Can you tell us a little about the film?
“A Dream in Doubt” is about Rana Sodhi’s journey as he deals with his brother’s murder—the first post-9/11 revenge killing. Rather than isolating himself and his family, Rana strives to educate others about the Sikh American community even in the face of continued hate crimes in his hometown of Phoenix, AZ. In the end, Rana shows us that hope is stronger than hate. His is ultimately an uplifting story about the survival of the American dream.
How you got started on it?
TAMI: At the time of the 9/11 terror attacks, I was close friends with the film’s co-producer Preet, a turban-wearing Sikh-American. Preet was experiencing the stares and threats, and at the same time, his day job was to respond to violent attacks and civil rights infringements that were happening nationally. Through Preet’s experiences and other friends’ accounts, I learned about the fear and pain that the Sikh, Arab, Muslim, and South Asian communities were feeling because of the hateful intolerance of their neighbors.
Born many years after the Japanese internment camps, and as the child of early civil rights’ activists, I felt strongly that we couldn’t sit by and watch as America turned back the clock. At the same time, I assumed that somebody else would tell the story and that a national dialogue would surely take hold. But two years after Balbir’s murder and several hundred hate crimes later, most American’s still knew little about this new epidemic. It was at this point that I decided to contact the Sodhis. The trial was coming up so it was perfect timing. Preet and I, along with other key project supporters, began the long process of fundraising. CAAM was one of the first funders to come on board, adding the legitimacy we needed to garner additional support.
PREET: My involvement with the film owes to my collaboration and friendship with Tami. I’ve known her for nearly 10 years and worked on a previous film project with her. Since I had been involved with the Sikh community in the Bay Area, Sikh families asked me to speak to their children’s classrooms after 9/11 because of the bullying and harassment their children were experiencing. In order to create more systemic change in classrooms, we collaborated to produce an educational media project called “The Sikh Next Door” for use in classrooms across the country.
With this experience, we felt we could gain access to the Sodhi family to tell their story. When Tami contacted the Sodhis in May 2003, she learned that another member of the Sikh community had recently been shot in an apparent hate crime. At this point, we knew there was no turning back.
Your film screened at Slamdance in 2006 as well as the SFIAAFF. How have those experiences been?
PREET: After four years of work, it’s been heartening to hear audience reactions at the festivals. One of my fears while we were making the film was that audiences would be emotionally drained after screenings, but it’s been really gratifying to hear that viewers find the film inspirational, hopeful and really timely. Plus, having my family and friends attend the SFIAAFF, see the film for the first time, and meet Rana was really special.
TAMI: It was incredibly meaningful to sit in the theater as people embraced Rana’s experience by crying and laughing at many poignant moments, even some that I hadn’t anticipated. Rana attended both festivals, and after the screening in Park City, several people approached him with tears and hugs, thanking him for sharing his experience. I have so much respect for Rana’s courage and perseverance that it was an honor stand with him.
What have some of the challenges been in getting the film made and seen?
PREET: In addition to the fundraising challenges faced by most independent filmmakers, it took a lot of work to address some of the language issues and edit the film down to one hour.
TAMI: Dealing with 9/11 was inherently complicated. Because everyone in the audience has a uniquely personal connection to the events of that day, we knew that it could easily feel like yesterday’s news. Ironically, it was much harder to pitch the story in the first few years after 9/11. As time passed, people increasingly understood that this was a story about something much larger, and not another dated “9/11 doc.”
What has the general reaction been from the Mesa, Arizona community, both Sikh and non-Sikh?
TAMI: We are still arranging the local premiere. A few people in the film have traveled to
see it at festivals. Jim Walsh, the reporter who covered Balbir’s murder trial, wrote a
great article about the experience of being in a film at Slamdance. The Sodhis have told
me they feel it reflects their experience honestly, and Rana has high hopes that it will
help prevent future hate crimes. The film screened in Tucson at the Arizona Film Festival
and it was awarded “Best Documentary.”
Do either of you have a highlight or favorite moment from any of the festival screenings?
PREET: As someone who has worked in public education (from elementary to high school), one of my favorite moments was screening as part of the Festivals in the Schools at SFIAAFF. With more than 150 students in the audience, I was worried about their attention span and whether it would be too heavy for them. My concerns were definitely unwarranted because the students were attentive and asked really insightful questions afterwards. They wanted to know why they didn’t hear about the Sodhi family’s story in the mainstream media; why their teachers didn’t show films like ours in school; and how they could create media to tell their own families’ stories. Perhaps most surprisingly, several students stayed after the Q&A to ask about our experience in making the film and about the Sodhi family—despite the fact that school had been dismissed for the day and it was a glorious afternoon in San Francisco.
TAMI: I agree with Preet. There have been many outstanding moments, but for me, it is always a highlight when Rana is able to join us for the Q&A. He is frequently asked why he doesn’t harbor vengeance, and I love his answer. You can hear a pin drop in the room while he gathers his words and says something like, “I may have lost my two brothers in this country, but I have gained a hundred more because of the support we received.” There is always a collective sigh of emotion from the audience.
Any advice for filmmakers in promoting their films?
TAMI: I would encourage filmmakers to advocate fearlessly and relentlessly for their films. This doesn’t always come naturally, especially for documentary makers who are accustomed to being quiet, fly-on-the-wall observers. Also, I recommend preparing your ideal distribution plan while making the film.
PREET: I’ve found my network—personal and professional—to be really supportive. I’d recommend that filmmakers get these cheerleaders involved to promote screenings and solicit ideas from this core group about how they think the film could continue to have legs.
What do you want viewers to take from this film?
TAMI: I want the film to personalize the experience of intolerance and discrimination. I hope the film will educate audiences about the impact of hate crimes on communities, inspire discussions about what it means to be American, and generate dialogue about immigration and identity.
PREET: While the stories of James Byrd, Vincent Chin, and Matthew Shepard have been immortalized through films, Balbir Singh Sodhi is still unknown to most Americans. Now that “A Dream in Doubt” is complete, I hope the Sodhi family can add another patch to the American quilt.
In what ways do you feel CAAM has supported or contributed to the success of the film?
TAMI: I love CAAM! The wonderful people who work at CAAM have done so much to support this project. From the early financial investment to the continued moral support and organizational advice, I can’t say enough about the contributions of CAAM.
PREET: I agree, CAAM has been awesome. In addition to funding and script support, CAAM has shown me that they are truly a pan-Asian organization. Within a large segment of my South Asian American community, I still see an erroneous perception that East Asians and South Asians are too different to take collective action. I take exception to that because American history and my own experiences have demonstrated that the entire pan-Asian American community must collaborate to tell our stories. CAAM continues to be at the fore-front of breaking down these silos.
What are you up to next? Any projects in the works?
TAMI: We are currently building out the educational campaign and companion materials for “A Dream in Doubt.” I’m developing a few documentary projects, including a personal film about the underdevelopment of a rural farming town in southern Indiana where my father grew up.
PREET: I’m really looking forward to continuing to travel with the film and present it at campuses, conferences, and communities. Our experience with screenings so far has demonstrated that there is appropriate distance from the September 11th attacks to talk about identity, national security, hate crimes, immigration, and religious pluralism in a post-9/11 world.