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Lighting The Spark For Sikh Filmmaking:
California’s ‘SikhLens: Sikh Arts and Film Festival’







The weekend of November 17-19 this year marked the 15th anniversary of ‘SikhLens: Sikh Arts and Film Festival’ (’SAFF‘) - through its successive manifestations - now known as the world’s premier Sikh film festival.

SAFF is brought together by the SikhLens Foundation, and aims to serve as an outlet for those seeking a platform to share their “Sikh-centric” creations. Along with that, successfully using art as a medium to build awareness about Sikh heritage and religion is what makes SAFF distinctive from other film festivals.

The SikhLens Foundation - in its antecedents and in its current avatar - is over 25 years old, founded by the President and CEO of Future Computing Solutions (FCS), Bicky Singh. Despite his Engineering background, Bicky remained captivated by Sikh films, music and art and decided to use them to create a recognition for his religion, which is sometimes confused with Islam and Hinduism in the United States.

Bicky started producing art calendars centred around Sikhism and loaned his collection of Sikh art to renowned galleries. The aftermath of 9/11 saw Sikh-Americans at the receiving end of hate crimes, their turbans oft confused with Arab and Muslim attire by an uninformed and careless media.

While discussing the same with a few of his friends in Hollywood, Bicky realised that Sikhi had close to zero representation in the film and media industry. Inspired by pioneering The Spinning Wheel Film Festival based in Toronto and with its assistance, the idea of a full-fledged film festival in Los Angeles was born.

What started off as a half-day film festival in LA with less than a hundred attendees, today runs for four days and is attended by 4000-4500 people every year.

“We had over 660 film submissions this year,” states Bicky Singh.

The Opening Night of the festival this year was held at Chapman University’s Leatherby Libraries on 16 November, followed by dinner at the University’s Fish Interfaith Center. It was also the inauguration of a Sikh exhibition which the library will host until 15 January, 2018.

The exhibit, open to the public, is titled ‘Sikh Turban and Identity’ and features portraits and stories of Sikhs embedded in contemporary American society in the fifteen years since 9/11.

The weekend that followed was brimming with activities for children, youth and adults alike. On Friday, November 17, an Animation Workshop was conducted for children while the adults watched ‘Tiger’, a feature film based on the real-life story of Pardeep Singh Nagra, a Sikh-Canadian boxer who was denied an opportunity to represent Canada in the Olympics because of his beard, and article of faith for all practising Sikh males. [The rule was subsequently changed in order to accommodate Sikh boxers, after intense pressure world wide.]

The red carpet event held at Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Art also screened a special presentation of ‘All Quiet on the Homefront’, a 25-minute student thesis film. It portrayed the true story of Bhagat Singh Thind, a Sikh-American soldier who fought for the United States in World War I, only to return home and find that a new law revoking citizenship from all non-caucasians was in effect and required him to be deported from the country.

The screenings were followed by a Q&A session with the filmmakers of both films.

On Saturday, numerous short films and documentaries were screened revolving around various aspects of life in Sikhi. Among these were those created by Dodge College film students enrolled in the Project S and Destination S programs initiated by the SikhLens Foundation in collaboration with Chapman University.

Under these programs, students of the film school travel to locations all over the world to film Sikh-themed films. The day also featured two panel discussions - ‘Creative Sikhs’ and ‘Defense Directive‘.

‘Creative Sikhs’ was a Q&A with those in the community proactive in creative fields such as Audio, Visual, Fashion, Sports, Entertainment and Art. It gave the audience an intimate opportunity to get acquainted with their stories and ask them about their challenges and successes.

The panel included boxer Pardeep Singh Nagra, actor Prem Singh, Artist-illustrator Amandeep “Inkquisitve” Singh and Singer-Songwriter Maya Batra.

‘Defense Directive’ constituted a discussion on the intolerance of the American military services towards diversity and religious accommodation. This panel featured Lieutenant Colonel Kamal Singh Kalsi, the first Sikh-American in a generation allowed to serve in the American Army with his articles of faith intact.

Two more workshops, one that taught Boxing by Pardeep Singh and the other that taught drawing by Inkquisitive’s Amandeep Singh kept children entertained for the day. Two feature films, ‘The Black Prince’ and ‘Lahoriye’ were also screened.

The screening of short films continued on the last day of the festival, with one segment showcasing films that focused particularly on the social issues faced by the Sikh diaspora in the present day.

Two feature films, ‘Rabb Da Radio’ and ‘Sardar Mohammad’ were screened and another art workshop for children was conducted by Raj Singh Tattal - the “Pentacular Artist.”

This year, the annual concert that the festival usually ends with was rescheduled for Spring 2018, which according to Bicky, was “a good decision as it gave us a surplus of 6-7 hours to feature more content.”

Seeing the audience interact with the filmmakers and artists on a first-hand basis is something that every volunteer of the festival is proud of. However, Festival Chair and Director Ravin Kaur Kohli thinks that the most significant aspect of this festival is what it does for the youth.

“Through this festival, SikhLens gives young Sikh children a place to mingle outside of typical settings like gurdwaras and family gatherings. They get the chance to see and hear stories of people who look like them on-screen. Having workshops in a small setting gives them the opportunity to interact one-to-one with artists who look familiar to them. These experiences are priceless. Young filmmakers have told me that SikhLens has inspired and helped them in their journey of being and becoming filmmakers. That makes me feel insanely proud, I didn’t realise that was happening!”

As for Bicky Singh, he seemed to be pleased with everything including the turnout which touched 4,000 people this year.

“The only disappointment I have is that we received 20 plus feature-length, good documentaries, but had no room to feature them all!” he said, adding that the festival committee had already started working on how to accommodate the same next year.

December 30, 2017


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