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Thursday, October 05, 2006

I See No Stranger - NYC

A few days after our world premiere in Phoenix, we headed east for our New York premiere at the beautiful Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan as part of the Sikh Arts and Film Festival. We arrived early to wander the sixth floor of the museum and admire the New York Times-acclaimed Sikh art exhibit “I See No Stranger" - a breathtaking presentation of early Sikh devotional art emphasizing Guru Nanak's message of the deep interconnectedness between all people. We then entered the theater downstairs to introduce our film Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath to a full house.

It was a Sunday afternoon and it seemed that everyone we knew in New York was there. Our families, friends from college and high school, people who worked on the film, people in the film, even a few celebrities (the stars of Sharat’s previous film American Made, SAKINA JAFFREY and KAL PENN), all packed into a theater meant to hold 150. We introduced the film, sat in front and waited for our film to make its second-ever screening.

As the film began, I listened closely to the audience. I am in the habit now. I have begun to understand that an audience is like a single living organism – it moves and breathes – it laughs at once and cries at once. There is no way to predict just how an audience will react to certain images and lines or why. Every audience is different. And so the film is always different. There is always a dynamic exchange – a secret one – between storytellers and their audience.

And this audience was loud – they laughed hard and held their breath together and sighed together, and we loved it. At the end, the instant the lights came up, the audience began applauding and rose together in a resounding standing ovation. Sharat and I were dazzled as we took the stage. Looking out into the sea of faces, there were friends we knew and friends we had never met joining together to commend us. I had to thank them through watery eyes. In that room, there were no strangers.


We recognized two people in the crowd who had shared their stories in the film: MANPREET SINGH, who had been profiled at an airport, and AMARDEEP SINGH BHALLA, Legal Director of the Sikh Coalition, our personal hero who fights battles against discrimination in his job everyday. We also recognized our crew members: JESSICA JENKINS, Director of Research, CHRIS BYRNES, the newest member of the DWF Dialogue Project, and TIM FORREST, our sound technician who drove from New Jersey to surprise us. And we thanked our families – Sharat’s parents TONSE and VIDYA RAJU, associate producers who made the completion of the film possible, Sharat's brother MANU and cousin RACHANA, and my aunt and uncle CHITRANJAN and JAS BRAR and lovely cousin ANIKA (who appears in the film as a baby!). Then came a lively Q&A.

Our first question was about the present experiences of Sikh Americans five years after 9/11. Sharat waved to Amardeep and his wife DILLY, who shared a story. On their drive to the theater, they had spotted a diversity billboard showing a turbaned Sikh. Their hearts leapt, but just at that instant, they spotted the graffiti sprayed all over it: “Go back to your country.” The billboard graffiti may not count as a serious “hate crime” yet it’s one of many subtle daily encounters with discrimination that have become part of post-9/11 American culture. We hope stories like those in our film can help engage and transform that culture by asking us to reflect on who we see as an American, an enemy, a friend, a stranger.

When the formal Q&A ended, the informal conversations began. (Here is Sharat talking with Kal and Sakina). The buzzing crowds took over the theater and spilled out into the halls and then the street in front of the museum until we all ended up in a restaurant down the block.

We celebrated everything we thought was good in the world, including the engagement of two of our favorite people, Sharat’s brother MANU and our beautiful friend ARCHANA MEHTA, who both drove up from DC to join us. Check our national film tour schedule to catch us at upcoming premieres, including another screening in New York in October!

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

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