Ever since Jack Kerouac hitchhiked his way across America and wrote his mythical narrative on a single sheet of typewritten paper, artists seem to have decided that the soul of country can be found on its roads. From Steinbeck’sTravels with Charlie to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the hero’s journey through America encompasses landscape and local color in addition to serving as a vehicle for the author’s self-transformation. By default, these narratives, whether explicitly or implicitly, ask questions about America, American values, and American citizens. In the new documentary, Divided We Fall: America in the Aftermath, filmmaker Valarie Kaur asks these questions in light of the most staggering tragedy in recent American history: September 11.
The story of howDivided We Fallwas made is the story of the film itself, with the filmmaker cast as the unwitting star. In 2001, Kaur was an undergraduate at Stanford, ready to travel to India on a research grant to record oral histories about the 1947 partition of India. A week before her flight was scheduled to leave, two planes crashed into the twin towers in New York City. The trip was cancelled. Kaur felt stunned not only by the enormity of the devastation in New York, but by America’s misplaced anger and aggression in the aftermath toward Sikhs, South Asians, and people who vaguely resembled the media’s terrorist stereotype. Kaur is Sikh, and she felt particularly alarmed by the ways her community was demonized and discriminated against by the media and in daily life.
Divided We Fall follows Kaur and her cousin Sunny as they drive across the country with a hand held camera—interviewing people affected by the rash of hate crimes. Kaur is the first to admit she is not a filmmaker, and had no idea what she was doing. Slight, with long hair and dark eyes, she still looks as young as she did in 2001, when she was 20. “My mother bought me a London Fog trench coat like reporters had on TV to make me look older,” she says in a voiceover. Much of the footage from this trip is shaky and has the grainy handmade quality of home movies. You can see America in the intervals between the interviews, the long stretch of asphalt and desert on all sides when they drive to Phoenix, the site of the first fatal hate crime perpetrated after the towers fell, the rainy subway ride out the window from Queens, NY, the home of an elderly Sikh man who was badly beaten hours after New York lay in chaos. Kaur emerges as central to the narrative in reflective voiceovers and (often hilarious) moments with Sunny. “Who,” she asks, “counts as American?”
Interspersed with Kaur’s footage of the initial interviews, many of which took place only a few weeks after the towers fell, are interviews with academics, which provide a broader context for the film. After Kaur graduated from college, she met filmmaker Sharat Raju at a film festival; Raju was intrigued by the project. What started as an academic endeavor which would culminate in a final thesis then became something bigger. Raju decided to take on the film. Together, he and Kaur added the interviews and broadened the scope of the project, looking at the violence against various communities of color as part of a larger cycle of racism and oppression in America. The film as it is now is a constant balancing act, treading between outrage, humor, analysis, and emotion.
Divided We Fall tells the stories of Sikh-Americans in New York chased down hours after the attack for wearing turbans (one, a surgeon, was actually going into the inferno to try and rescue survivors) and victims of hate crimes in California, Phoenix, Texas. It is a sad testament to the film’s subject matter that Sunny, a turban-wearing Sikh American with a dry sense of humor, is harassed on more than one occasion on camera.
If all of this sounds depressing to you, you’re not alone. It’s quite a task to psych yourself up to watch a film that you know you’re going to be crying through, even if the screening includes a delicious luncheon. The Society for Art and Cultural Heritage of India (SACHI) brought Divided We Fall to the Bay Area earlier this summer, where I was able to view the film and meet the filmmakers. Despite the fact that the film deals with material that inspires outrage and hopelessness in its audience, I walked out of the screening feeling hopeful, and even more so, changed, transformed, deeply moved.
Kaur explains it this way: “It’s one thing to be aware of the cycles of violence—how violence begets violence. But that’s only half of the picture. The other half is that acts of forgiveness, courageous acts of forgiveness, can change those cycles of violence. The act of seeing yourself in another is what made me feel hopeful.”
She tells a story about how, after screening the movie in New York, a man stood up at the question and answer session and said, “Just as I have to fight for gay people to come out of the closet, I have to fight for Sikhs to wear their turban.” At another screening, before an all white crowd in Nebraska, the audience stood up and applauded at the end of the film, many with tears in their eyes. “It’s not that we don’t want to connect with people,” Kaur says. “We just don’t have the opportunity to. Change is being built from the ground up, but we will never get there until people can tell their own stories.”
Telling stories is a natural response for Kaur, who says she grew up hearing her grandfather’s stories about Partition. That background was coupled with her childhood in a largely homogenous small town in California, where, she says, many of her close relationships were marred by misunderstandings of her religion and ancestry. Kaur became interested in storytelling as a medium for change: “Whether historically, politically, ethnically, or religiously, I am very invested in raising up the stories of people who have been silenced. The nature of the media right now is to present stories and soundbites that resist complex thinking, and I think that our generation right now has the power, more than any other generation before it, to change that.”
Kaur and Raju are now building a campaign to screen the movie in as many cities as possible in the next couple months, both to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11 and to open up a vital dialogue about race in America before the November elections. Instead of a traditional release, where the film would be shown in a few theaters before going straight to DVD, Kaur and Raju want to put the film in the hands of educators, high schools, colleges, middle schools, and community centers. They have also developed an educational curriculum that along with the film.
Maybe Kerouac was on to something. Indeed, Divided We Fall confirms that the best movies are always journeys. The filmmakers open the car door, and we, the audience, step inside with them. We fasten our seat belts, look out the window. Through questions we find answers, and more questions. What is America, they ask, pointing out wide, endless landscapes filmed with handheld cameras, voices telling American stories, people with dark skin and light. “This,” we think afterwards, blinking in strong afternoon sunshine. “All of this.”
To bring Divided We Fall to your community, contact tour director Jodi Elliot at [email protected] For more information about the film, and to reserve your DVD of Divided We Fall, visit www.dwf-film.com.
|Shruti Swamy is working toward her Masters in Fine Arts in fiction at San Francisco State University.|