HDS Student Bears Witness to Stories of Violent Discrimination

On September 15, 2001, a Sikh man named Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot and killed outside his gas station in Mesa, Arizona, by Arizona native Frank Roque. The death of Sodhi is widely thought to be the first "retribution" hate crime committed in the United States after the terror attacks of September 11. The local impact of this inexplicable act of violence left many residents horrified that, in the wake of such national sorrow, a backlash had been perpetrated against an innocent man who was simply getting on with his workday.

After hearing the news that a fellow Sikh had been murdered, Valarie Kaur, then a 20-year-old student at Stanford University (she's now in the second year of the master of theological studies program at HDS), set off across the country with her 18-year-old cousin Sonny Gill, filming and interviewing Sikhs and other people who had been victims of hate crimes. With the help of a financial grant from Stanford, as well as the support of family and friends back home in Clovis, California, Kaur and Gill spent nearly three months compiling roughly 100 hours of video footage, to document the untold stories of Sikh Americans.

This "very rough" footage, as Kaur describes it, was the foundation for her documentary Divided We Fall, which she wrote and, with director Sharat Raju, co-produced.

"This was a very lonely journey after I got back from the road," Kaur said, who returned to Stanford in January 2002 after the initial phase of production. "At that point, I felt that I had been entrusted with the most painful and important stories in people's lives. The stories weren't being covered in the media and weren't being told elsewhere, but here I was. I'd been entrusted with this story, and the violence kept happening."

Her expectations for the documentary were modest. Because of limited resources, Kaur expected her and Sonny's journey would yield roughly an hour-long video. But after Stanford, Kaur traveled and spoke at gurdwaras (Sikh places of worship) in order to raise money for the project. Then, in early 2004, Kaur was invited to screen a rough version of Divided at the Spinning Wheel Film Festival in Toronto. It was there that Kaur met Sharat Raju, 29, who had just graduated from film school and was at the festival to show his own film, American Made, which recently aired on PBS. After reading Kaur's script on a plane back to Los Angeles, Raju decided to join forces with Kaur and add fresh material to the original film.

"He's a real filmmaker!" Kaur said recently of Raju, laughing. "He has a real crew. I had all the material, and he had the skills and together we had a vision."

Panasonic donated a camera. Kodak donated film. And the small 20-something crew worked without pay. Kaur and Raju broadened the scope of the documentary, interviewing scholars and activists, hoping to find answers to their question: Who counts as an American?

In seeking an answer to this question, Kaur, who appears frequently in the film, was faced with the challenge of soliciting emotional stories of backlash and prejudice against her own religious community. "I can't tell you how many people closed their doors on me," she said. "Was it my gender? Was it how I positioned it? Was it my youth?" Then adding after a momentary pause, "It was very hard to convince people to believe in me."

But as Kaur pursues her studies in ethics at HDS, she has found support from her peers and professors. She was able to screen a rough version of Divided for her classmates and professors. "I was able to work out a lot of my ideas within the context of my courses," she said. In addition, the Harvard Pluralism Project, which held an advance screening of the film in May 2006, has donated a few thousand dollars to the project.

On September 15, 2006, five years after Sodhi's murder, and in front of his still-grieving family, members of the press, and citizens from the local community, Divided We Fall had its world premiere in Phoenix. Ten days later, in a full lyceum at the Asian American Center at Tufts University, Divided officially opened in Boston.

It was clear to the 200 or so students and scholars in attendance on that brisk night in Medford that the stories expressed within the film need to be seen and heard widely, especially by Americans who have not been exposed first-hand to the ugly face of violent discrimination within America's cities and towns.