Documenting Prejudice: The Valarie Kaur Story

Valarie Kaur was a junior at Stanford University the day of the September 11th attacks. Four days later Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh immigrant from India, was murdered in front of his gas station in Mesa, Arizona by a man who claimed he was taking revenge. Although the two didn’t know one another, Kaur and Sodhi’s stories were soon to intertwine. Three years later, after a long and educational process, Kaur is now deep in the work on a documentary film inspired by Sodhi’s death, called, “Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath.”

Kaur, a third-generation Sikh herself, says Sodhi was only “a friend of a friend” and yet she found the news of his death paralyzing. Soon Kaur’s email inbox flooded over with words of caution and news about hate crimes around the country. Sikh men wear turbans and are known for their non-violence, but Sodhi’s murderer had no doubt seen images of Osama Bin Laden and other turban-wearing Arabs who were involved in the attacks. Indeed, incidents of hate crimes against Sikhs, Muslims, and other South Asians were on the rise. At the same time, President Bush was sending out messages of a so-called “united America” all over the airwaves. Kaur felt the contradiction; what she saw on television did not match the violence she was learning about from her home in Clovis, California.

At first, she retreated to her bedroom, reading Harry Potter books and enjoying their happy endings. “My country was under attack. My community was under attack,” Kaur says. That semester, she had received a scholarly grant to travel to Punjab, India to collect oral histories with her 18-year-old cousin, Amandeep Singh Gill. Her university, however, informed her that it was too dangerous. So Kaur was left with a camera and a vacant semester. Kaur knew she didn’t want to go back to Stanford; she didn’t want to turn her back on what was happening in the world. So she emerged from her room three days later with a new plan: She would travel the country and document the stories of Sikh Americans in the post-9/11 climate.

Just a Couple of Kids With a Camera

Kaur was riddled with doubt as soon as the idea for the trip came to her mind. Her cousin wears a turban and she wondered: How safe could it be to follow hate crimes around the country? She had no film experience and was unsure about what to do with the footage she collected. Would Sikh Americans trust her enough to tell her their stories? She asked herself, “Who am I to do this?”

In the end it was Kaur’s Sikh faith that convinced her to document these stories, to not let them be forgotten. Naam Daan Isnaan is a sacred Sikh hymn, which Kaur takes to mean, “To realize yourself, you must act.” And act, she did.

“We just followed the news,” says Kaur. From September, 2001 to January, 2002 she her cousin-cameraman traveled up and down the length of California, then to Arizona and the site of Sodhi’s murder, and finally to New York and Washington, D.C. “At the time, we saw ourselves as objective journalists behind the camera,” Kaur says. Yet she found that it was impossible to pretend that they were not also part of the story. In a D.C. train station, for instance, when a man screamed, “Go home!” the two followed him with their camera and continued the dialogue. In New York, while conducting an interview on the street, a passerby yelled, “Hey terrorist! Take off that turban!”

“Things like that made us realize that we weren’t detached,” says Kaur.

This incident motivated the pair to collected story after story of harassment, fear, and violence. They spoke to a Sikh businessman in New York who not only ran from the collapsing towers, but from a group of people who chased him, accusing him of terrorism. They spoke to a woman in San Diego who was stabbed by men who told her to go back to her own country. Kaur and her cousin even recorded some people admitting that they have felt fear or prejudice against Sikhs because of their turbans. Kaur eventually did get to go to Punjab as well, but instead of collecting oral histories, she went to visit the widow of Balbir Singh Sodhi, to whom she asked one question: “What do you want to say to the people of America?” The widow’s answer was surprising to Kaur. “Tell them thank you for caring,” she said.

A Director Joins the Team

”I returned to Stanford with 100 hours of footage, but totally alone. I had no support,” says Kaur. Her advisors were impressed and appreciative of the work she had done, but at that point, she had no equipment, expertise, or money to continue the project. It was not until June that she found a way to use her footage. National History Day, a competitive program for high school students that Kaur excelled in when she was younger, asked to her to return and speak about her work in an alumni spotlight. She was to be interviewed for C-SPAN and needed to provide a one-minute clip of her work from the fall semester. Although, in the end, the clip she made was never aired, National History Day provided Kaur with material to start a website and begin to share her work. By her senior year, the website had attracted the attention of freelance producer Andrew Chung, who helped her to create a thirty-minute work-in-progress.

The work-in-progress was shown in October 2003 at the Spinning Wheel Film Festival in Toronto. Enter director Sharat Raju. Raju, 27, was attending the festival to showcase his own short film, “American Made,” which had won several student filmmaking awards. “American Made” is a fictional account of a Sikh American family that becomes stranded on a desert road. In Raju's film, the characters struggle with their identities and faith in the face of post-9/11 prejudices. When he saw Kaur's footage, it occurred to Raju that what she recorded was, “the real-life version of American Made.” Raju says he found Kaur’s footage so powerful, he knew he wanted to get involved.

In the meantime, Kaur wrote her senior thesis using narratives from and analysis of her footage. The thesis won her the Stanford Golden Medal for Excellence in Humanities and Creative Arts, which afforded her more opportunities to share the stories she collected. Raju read the thesis and agreed to direct a full-length documentary using a combination of the home-video style footage Kaur and her cousin had taken and some new, current footage. “I just want to do what I think needs to be seen” says Raju.

By February, Raju and Chung had created a trailer and, with Kaur, finished their script. The trailer will be shown at the next Spinning Wheel Festival in Long Island, where Kaur and Raju hope to attract more investors to “Divided We Fall.” If things go as planned, the film will be complete by the summer of 2005. In the film, Kaur and Raju plan to mix the raw video footage with polished film and news footage. They are going to retrace the steps of Kaur’s journey, chronicling not only hate crimes in America, but the growth of a young girl whose life plans are forever changed. Kaur, who had always imagined herself staying within the ivory tower of academia, will attend Harvard Divinity School in the fall. She then plans to go to law school in order to be better prepared to take on issues of social justice. Making a documentary and dedicating her future to uphill battles is not always an easy thing for Kaur, but she asks, what is the alternative? “The alternative,” she says, “is to just be comfortable.”

But for many Sikh Americans, comfortable does not seem like much of an option these days. Earlier this summer, five men were arrested in the July 11 assault of a Sikh man, Rajinder Singh Khalsa, in Queens, N.Y. Khalsa told the Associated Press that his assailants ordered him to “Go back to India!” and ripped off his turban, calling it a “curtain.” The attacks have been classified as hate crimes.

Young people, Kaur says, have the opportunity to do great things, like fighting against violence and prejudice. When you are young, she says “you don’t let fear hold you back.” But, Raju adds, being young also has its downside. “Every person you run into just pats you on the head,” he says. And while Kaur and Raju, now 23 and 27, clearly want to be taken seriously, it is even more important to them that that Sikh Americans and all the targets of racial profiling and hate crimes are taken especially seriously.

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