Filmmaker sought victims' responses

A film documentary examining post-9/11 prejudices and violence in America will be screened Friday at the Columbia County Library.

"Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath" documents hate crimes against Sikhs, Muslims and others following the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York.

Sikhism is a religion originating in India that requires its male followers to wear turbans as an article of faith.

Conceived by Valarie Kaur while a student at Stanford University, the film follows Ms. Kaur on her travels to 14 American cities and Punjab, India, where she interviewed victims of hate crimes.

Ms. Kaur, a third-generation Sikh American, currently is touring with the film to community centers, universities and film festivals across the U.S.

"Divided We Fall" will be shown at 7 p.m. in the Jabez Sanford Hardin Performing Arts Center in the library at 7022 Evans Town Center Boulevard.

Ms. Kaur answered the following questions about her documentary.

Q: How has your film changed attitudes toward Arab-Americans by those who have seen it?

A: The film seems to tear open a space for radical and honest reflection and dialogue among our audiences. People share their own experiences about when they too have felt as outsiders, when they have stood as allies for others, or even when they have failed to see the humanity of another person. Oftentimes, people confess feeling afraid when they saw men with turbans after Sept. 11. The film helps them own their prejudices and creates a sense that we all have a stake in the struggle to be seen for how we see ourselves.

Perhaps the most profound transformations have happened with children. After seeing the film, a 12-year-old girl in Boston shared, "After Sept. 11, everyone thought people with turbans and beards were terrorists. Even I thought that way." She pauses for a moment. "And now I don't." After another screening, when a turbaned college student walked to the back of the theater, he met the eyes of a 10-year-old girl in the audience. She looked up at him and smiled. That alone brought him to tears. That single moment of recognition is where social transformation begins.

Q: Would you recount some instances where you personally felt threatened or afraid following 9-11?

A: In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when I set across the country at 20 years old, the camera turned 180 degrees on my turbaned cousin and me as people yelled at us to go home. Whether in the car or on the street or at the train station, people ... yelled "Go back to your country." My family had been rooted in America for nearly 100 years. It was the first time I saw myself through the eyes of others who saw me as foreign, suspect, and un-American. That experience shaped my coming-of-age. If my journey ended there, this hatred would have left me embittered, but the journey pressed on. I soon discovered that all of us have experienced what it is like to feel like an outsider.

Q: What was the one story you heard on your travels that most affected you and why?

A: After touring with the film to nearly 100 campuses and communities in 60 cities across America ... I am most moved by the one common story I keep hearing from my audiences. People of all different backgrounds โ€” black, white, Jewish, Muslim, Latino, Asian โ€” stand up and say that the film also tells their community's story: a shared struggle for recognition. Our common story is what gives me hope.

Q: How exhaustive was your filming and research to put Divided We Fall together?

A: The project was deeply exhaustive: 130 hours of footage, two cross-country road trips, four years of research, an undergraduate and master's thesis, nine months in the editing room, and tens of thousands of dollars raised through grassroots donations. Nearly every one on my team were 20-somethings making their first feature film; working for free. We all came from different religious and racial backgrounds to create this story because we believed it needed to be told. The making of the film itself is a testament to what is possible when people reach deep into hate and violence in order to transform it.

Q: What conclusions were you able to draw from your experience making this film?

A: We are wired to divide the world into "us" verses "them," but at the same time, our stories have the power to break down the walls dividing us. Stories can make us human to one another. Stories can save us. We need our government, media, law enforcement and schoolteachers to stand against hate and promote an ethic of compassion, but more than anything, we need to cultivate the courage to share our stories. In stories, we recognize ourselves in one another.

As for myself ... I have learned that I don't have to be a victim to violence; a victim to the death and despair always on the evening news. I am empowered to respond to it, as are all of us who can envision something better than this.