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New York 9th Sikh International Film Festival 2012, (SIFF)

Film Festival 2012

With its program reduced to one day due to hurricane Sandy, the Sikh Art & Film Foundation presented 15 productions on November 3rd at the Asia society including several short films and documentaries which had their US or world premiere . In spite of New York’s transportation problems the late afternoon and evening screenings enjoyed a full house. Though India has a thriving domestic   and Diaspora film industry, comparatively few productions are made which are either aimed at the Sikh audience or have Sikh themes.  Yet even if more films were available the expense of screening facilities in New York would make it difficult to extend the program to more days.  This community oriented festival serves to share with its audience traditional Sikh values and norms as well as contemporary issues and life styles. Outreach to other groups is also important.

            Thus there is a clear educational goal of reinforcing   these norms but also to share with outsiders knowledge about the culture and beliefs of this little known religious community though it constitutes the fifth largest religion of the world.  What transpired in the films selected  are guiding principles of the Sikh  faith such as tolerance, opposition to violence, honesty,  social equality and compassion to name but a few. After all Sikh means “seeker of truth”.

            Among noteworthy productions were Humble the Poet    by Brendan Nahmias and Ruth Paul on a Sikh hip-hop artist in Canada who bridges two cultures in his immigrant experience but sustains his identity as a modern Sikh.  Namrata directed by Shazia Javed   provides a touching portrait of a woman in Canada enduring physical and psychological abuse by her husband and in-laws over six years.  She had come from Punjab as a young woman in an arranged marriage.  After leaving him she joins the police force. Namrata depicts how traditional mores reinforced by a tight community can immure and oppress women.  In the short Kartiviya by Harkirat Singh, a New York cab driver adheres to honesty, though his deceiving passenger has opposite values. In Beyond the Garden’s Wall   the director David Gray reconstructs the fate of an early 1900 Sikh community which settled in British Columbia. It depicts hardship   caused by restrictive legislation but also the resilience and success of the descendents of four families the film maker tracked down.  In The Visionary   by Michael Singh we follow the rags to riches story of a Sikh immigrant business man in the United States who uses his wealth by setting up clinics in his native village to prevent blindness in a country which has about half of all blind people in the world. Oak Creek   ( Valerie Kaur/ Sharat Raju) and We Are Sikhs  (Armardeep Kaleka ) are short films devoted to the Oak Creek  murder of  six people attending a Sikh temple service this August. The films were produced in the spirit of forgiveness for the US army veteran carrying out the murder who apparently assumed that the Sikhs were Muslims. A public service campaign BE PROUD co-sponsored by the RadiumOne and SIFF was announced during the closing ceremony which will bring anti-hate messages to Americans.

            Some films demonstrated the persecution of Sikh by other religious groups.  Jarnail Singh has in Injustice 1984 a fact based case study of individuals killed or harmed during the 1984 Sikh genocide, which included well organized acts of violence against Sikhs in northern India with more than 3000 deaths. The perpetrators of the crime were never prosecuted, in part because Indian authorities were involved in organizing the pogrom.  The Sikhs of Kabul  by Bobby Singh Bansal  shows  a small impoverished  community of less than a thousand Sikhs who cannot afford to leave Afghanistan as close to 60 000 other Sikhs did who left for India in the preceding decade.  They suffer from discrimination, unemployment, lack of basic services, such as education for their children, and are only kept going by the strong sense of community.  It is ironic that the Indian Government does not help or expatriate them, though its embassy in Kabul has been bombed several times and India has provided close to an estimated $ 1 billion development assistance to Afghanistan.  A BBC film Remembrance: The Sikh Story documents the essential contributions of Sikh soldiers to saving Great Britain and helping to achieve victories in both world wars and closed the program. The production had superb archival footage and is also noteworthy because it was somehow critical about Britain’s failures afterwards. To wit, the Sikhs’ contribution was not rewarded with a shift in colonial policies after both wars; to the country they became more stringent. In the Amritsar 1919 Sikh demonstrations against repressive British laws close to 400 unarmed civilians, mostly women and children were killed by the colonial powers.  In today’s Britain official military history seems to minimize the role of the Sikh soldiers yet a good soldier program has been developed to recruit in Sikh neighborhoods for the British army. After all the fighting spirit of the Sikh soldier who never surrenders is superior to that of the Brits.

As an educational endeavor the Sikh film Festival certainly achieved its objective and I hope that a longer program is offered next year.


Claus Mueller

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