Sponsored by the Sikh Art & Film Foundation, the Sikh International Film Festival was held in New York City for the tenth time on May 2 – 3. As reflected in the selection, the foundation’s mission is to use films to make Sikh culture and values accessible to a larger public; with the goal of overcoming preconceptions and prejudice which the Sikh community has been experiencing. The festival also serves to raise awareness about the issues and problems the Sikhs face here and in India and to provide a platform for productions investigating Sikh history. Since September 2011 an estimated 700 hate crimes had the Sikhs as their target in the United States, including six Sikhs killed at their temple in August 2012. In India, wide scale violence against the Sikhs erupted in 1984 in response to Indira Ghandi’s killing by two Sikh body guards. Thousands were slain in New Delhi and throughout India with virtually no legal action taken. Politicians and police officials just let it happen. The depiction of the 1984 events and their aftermath were topics of several productions in this year’s festival; as were issue oriented shorts and documentaries ranging from the problems the elderly faced when living without family support to impoverished farming.
The Punjab drug problem, as depicted in the closing feature Empty Inside, bookended the opening documentary Dilip Singh Saund. This well researched documentary presents the biography of the first foreign born Congressman from Asia. He came to the United States when he was twenty and was elected to Congress in 1957, serving three terms. As a Sikh he overcame many obstacles in his illustrious life. The production provides a wealth of information about the systematic discrimination of Asians in the United States lasting until the late nineteen forties.
The Last Killing, directed by Satinder Kauer, is a documentary produced by ENCAAF, an international human rights non-profit organization. After the killing of Indira Gandhi in 1984 the Indian parliament enacted in 1985 the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities act which granted extraordinary powers to the police to arrest and persecute while suspending existing legal safeguards. This act was aimed at alleged Sikh terrorism and opened the ‘Decade of Disappearance” in which thousands of Sikhs were killed or disappeared. The police and other Indian security forces routinely staged encounters with alleged Sikh terrorists in order to kill them. The film tracks over a twenty year period the attempt to bring policemen to justice. Manak, who served in a special police unit, was an eyewitness to his section carrying out the murder of dozens of Sikhs. He left the police force to report the crime but no investigation was initiated even though the law required it. Two decades have passed and the opening of the investigation was recently denied by an Indian high court. Manak, as well as close relatives, was tortured by the police on suspicion of being close to the alleged terrorists. With the help of ENCAAF he continues to pursue the case, but prospects of success are slim because the police have been able to delay the case and the judicial system appears dormant. Further, the possible election of a conservative prime mister with strong Hindu leanings does not give cause for optimism, though the Supreme Court is independent and includes some liberal members. The Last Killing received the SIFF award for best documentary.
Raw Conversations is a segment from the currently produced documentary Farmicide which addresses the problems of Indian farmers. Working on small plots, in the last decade they have experienced increases in the cost of productions and dramatic decline of their real income resulting in heavy debt load and several hundred thousand suicides. As the commentary of the segment screened shows, primary beneficiaries of this policy driven development are money lenders, politicians, middlemen and large corporations providing seeds and fertilizers. Impoverished farmers lose their land and become day laborers. The segment received a special mention at the festival. Raw Conversation is impressive because its focus is an impoverished farmer who clearly articulates the insurmountable problems he and all the villagers in his situation are facing.
In addition to the Emmy for best student drama, Kush, by Shubashish Bhutiami, was the only Indian film at the 2013 Venice film festival that received there the award of best short film. At SIFF it was also judged the best short film, given its superb finely tuned but unsentimental narrative. A school teacher saves the life of a young Sikh boy when returning on a bus from a school trip. An enraged mob, killing Sikhs, attacks the bus and the boy cuts his hair to save his class mates and teacher. When the boy arrives at home he finds his parents slaughtered.
In Punjab, drug problems are rampant and about 75% of the youth is addicted to drugs. The drug problem is a principal concern of the Sikh community constituting about 60% of that state’s population. There are a few publicly run drug rehabilitation facilities and private ones are driven by profit considerations. Few observers expect an improvement since drugs shipped in from Pakistan are readily available and synthetic ones are manufactured locally. Law enforcement agencies appear impotent. Most drug use among the young is prompted by poverty, unemployment and lack of education. Since addicts are isolated from their families, they cannot count on the crucial support of family if they enter rehabilitation at all. Further, they return to the very setting which prompted drug abuse. The feature, Empty Inside, directed by Satdeep Singh and produced by an Australian organization concluded the festival. It graphically depicts the descent into drug addiction of a young student from an upscale urban Sikh family. He is ejected from his home because he tarnished the family name and eventually recuperates under the guidance of a religious man. In the end his parents embrace him again and allow his return. The feature suggests that an inner void prompts addiction and that a solution for the drug problem is parental love and the Sikh faith.
The number of films produced by Sikhs in India or from the diaspora or made by others on Sikh themes is small and the selection follows an educational route. That being said, the 2014 edition of the festival assembled sufficient material for an impressive two day program. With a greater outreach effort to film makers and the audience over the next year should produce a larger fest in 2015.