Photo Credits: Religion News Service, courtesy Tracy J. Wells
Filmmaker Valarie Kaur interviews Amrik Chawla, who was chased by a mob minutes after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, at Ground Zero in New York for her film, ``Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath.''
In the days following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, images of the smoldering World Trade Center towers and a bearded and turbaned Osama bin Laden flashed constantly across TV screens.
So did images of President Bush, espousing national unity and speaking of the kindness that Americans of all backgrounds were showing each other in a time of grief.
The messages filling Valarie Kaur's e-mail inbox, however, spoke of something else.
The 20-year-old Stanford University student heard of fellow Sikhs who were harassed, beaten and even murdered. Initially, she felt numb, unsure how to respond. Then she remembered her grandfather and the core Sikh belief he taught her: Nam Dan Isnan.
"In order to realize yourself," Kaur remembers him saying, "in order to realize God, you must act here and now without fear."
So, armed with a video camera and the help of her 18-year-old cousin, Amandeep Singh Gill, Kaur drove across the country to capture the stories of Sikhs, Muslims, Arabs and others who were victims of a post-9/11 backlash.
What was intended to be a one-hour video to accompany Kaur's thesis turned into an independent feature-length documentary film, "Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath," under the direction of filmmaker Sharat Raju. Since debuting last September, the movie has been touring film festivals, college campuses and other venues nationwide and abroad. The filmmakers are now looking for a distributor.
For Kaur, the journey was a discovery of herself and the nation, revealing a paradox on both ignorance and goodness.
One of the first shocks Kaur experienced was the murder of a family friend, Balbir Singh Sodhi, on Sept. 15, 2001, in Mesa, Ariz. Sodhi wore the beard and turban of an observant Sikh. His death _ at the hands of a man who mistook him for a Muslim _ marked the first 9/11 retribution killing.
The Sikhs she met spoke openly but few Muslims would speak on camera because of fears of deportation or detention. The brunt of the violence, she found, had been directed at observant Sikh men whose religion prescribes wearing a turban and beard, and Muslim women wearing hijabs, or headscarves.
Over time, she began to see her subjects reflecting what she saw as the country's dual story line: exclusion and discrimination on the one hand, and equality and pluralism on the other.
Four months after 9/11, the international relations and religious studies major returned to Stanford, wrote a thesis based on her findings and made a 30-minute video of the raw footage. In 2003, she showed it at a Sikh film festival in Toronto where it caught the attention of Raju, a 30-year-old Hindu American filmmaker from Los Angeles.
"It was so moving," he said of her project. "I felt I had to help some way. I had to do something."
On the road, Kaur said she found herself filled with despair but also buoyed by stories of hope. In India, she interviewed Sodhi's widow, Herjinder Kaur, who expressed her appreciation for the outpouring of love from thousands of strangers who came to mourn her slain husband.
"It was truly the most profound moment on the road," Kaur said. "I realized that there are very few people in the world whose faces are hardened by hate that they can't be transformed by our stories."
Making the film has changed Kaur in ways she didn't expect. She set out thinking she could remain detached, but found herself absorbing her characters' painful experiences as if they were her own.
Kaur grew up in Clovis, Calif., a suburb of Fresno, as a third-generation Sikh American. With her Western name and broken Punjabi, she never felt at home at the local gurdwara or temple. "What I've learned is that who I am now, this fractured identity itself, is a source of wisdom," said Kaur, now 26. "I've learned to own it."
In her travels, she met Sikhs who practice their religion in different ways and she began identifying with the faith's central teaching that many paths lead to the same divinity. Before she starting filming, she thought the only way to observe her religion was to emulate the immigrant community: reciting, singing and meditating on passages from their holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib.
She keeps a traditional home altar but also draws inspiration from other religious sources, including Christianity and Buddhism. "The founding of the faith is this idea ... that God is one, is everywhere and everything," she said. "You can find God and find the faces of God wherever you look."
With the film, Kaur said she wants to show Sikhs that they have allies with other groups who also have experienced discrimination.
"From the beginning of the journey to the end of the journey, this is what I realized: This was not a single community crying out for help," Kaur said. "This was something that every American has a stake in."
Raju and other Sikh advocates said they see the film as a tool for nurturing interfaith dialogue and a reminder that a multicultural society means accepting people's true differences.
"The important thing to take away is to constantly be learning about people around you," Raju said, "especially people who are of a different faith."