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Saturday, November 11, 2006

What Is Solidarity - Illinois

This week, the whirlwind took us to Illinois on our first state-wide university tour: first to Illinois Wesleyan University, Bloomington (pictured), then to Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, and finally to the University of Illinois, Chicago.

On Friday October 27, we arrived at Wesleyan University for the Illinois premiere of Divided We Fall. We were immediately embraced by Dr. Narendra Jaggi, the main force behind our university tour, and spent the day with the students responsible for bringing us to Wesleyan, led by Patrick Halloran (we're chatting about Sikhs Studies in the picture below) and Amee Patel of the South Asian Students Association (SASA). They gave us a tour of the campus – with only two thousand students at Wesleyan, the campus sustains a deep sense of community – and we were immediately embraced into it, thanks to SASA. We toured the campus together, visited classrooms, had lunch with professors, met with more students, ate dinner together, all before our premiere that night at the big brand-new student center.

The premiere became one of the most powerful and overwhelming nights in the life of the film. We screened before more than 200 people from the college and local Bloomington community (many came after hearing director director Sharat Raju interviewed about the film on their local NPR earlier that day).

After introductions, the film began and Sharat and I watched the audience from the balcony above as they moved together in moments of laughter, wiped tears from their eyes during the painful parts, and applauded when the credits ended. It was the first time I “watched” the film entirely through the eyes of the audience.

After Patrick introduced us to the stage, the entire audience rose together to applaud us with smiles and tears. And then the Q&A began. For nearly a half an hour, we held an open forum, with runners moving the mics through the audience as different people spoke from the heart, asked questions, shared reflections. Sharat and I told stories that weren't included in the film, stories that touched upon the central question that seemed to guide the entire discussion: what is solidarity. It was interesting that this audience – the first that seemed to capture the demographics of mainstream America – kept turning and re-turning to the question of what it means to stand in solidarity. They reflected on their own communities' experiences and the power to change the culture together – like a prairie fire.

When people lined up to talk to us after the Q&A, they began hugging us one after another – strangers hugging strangers because we were no longer strangers. Each person felt compelled to embrace us and talk to us for a long time about how the film changed them: the third-generation Chinese American theater student who had been feeling lost for a long time now re-inspired to act, the African American museum curator who poignantly said "my braids are my turban," the Muslim woman who could not stop crying through the film, the Britisher whose grandfather was Indian but who had ignored the plight of his own family's encounters with discrimination until now, the 20 year-old African American student who knew nothing about Sikhs before but now felt compelled to stand up the next time he hears someone verbally abused on the bus, the couple who randomly came to the screening and had absolute faith that the film would get into theaters because "it moves everyone, of every background, no matter who you are."

This film seems to tear open the hearts of people, helps us to bear the pain and bare the pain, the pain we share together, no matter who we are. It was a transformative night, a healing night, a night that we'll never forget. We talked to people for what felt like an hour, even signing autographs! my head dizzy from all the stories; it felt as though warmth and encouragement were poured into us, and we were full to the brim.

We then spent a restful weekend at the home of Dr. Jaggi (pictured teaching Sharat life lessons) and his wife Hansa – where we treated to late mornings and South Indian breakfast and many beautiful stories. There were more students who wanted to speak with us, so we met at the local bookstore with a small group and talked about idealism, fatigue, and the possibilities for change – no professors, just college kids getting together to think critically about the world and our relation to it. (Pictured left to right, I'm next to Simon, Nichole, Will, Becky, and Nirjhar).

We then continued south to our screening in Carbondale, this time joined by our excellent communications director Tracy Wells who drove from Omaha to tour with us.

On Monday night, October 30, the film was hosted by the Department of Cinema and Photography at Southern University of Illinois, Carbondale. We screened before more than 80 film students who asked questions about both content and technical aspects after the screening. We continued the conversation over dinner with our beautiful and spirited host Jyotsna Kapur, professor of film studies. We spent the night at her very warm home before we made the seven-hour journey back north to Chicago for our final screening.

On Tuesday night, October 31, we had a crowd of nearly 100 people who chose to spend Halloween night with us at our Chicago premiere. The screening was hosted by the Sikh Student Association at the University of Illinois, Chicago, thanks to the organization of Parminder Mann and Nitasha Kaur. We had many friends in the audience – including our brilliant editor Scott Rosenblatt and researchers Steve Gulati and Harsimran Kaur Dang. We had another rich discussion afterward that of course continued in an Indian restaurant a few blocks away after the screening.

The week was rich, exhausting, and exhilarating. We are resting before we head next to Miami in a few days. In the mean time, we are celebrating the new look of our website: http://www.dwf-film.com/ Until next time!

Thank you again Dr. Jaggi for our whirlwind tour of Illinois!

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

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