[20 May 2008]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“In America, there’s a lot of opportunity.” Seeking just that, in 1985, the five Sodhi brothers began emigrating from India, each establishing his own life, career, and family. On September 11, their lives, like so many in their adopted country, changed forever. But even as the Sodhis were, like other Americans, feeling afraid and anxious after the attacks, they were also feeling targeted—and not by Muslim terrorists.
The first few moments of A Dream in Doubt show why, in menacing graffiti (“Kill Muslims 9/11”) and TV reports that underlined the “difference” embodied by the bearded and turbaned Osama bin Laden. Though Rana Sodhi and his brothers are Sikh, and had in fact left Punjab in order to escape persecution, they were now affiliated in unknowing, fearful minds with the “terrorists.” A series of photos reveals the effects on men wearing turbans, their faces smashed and broken, now become evidence in crimes that may or may not be solved. On 15 September 2001, Rana’s oldest brother Balbir was shot and killed in Mesa, Arizona. Rana’s nine-year-old son Satpreet describes what happened: “My uncle was talking to some people at his gas station, some man came up and shot him.”
While Satpreet expresses a child’s grief and wonder at what’s happened, the adults around him, primarily Rana, struggle what it means to live in America. Though the family came to the States in search of the usual celebrated freedoms—of religion, mobility, ambition, and community—here they were confronting violent persecution premised on fear, ignorance, and racism. The disappointment is almost unspeakable, though Rana’s brother Harjit makes this effort, in fractured yet utterly coherent English: “Our second heaven was here in America, It’s so neat and clean, a place people respect human, they love each other.”
Airing on PBS’ Independent Lens at 10pm on 20 May, A Dream in Doubt observes this struggle as it becomes increasingly complicated. It turns out that the suspect in Balbir’s murder, Frank Roque, proceeded after that shooting to shoot at two other targets, a gas station owned by Lebanese Americans and a home owned by Afghan Americans. Though he did not kill anyone else, the shell casings and descriptions of his car help detectives identify him.
Difficulties ensue. First, another one of the Sodhi brothers, this one a cab driver in San Francisco, is shot and dies in a horrific car wreck. Though investigators there doubt that Sukhpal was a hate crime victim (instead, they decide, he was caught in the way of a “regular” gang fight), the Sodhis must still figure what to make of the concept of “American justice.” They never complain, but the film lays out by understated observation (including local news reports and courtroom footage) the difficulties of the legal case against Roque. Though his shooting spree was preceded by declarations of his intent to “shoot some towelheads,” the case is prolonged as he pleads insanity. Coworkers describe him as a “ticking time bomb” and his own attorney notes that for years Roque’s “mental illness… was just bubbling beneath the surface of his being,” while he ought to “treat it with a daily six pack of beer.” But even as Roque suggests that his attack was a function of too much TV (specifically, too much coverage of the Towers falling on September 11), the Sodhi family and other Sikhs face a daunting lack of coverage and communication. Though the police encourage them to call whenever they feel threatened, one especially long night of repeated phone calls reveals that dialing 911 doesn’t always produce desired results.
Sikh community members hold meetings and join with the Anti Defamation League to march in unity. “Racism, bigotry,” says Phoenix regional ADL director Bill Strauss, “It’s a disease that is always looking for an opening, it’s a virus that’s always looking for a host.” The demonstration, Rana says, walking in matching t-shirts with his son, will “give the people the real picture of America, when we all togethers, in unity. Different religions, different people when we all get together, the people who are ignorant, they will see what’s America, what’s American people.”
This assessment runs up against images of Roque, his wife (during a police interrogation), his devastated daughter on the stand, and an interview with William Courtney, the bouncer at a bar where Roque and others gathered to declare outrage over 9/11. Courtney’s own appraisal is dismally telling. He recalls that Roque and others in the bar were fired up, that “anybody with a turban on their head was a target, and you find out where the guy’s from and that’d be a little different situation if he’s from the country that got together and did it, that’d be a little different story.” Here the bouncer inserts how he’d handle such a misinterpretation. “I wouldn’t go out there and shoot ‘em,” he says, “I’d go beat the hell out of ‘em, something. But not shoot ‘em and kill ‘em, cause what you gonna do then? You gonna be up the creek without a paddle.”
A Dream in Doubt grants the bouncer his say without overt commentary. But as he appears after Roque’s wife (who remembers her husband being angry at “the Iranians, the ones that wear what you call ‘em, the turbans”) and before a sequence showing a 9/11 anniversary on TV. As Rana shakes his head in dismay, President Bush reads, “We remember lives lost, we remember the compassion, the decency of our fellow citizens on that terrible day.” But we do not remember, apparently, the deleterious effects of patriotism, rage, and willful ignorance, the ways that calls for vengeance can incite more aggression, cruelty, and condemnation. The cycle feeds doubts about the dream that the Sodhis so earnestly pursue.