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Sunday, October 15, 2006

Perhaps a Mosaic - Boston

After premiering in Phoenix and New York, we made our BOSTON PREMIERE at Tufts University on October 25, hosted by the Asian American Center. It was a full audience once again, but this time, it was made up mostly of college students, many of whom experienced 9/11 as freshmen in high school. Linell Yugawa, our gracious host and director of the Asian American Center, introduced us. We introduced Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath. And it began.

This time, Sharat and I sat in the back to listen to the audience. They were quieter than previous crowds, but I think it’s because we saw so many diligently taking notes. It was then that I realized how our film captures a critical moment in American history –unraveling complex themes on race relations, religion, political security, historical discrimination and the possibility for pluralism – in other words, ripe for study in classrooms.

After the film, rather then rushing through a Q&A, we had nearly a half an hour to respond to questions from both students and professors. We first recognized our friends in the audience: Deonnie Moodie (my dear friend, roommate, travel companion and oh yes, the film's story consultant), Chris Byrnes (part of the DWF Dialogue Project committed to creating curriculum for the film and our photographer that night), Kathryn Lohre (representing the Pluralism Project, a long-time supporter), Michelle Goldhaber (a beautiful friend who is like sunshine) and M. Christian Green (my professor at Harvard Divinity School who like Kathryn and Michelle, offered feedback on early versions of the film).

The discussion included the future plans for the film, the limits and powers of storytelling to transform rigid ideas about others, the Sikh community's position on forgiveness, what Sharat and I worry about, and what brings us hope.

One student asked, "What was part of the motive for Sher Singh's arrest?" Sher Singh, whose story is told in the film, was the first person to be arrested as a suspected terrorist in Providence, RI - arrested for his 'suspicious appearance' alone. Sher Singh is a Sikh who wears a turban and carries a kirpan. "Many people believe that the mayor of Providence wanted to be the first to produce a suspected terrrorist," I responded. Amarpreet Singh Sawhney (pictured), a member of the local Sikh community in Boston, stood up to share his part in the story. He had written to the mayor after the incident to explain that he had targeted an innocent community. The mayor wrote a letter of apology, which Amarpreet then delivered to Sher.

The remarkable thing about the stories in our film is that they involve the audience, sometimes in very real ways, so that one question by an audience member oftentimes can be answered by another audience member. This is what makes me so hopeful about the film's ability to cultivate real dialogue.

Our discussion ended with the crowd standing to applaud the film and its message – our third standing ovation – but the discussion was far from over. It spilled out into the reception, where Sharat and I talked a long time with Tufts freshmen and sophomores.

A few days after the screening, Linell Yugawa wrote to tell me that there was so much buzz on campus after the film, they would be holding a follow-up discussion for students. The invitation to the discussion read: "This film, shown on campus on 9/25, had an emotional impact on many in the Tufts community. The issues raised in the film prompted many of us to reflect on our personal experiences. If you saw the film and have thoughts and feelings you’d like to share, join us for a conversation and light supper!"

Tonight I sat with a group of twenty Tufts students in the Asian American Center, balancing plates of food on our knees. They were there to share their thoughts. I was there to listen. For the next few hours, everyone spoke spontaneously, in turn, sharing incredibly raw stories and moving reflections.

Linell began: “I’m a third-generation Japanese American, and oftentimes I am not seen as American. I am grateful that the Japanese Internment was presented in the film. In the film, one of the internees said that he should have marched with the Sikh community after 9/11, because 'we should be the first to know that that should not be happening.' We talk and talk, but what do we put forward?”

Across the room, another woman began to speak. “My name is Meena, and I’m a graduate student and resident director. I had to leave immediately after watching the film, because I was so emotional: I was watching my life on the screen! When I was in high school, I had a cross burned on my lawn. The worst thing about it was the total lack of outrage expressed. People said, 'Why should you even care? You aren't black.' I’ve been carrying around so much anger inside of me, and I didn't realize it until watching the film. I feel just like Nitasha Sawhney when she says at the end of the film, ‘People ask me where I’m from. I’m from Huntington Beach, California – that’s where I’m from!’"

Meena's friend responded: "The film made me realize that there is nowhere you can hide, no place you are truly safe from discrimination. The core of ideology must change: no matter what race, gender, sexual orientation, we’re all American."

A Tufts senior spoke up: "I grew up seven miles outside of New York City and saw the second plane hit the tower from the window of my calculus class. It was very real. And then there were attacks on Indian families, but my community was not united in responding to hate crimes. For the first time, I saw parts of my life in the film."

A sophomore followed: "My name is Mae-Ling, and I’m half Philippine, half Ghanan. I am seen as a foreigner in both cultures, so I could really relate to Valarie’s story in the film. When I came to America, I only knew about white and black relations, and maybe Latino, but I had no idea where Asian Americans fit. Our age group, teenagers like me, are trying to figure out how to respond to things like this, so it was really good for us to relate to Valarie and her journey as a young person in the world."

"I was in high school when 9/11 happened," another sophomore said. "And as soon as I found out, I hoped it was not Muslims. Then 'oh God, here it comes.' People from my mosque and community were attacked, and I realized that the world is not such a nice place. My religion and culture were hijacked along with those planes that day. I did not feel that I was part of the vision that everyone had for America. But I can’t go anywhere! I’m just as American as anyone else." And then, turning to me, "Thank you for making this film."

After everyone spoke, the discussion opened up into the power of stories to challenge the "constant otherization," as one student put it, both socially and politically. "The stories make you see how the political is on the playground, the street, everywhere," added a professor of English. Linell addressed the pressure on Asian Americans to "keep quiet" and not to express rage - but that rage is important if it's a source of creative protest. "Who are we? Are we a melting pot?" someone asked. Looking around at all the different backgrounds and perspectives in the room, I offered, "Perhaps a mosaic."

It was an incredible night for me – for the first time, I was able to hear all the different ways the film spoke to different people. The nights of endless work over the past five years were worth it for just this one moment – to hear people tell their own stories. The film is meant to inspire storytelling; it is presented with the conviction that storytelling can break down the boundaries that divide us. And tonight was a testament to that. Everyone in that room came from different places - both literal and figurative - yet the film opened up a space where they could all speak candidly about who we are – as Americans – and who we want to be.

I love college.

Thanks to all the students at Tufts who had the courage to speak up in their own way. After another screening in New York City next week, we embark on a entire college tour in Illinois...!

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

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