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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The End is the Beginning

There was a red carpet. Four hundred fifty people. Press cameras. Hot food. Banners that read "United We Stand, Divided We Fall." A whirl of conversation that settled when the film began. And a standing ovation when it ended. It was the night of our world premiere in Phoenix, Arizona, and it officially launched Divided We Fall into the world.

The premiere was held on the eve of the five-year memorial of Balbir Sodhi's murder. Hosted by the Phoenix Sikh community, the event was a memorial for those who died on 9/11 and in its aftermath. The Sodhi family was there, and so was his widow Herjinder Kaur. My journey to make this film began with the story of the Sodhi family, and so we were deeply honored that the premiere of our movie would honor of the strength and resilience of this family and the larger Phoenix community.

That didn't keep me from being nervous, though. So here's what happened, minute by minute, on the night we had waited five years to experience...

We arrived at Carpenter’s Hall, a large glass building donated to us by the Phoenix Police Department that reached up into the clear blue sky against the desert landscape. It was a grand space.

Sharat (the director) and I arrived with members of our film crew, now our very close friends: Irene Yeh, my beautiful friend now working on teaching curriculum for the film, Scott Rosenblatt our talented editor, and Eric Santiestevan our soulful composer.(We are left to right below, except for Sharat who's taking the picture).


We walked down the red carpet together through the double doors, as Sikh men and women on either side greeted us. There we embraced the Sodhi family - and Herjinder Kaur, Sodhi's widow, whose words conclude my journey in the film. It was our first red carpet, the most welcoming we had ever seen.

Hundreds of people soon filled the great lobby, wearing name tags, holding plates of hot Indian food the Sodhi family had prepared, meeting one another - police officers, community activists, Sikhs and non-Sikhs, people of all backgrounds who had first gathered together five years ago when Sodhi died. At 6:30pm, the doors opened and the crowd entered a long intimate hall, chairs reaching to the very back where TV cameras were set up. People passed the first printed movie posters for Divided We Fall as they sat down to face a projection screen reaching to the ceiling.

The program began with a song on the oneness of humanity by Bibi Bani Kaur, whose voice had always moved me when I heard her sing on visits to the Phoenix gurdwara. People of all faiths, including the Sodhi family, stood behind her on the stage. GuruRoop Kaur Khalsa, spokesperson for the Sodhi family, the woman who has supported me over the last five years, from sharing interviews to raising funds, then introduced the film. And it began.

My face gave it away. I was either smiling or crying or hitting my crew members on the shoulder at particularly moving parts throughout the whole film. I was in awe. It was the first time I had seen the completed film on the big screen and fireworks went off in my brain during every scene: yes, yes, yes - this is right - this is exactly how we envisioned it. That’s when I realized we did it. All of us together. Five years of doubt, fear, despair, but perseverance as we labored over creating every minute of the film. For the first time, I felt completely content. It was the end of a chapter, and the beginning of a new one.

The film ended with applause and then a standing ovation. When Sharat and I took the stage, I saw tears in peoples' eyes and smiles through the tears - as if reaching into the deepest pain brought out the fiercest hope. "It is the strength and resilience of the Phoenix community that has continued to inspire me throughout making this movie." I said. "The togetherness you exemplified after Sodhi was murdered is a testament to the unity that is possible for all of America. I thank you and commend you."

The first woman to stand up had been a civil rights activist for years. "Thank you for making this film. Thank you for inspiring all of us." People then asked when the film would be available. We explained that we hope to develop teaching curriculum around the movie and release the dvd at the end of next year. Irene (pictured) is part of the team working on that. In the mean time, anyone who makes a $50 donation to the film today is promised a copy of the film as soon as it's ready.

Afterward, we were surrounded by an outpouring of warmth and praise as crowds of people extended their congratulations and offered their own stories:

A Sikh woman my age told me that her husband faces discrimination everyday. Whenever someone yells at him to go home in a new city, he crosses that city off from the list of places he wants to live. "Thank you for making this movie - for my husband Gurmukh - thank you," she said with tears in her eyes.

A Native American woman introduced me to her daughter. She was sick of hearing racist taunts at work, and she wanted her daughter to hear the stories of other communities who have suffered injustice. "As a native American, my perspective on America is left out of the conversation," she explained. "Thank you for making a film that speaks to all of us."

A fellow filmmaker who has worked on a social justice movie for the past three years asked us how we did it. “I have no idea how independent films are made,” I exclaimed. “I have no idea how ours was made! I guess it’s a miracle of determination."

And finally the Sodhi family. Balbir's brothers Harjit and Rana embraced us with watery eyes: "We had no idea that you were making such a big film all these years!" Balbir's niece and nephew Chandni and Daman, who I watched grow up over the past five years into smart, competent, caring people, told us that they loved the movie and that "we have to hang out." I couldn't help but giggle.

And then she was there. Herjinder Kaur, whom I call "Aunti Ji" out of respect, still dressed in white, the color of mourning. I was nervous about what she thought - how painful it must have been to see the most painful parts of her life played out on the big screen! She came close to me and whispered in my ear, “You were so small when you started this. You have done a great thing.” And she embraced me. “It’s because of you, Aunti Ji. It’s because of your strength and openness, your love.”

The family could not stop thanking us. I realized that this was all I needed to feel that we had done our job well. We told a story that was responsible to what is at stake for the people who have suffered - that their voices were represented well - and to what is at stake for audiences - that they can envision a nation that embraces all differences into the American mosaic.



In the end, we presented the Sodhi family with our gift: a framed photograph of the last frame of the film, their family standing together, an American family. We also presented our long-time supporters GuruRoop Kaur Khalsa and Dr. Jaswant and Shavi Sachdev with our very first printed movie posters.

It was an auspicious beginning for our film - and I can't wait to take it to cities around the country on a national tour this fall - New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, Sacramento, and even London for a UK premiere! Come see us if you can.

Eric, me, Sharat, and Scott

The next day, the premiere made the front cover of the Arizona Tribune.

[This entry is cross-posted on "Into the Whirlwind."]

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