just because he looked different. "This elderly man was bashed and his turban was called a curtain by his attackers", says Lee, and this gave rise to a spontaneous protest, which is shown in the documentary.

Then, there are the cases of Amric Singh and Kevin Harrington. Amric had been working for the New York Police Department, NYPD for many years, but after 9/11, he was told he could only continue if he turned up to work without a turban.

Similarly Kevin Harrington, an Irishman who adopted Sikhism many years ago, had been working as a subway conductor for 20 years and in fact steered people away from the disaster area on 9/11, but was dismissed from his job because of his turban. The Sikh Coalition took both the NYPD and the MTA, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to court over this and won both the cases. Dastaar covers these stories in such a sensitive, yet dispassionate way, that any viewer is awakened to the gross injustice meted out to these victims of perception, rather, misperception.

Says Amardeep Singh, the Legal director of the Sikh Coalition: "Although there have been many other cases of discrimination at the workplace, we thought it was really important to pursue the NYPD and MTA cases because these are government agencies. If they can discriminate against a group of people and go unchallenged, that would send the wrong message to society". Adds Singh, "Our main aim is to dissociate the turban from terrorism. In reality, the turban stands for justice, honour and strength, but after repeatedly seeing bin Laden or Zarqawi and others wearing turbans, people associate it with terrorism. You see, before 9/11 we as American Sikhs predominantly had the attitude that if we worked hard, our kids did well and we stayed out of trouble, we would eventually become a part of the American fabric and be recognised by the wider community as one of them. But 9/11 changed that and we realised that we had to actively participate in the social and civic affairs of the nation; we have to be at the table, when the politicians are deciding questions about our future, and we have to run for political office. To that end, for the first time ever, several turbaned American-Sikhs have recently run for election to the Democratic County Political Committee, and a number of them have succeeded. This might be the lowest rung of the power structure, but it's a beginning and we encourage that".

Gurpreet Singh, another legal director and fundraiser at the Sikh Coalition, agrees that Sikh activism only became a necessity after the World Trade Center attack. According to him, "9/11 was a big wake-up call for all of us. Before that we all thought things were fine and dandy, but post-9/11 we realised that people around us didn't have a clue about us. They didn't even know that Sikhism existed as a religion. But now, we have become more aware of our image and we are far more careful about how we act and react. Kevin's Dastaar is a major step forward because it presents an outsider's view - a view that the average non-Sikh American can relate to. You just can't put a value to Kevin's contribution, it's priceless."

Gurpreet Singh's own case is also essayed in Dastaar. He was attacked by a white Caucasian male because "he looked different". Says Singh," My first response was to just brush this off and not do anything about it, but then I thought I should lodge a case against the attacker, for the sake of the Sikh community". The attacker was found guilty, and on Singh's request, his jail term was suspended; instead he was asked to do community service at the local gurudwara and the speech he made to the sangat thereafter is shown in Dastaar.

Says Amardeep Singh, "The strength of Dastaar is its credibility, because an "outsider" has made it. Secondly, it's a great starting point for anyone to begin discussion about Sikhism, because it is a short but very accurate description of Sikh beliefs. Having been screened on PBS now, it has penetrated to all levels of society and I don't think anybody could have done it better than Kevin".

But ask Lee about it, and he says, "I don't think I did anything special. The story was already there and it was so compelling. I'm just fortunate to be the one who told it visually and got the honour of conveying the message to everyone." He is especially pleased that it has had a major impact at schools around America.

"I remember a group of teachers watched Dastaar at a film festival in New York. They had never seen anything like it before and later, we took them to the gurudwara, where they had langar, and gained first hand experience of something that they'll pass on to the new generation of Americans".

So what is it that attracted a Chinese American, with no prior familiarity with Sikhism, to make a documentary like this? Answers Lee," There are definite reasons for why I am so drawn to Sikhism, and they are very personal. The courage that Sikhs have, to stand out on behalf of their beliefs, has been a tremendous inspiration for my own life. Making a film about people who are being discriminated against because of their beliefs and principles made me think about my own beliefs and principles. In a way, Sikhism has become a mirror for me to evaluate my own humanity. For that reason, Dastaar has touched me in a way no other project has."

And so inspired is Lee, that he is making another film, Warrior Saints. He is currently shooting it and hopes to release it sometime in 2007. He admits it's a much bigger project than Dastaar and even more challenging. "Now that I'm involved with Warrior Saints, I have had to ask myself how to find the courage and discipline to make a film about another community in a way that is thoughtful, truthful and appealing to all. It is just one example of the many challenges in life that require courage and inner strength to overcome. I have learned the lessons imparted by the gurus, that the greatest battles take place within oneself, and require grace as well as valour. Making my own personal connections to the Sikh experience gives me an ever-growing sense of purpose and passion to tell the story of 'Warrior Saints'.

For Warrior Saints, Lee has followed the lives of three different types of Sikhs-- those who migrated from India and make their beliefs work in America, while starting their lives afresh in a new country; then there are American Sikhs, who were not born into Sikhism but adopted it at some time in their life and finally there are the children of Indian immigrants, who work through the pressure of adapting to the mainstream and try to find their faith in a country like America with its varied cultural influences. According to Lee, " The film poses the ultimate question: what is the future of Sikhism in America? I think the answers will offer much food for thought as well as inspiration for Sikhs all over the world to embrace their culture ever more proudly."

And as for the future of Sikhs around the world, Lee says, "The Sikh diaspora throughout the world has to do a lot of thinking about what Sikhism really means to them. Belief in Sikhism does mean that you have to stand apart from mainstream society in a way, and you have to be comfortable with that. The way Sikhism is practised, especially for men, it means you have to wear a dastaar, you have to wear your five K's and it creates pressure to look conspicuous. You really have to understand what your beliefs are and it becomes quite dramatic in a way."

Considering that Lee was only introduced to Sikhism two years ago, perhaps it would be appropriate to give him an honorary title of 'Singh' for articulating so clearly, what many born into the religion find hard to communicate. Then again, it inspires you with hope, that if a Chinese American with no prior knowledge of Sikhism can learn so much in such a short time, surely others can too!

[Courtesy: India Today]

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