Sikh Film Festival in New York
The Abohar-Jodhpur passenger train, which snakes through Punjab towns like Pakki and Malout, picks up at least 60 people in Bhatinda as it goes through Haryana and Bikaner before reaching its destination. The 60 men and women who disembark at Bikaner are mostly agricultural workers or their kin in Punjab who either have cancer or are going for a check up.
“This film Cancer Express is very much a Sikh subject, but like so many other films we have been showing at the Sikh Film Festival in the last six years, this too has a larger story,” says Paul Johar, a physician who is the chairman of the annual festival held in New York. “Indians across the country suffer from the consequences of industrial pollution and pesticides as in Punjab. But this happened in Punjab, a very prosperous state. Another film we are showing — Harvest of Grief, directed by Anwar Jamal — is also connected to the theme of Cancer Express. It shows how farmers in Punjab were driven to despair, how they became heavy borrowers and destitute, with many committing
The Sikh Art & Film Foundation, which sponsors the festival, helped filmmaker Reema Anand in the post-production of Cancer Express.
‘The cotton belt, which gave life to many after the green revolution, suddenly turned into a monster, gobbling up many an innocent life,’ Anand says in the production notes. ‘The villagers could not understand the changed ecology and health scenario… Several deaths occurred in every village. As many as three generations were wiped out in single homes.’
For a long time, she says, doctors could not diagnose the cause. Then patients began going to Acharya Tulsi Regional Cancer Treatment and Research Institute in Bikaner. According to scientist Ajay Tripathi, working with the Kheti Virasat Mission, spraying pesticides year after year had resulted in the poisoning of the water table.
The government is still reluctant to acknowledge the truth, Anand says, adding that in one village 20 people have died from pesticide-related cancer. ‘Young men, who should have been helping their fathers retire, are being carried on the Cancer Train to Bikaner by their parents,’she says.
“Films of this nature can resonate with the audiences anywhere,” Johar says. “They have appeal not only in India, but also with anyone who is worried about the harm we face because of pollution.”
Another film that received a grant is Michael Singh’s Uncommon Journeys, focusing on four Sikhs with unusual career choices.
The annual film festival not only looks at contemporary issues affecting the community across the globe, but also explores the well-known and little-known stories from Sikh history,” says Teji Singh Bindra, president, SAFF. For instance, Michael’s feature film Rebel Queen is a story of betrayal and identity loss set against the historic happenings in Punjab and England mostly in the second half of the 19th century.
The festival also gives away $15,000 in prizes. “The amount may not be big, but it is an incentive,” Johar says. “We hope when the economy improves, we will be able to produce a film each year, help short film and documentary makers, and increase the prize amount.” Each year dozens of new and established filmmakers from across the world, especially India, the United Kingdom, Canada and America seek funding, he says, adding “They know we have limited resources, but they are so passionate about their work, they keep on trying.”
One filmmaker wants to make a documentary about a group of Sikh soldiers sent to defend the British border with Afghanistan in the 19th century “They knew they were not going to come back and their fears came true,” he says. Flying Sikhs — A History of Sikh Fighter Pilots, produced by the SAFF last year, has travelled to many film festivals. Directed by Navdeep Kandola, it offered a lively history of the Sikh pilots who contributed to British success in World War I and World War II. ‘The history of the Sikhs who flew in the Royal Flying Core, the Royal Air Force and the Indian Air Force has been forgotten,’ Kandola wrote in the production notes. ‘Yet their bravery was recognized widely by the military and the public during the dark days of the London Blitz by the Nazis and the brutal Japanese invasion from the East.’
It also told the story of the first Indian pilot who had sought to enlist with the British in WWI, Hardit Singh Malik. After the British rejected him, he sought to fight with the French air force. The only Indian pilot to survive the war, he went on to become PM of Patiala before Indian independence and high commissioner to Canadaand France after that.
“We are incredibly proud of this film,” Bindra says. While some of the festival dig into history, short films such as Raising the Count made by Rick Lin, look at history in the making. The film follows the SEVA Immigrant Community Advocacy Project as they work to raise the response rates of the under-represented communities of Richmond Hill for the United States census 2010.
‘The film gives viewers a glimpse into the trials and tribulations of being community organizers,’ the filmmaker says. ‘It follows them through the task of educating the community about their rights to be represented and their right to a better life in the country that they call their home. It delves into the psyche of the community organizers to understand what drives them and why they do the work they do.’