When filmmaker Tami Yeager set out to make a documentary about a surge in hate crimes following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she envisioned a movie that would reflect her shock and shame.
That was before the director met Rana Singh Sodhi, whose brother was fatally shot on Sept. 15, 2001, by a man who thought Balbir Singh Sodhi -- a Sikh who wore a turban as part of his faith -- was of Middle Eastern origin.
"I thought I'd make a film primarily focused on hate crimes," Yeager said. "It wasn't my agenda to go out and make a film really emphasizing the American dream. But of the things I learned from Rana, for the first time in my life, I really understood what it meant to be American."
Rana Sodhi's utterly upbeat, patriotic attitude is at the heart of Yeager's film, "A Dream in Doubt," which will air nationwide May 20 as part of the PBS series "Independent Lens."
The film cuts between interviews and footage of Rana Sodhi and his family and news headlines and audio of 911 calls that recall the racially charged atmosphere in the months after Sept. 11. The result is a portrait of a hardworking family man attempting to live his own American dream amid extraordinary chaos.
At the time, Balbir Sodhi's shooting in the parking lot of his Mesa gas station sparked sympathy and outrage worldwide. In his native India, the prime minister put in a call to President Bush. Nearly 3,000 people of all different backgrounds mourned him at a public service in Phoenix. Some called Sodhi the final victim of Sept. 11.
The film also shows the stress brought on by the 2003 trial of the gunman, Frank Roque, as well as the death of another Sodhi brother who was randomly shot in 2002 while driving a cab in San Francisco.
Yeager spent more than three years filming the family off and on, interviewing authorities and poring over evidence from Roque's trial. She essentially became another member of the household. In the five years she's known Sodhi, the director-producer said she's still struck by how unwavering Sodhi is in his faith in American culture.
"I think I take my rights for granted," Yeager said. "Of course, I also understood how many inequities there are in this country, but what I learned from Rana, when putting it in perspective elsewhere, is this country is still heaven on Earth. Really, the answer (to why he feels that way) is because he got justice."
Sodhi said he was extremely touched by how public officials denounced his brother's killing and prosecuted Roque -- now serving a life sentence.
"That gave us so much comfort. You are in good hands and you are protected where you are," Sodhi said. "The government and law enforcement, they will punish those people."
The Sodhi family's ordeal came to Yeager's attention through the film's co-producer, Preetmohan Singh, who is also Sikh. In 2002, Singh was tracking hate crimes for the Sikh American Legal Defense & Education Fund in Washington, D.C. Already friends, he and Yeager had previously worked together on an educational DVD on the Sikh community.
Preetmohan Singh believes many hate crimes fell off the radar in the wake of other Sept. 11 news stories.
"Nobody connected the dots to say 'Wow, these communities feel like they're under siege in their own country.' That's the story we feel really hasn't been told," Singh said. "Now six, seven years after 9/11, there's a little more distance. Viewers are able to appreciate what happened because it's not so raw anymore."
Yeager said she was surprised at how quickly Rana Sodhi took to the idea. For Sodhi, who runs his own Indian restaurant in Mesa, the opportunity to give viewers a glimpse into the Sikh community was too important to pass up.
"Most Americans don't know about Sikhs. They always think turban people belong to terrorist organizations. That's the only thing they know," Sodhi said. "I'm really surprised the lack of education (about Sikhs) is very poor here."
Much of the film's funding came from Independent Television Service, which produces many "Independent Lens" programs. The company had been wanting to make a piece about hate crimes, said Lois Vossen, an "Independent Lens" series producer. They encouraged Yeager to follow her instincts and make Sodhi the central character.
"To find someone like Rana who's so incredibly positive and forward-thinking about renewal as opposed to bitterness, especially juxtaposed with this incredible footage with the man who murdered his brother with such vitriol and hatred ... it's just mind-blowing," Vossen said. "That's clearly the story we wanted to share."
Since the documentary has been screened in several major cities, Sodhi has been an ambassador of sorts for the Sikh community. He and Yeager have spoken at several screenings, including one at Slamdance in Park City, Utah.
About 300 people attended a screening in April at Scottsdale Community College. It was put on by the Anti-Defamation League and the Phoenix chapter of Make A Difference, a national community service nonprofit.
Rhonda Oliver, CEO and president of Make A Difference, Phoenix, praised the film as a way to initiate a dialogue. She said it was also moving to see Sodhi reaching out to others.
"He was very demure. He strikes an interesting balance between somebody who doesn't like being the center of attention but feels it's important," Oliver said.
Ironically, Sodhi and Balbir had been planning to call media the weekend after Sept. 11 to discuss Sikhism in the hopes of educating the public. But then Balbir was shot.
Sodhi is positive his brother would have loved the movie and what it is trying to promote. "'I think that it's a wonderful idea.' He would say that," Sodhi said.
Yeager hopes the film's portrayal of Sodhi will demonstrate how reactions to hate crimes are as important as preventing them. [Link]
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