Lokvani Talks To Valarie Kaur
(Meet Valarie Kaur and see her film Divided We Fall on March 30th in Boston. For more information check out http://www.sahayta.org)
Valarie Kaur is the creator, writer, and producer of Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath, the first feature-length documentary on hate violence in the aftermath of 9/11. More than five years in the making, the powerful new film made its world premiere in September 2006 and is now on international tour. It is a moving story that brings us to the intersections of violence, identity, and power in America.
Valarie is a third-generation Sikh American born and raised in Clovis, California. She received bachelor's degrees from Stanford University in international relations and religious studies with honors and distinction, and she recently completed a master of theological studies degree with a focus in ethics from Harvard Divinity School.
Valarie has been invited to speak about her film Divided We Fall at universities, conferences, and community centers across the country. In 2004, she co-founded the Discrimination and National Security Initiative at the Harvard Pluralism Project. Valarie will continue to study intersections between religion, violence, and law when she enters Yale Law School in Fall 2008.
She talked to Lokvani about her life and her film
It is interesting to note that you are a third generation American. Could you tell us a little about your family?
My grandfather sailed by steamship from Punjab, India to California in 1913. He was a farmer. My father was born and raised on his farm, and I was born on the same land. My house is built on what remains of our farmland, so I have deep roots in America. But I am also deeply connected to India. My mother was born and raised in Patiala in Punjab and came to America when she began her life with my father.
You have a very unusual family where your father himself is a second generation Indian American. Could you describe the third generation experience?
Growing up, I never felt fully part of any one community. When I went to the Sikh gurdwara, people looked at us outsiders. I had a very American name – Valarie – and I spoke broken Punjabi. At one point, I felt so out of place that I wanted to change my name to Simran, a proper Sikh name! At the same time, I never felt fully apart of my community at school. Many of my friends were Christians who asked me to convert to Christianity in order to be saved. One woman even performed an exorcism on me in order to rid me of the ‘devils’ who were drawing me away from Christianity. I often had nightmares of hellfire. That’s when my grandfather Papa Ji – my mother’s father – taught me about my family’s religious tradition. I came to embrace the Sikh religion’s teachings of religious pluralism, equality, and social justice.
You majored in Religion and International Relations, unusual majors for an Indian American youngster. Were your parents supportive of that?
I am deeply blessed that my parents have always shown unconditional love and support for everything my brother Sanjeev and I have done in my life. I ended up studying religion and my brother majored in astrophysics! For most of my Stanford career, I was the only Sikh student who was not pre-med. I am grateful that I was able to pursue my deepest passions – passions that grew from my childhood encounters with the dangerous and healing powers of religious experience.
What motivated you to travel across American to document racial hate crimes at the very young age of twenty?
It all began as a student project in summer 2001. I was a twenty-year old Stanford student, majoring in religion and international relations, home for the summer before my junior year. But I was not planning to be at Stanford in the fall. I had gotten the school to pay for a trip to Punjab, India, where I would spend four months wandering through villages that bordered Pakistan, asking people my grandparents’ age to tell me their memories of the 1947 Partition of India — that terrible violent event when Britain freed India but left it bleeding in two pieces. In the riots that consumed Punjab, people burned down my great-uncle’s lumberyard with him inside.
The Partition had fascinated me since childhood, when my grandfather Papa Ji first told me how he survived. I wanted to hear more Partition stories, but they were nowhere to be found in the history books used in Clovis, my small California hometown. So now in college, I was going to India to record some of these stories on my own. I had an old high-8 video camera. And my cousin Sonny agreed to go with me. He was eighteen, just graduated from high school, and spoke Punjabi fluently. It was a perfect plan. We were planning to leave for India late September.
I was in my pajamas in front of the television set when it happened. And I could not move. After mug shots of a turbaned and bearded bin Laden, the president appeared on television and said that the country was united in grief and resolve against the terrorists. But on email lists, I began to hear stories of a divided America as violence against brown-skinned Americans took place in our own city streets. Four days later, on September 15, 2005, there was news that a turbaned Sikh man was killed in a hate crime in Arizona. His name was Balbir Singh Sodhi. He was a friend of family friends in Phoenix. The one who killed him, yelled, “I am a patriot.” His murder felt like the death of an uncle.
I escaped to my bedroom, closed the door, and read all three Harry Potter books. I preferred this black-and-white world to the complexity outside my window. I did not want to claim my place in this world — as an American whose country had become so afraid, or as a college student whose books were of no help, or as a Sikh whose community had become so disempowered.
Then I began to remember. The violence of the Partition was never really documented. Neither were the murders and disappearances of Sikhs in 1984. So too these full stories of hate crimes against Sikh, Muslim, and Arab Americans were not making headlines. I had a camera. I had time. I could document them...
As soon as this thought occurred to me, a thousand doubts overcame me. I was only twenty years old and had no film experience — how was I qualified to do this? I was a third-generation Sikh American born and raised in California and had never experienced such violence myself, who was I to gain their trust? These questions formed a gulf of fear before me, too vast to cross alone.
But I was not alone. My grandfather’s voice came back to me and gave me a central tenant of Sikh scripture: Naam Daan Isnan. In order to connect with God and realize yourself, you must act.
I sat down and wrote an email to my advisor at Stanford, now a beloved friend and mentor, Linda Hess. I told her about the idea and she told me that I was in a position to catch the life of an important historical moment. “Enter the whirlwind,” she said. And I did. Within days, I was on the road in my old silver Honda with my cousin as cameraman. He held the camera, I held the list of questions, and we entered the whirlwind. We captured 130 hours of stories, and the entire journey ended in Punjab, India where I found the heart of America in the words of Balbir Sodhi’s widow.
How did you transform that into a documentary?
I met award-winning filmmaker Sharat Raju at the Spinning Wheel Film Festival in Toronto where he was screening American Made, the first short fictional film about a Sikh American family after 9/11. His film has was seventeen international awards and recently premiered on national television. When he expressed his conviction that my interview footage needed to become a feature-length documentary, I invited him on board as director. Joined by Sharat and his film team, we worked together to made Divided We Fall.
What reaction have you got to the film?
I have been overwhelmed by the resounding response we have received from audiences across the nation. People of all different backgrounds – black, white, Jewish, Muslim, Latino, Asian – stand up and say that the film also tells their community’s story. It is the story of all communities who are struggling to be seen for who they are. At a screening in Bloomington, Illinois, an African-American man pointed to his braids and said, “My braids are my turban.” These gestures of solidarity are truly magnificent. They give me hope.
What do you envision as the future for the film?
We are presently on national tour with the film. We hope to bring the film to the mainstream public through theatrical or television distribution before releasing on DVD. In the mean time, we are developing educational curriculum so that the film may be used as a teaching and dialogue tool in classrooms and communities. We continue to need grassroots support to get the film to a wider audience. Every donation make a big difference in this critical point in the life of the film.
What does the future hold for Valarie Kaur?
I will spend this upcoming year traveling with the film. In fall 2008, I start law school at Yale, where I hope to study civil rights law in post-9/11 America.
Where can people get more information about the showing of the documentary?
You can find our tour schedule, watch movie clips, make a donation, and read reviews from across the country at our official website: http://www.dwf-film.com
You may also access this article through our web-site http://www.lokvani.com/