Chapman documentarians go abroad to ‘Seek Sikhs’

Jordyn Romero documenting Sikhs in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo courtesy Jordyn Romero.

Last summer, 14 Chapman documentary students sat on a transatlantic flight, headed to the United Kingdom. When the students landed, they had 10 days to film documentaries about people of the Sikh religion, a trip they had planned for during the spring semester but were still unprepared for upon arriving. After a week and a half of “seeking the Sikhs,” as the students call it, they returned home with wisdom and gratitude.

“To open your mind up to a different thing that you’re not comfortable with is such a rewarding experience,” said junior news and documentary major Spencer Santini. “Sikhs devote themselves to helping other people, and not a lot of people know because of discrimination.”

The students were divided into groups that produced two documentaries about Sikhs in Scotland and England. They received international documentary scholarships from the SikhLens Foundation, which is funded by Ik Manzil, a group of Sikhs activists, the Bhathal family and other patrons. Guided by their documentary production professor, Jeff Swimmer, the students followed the stories of Sikhs in Bradford, London, and Edinburgh. On Nov. 18, the completed documentaries will screen at the 15th annual SikhLens Film Festival at the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts.

Bicky Singh, the founder of the SikhLens Foundation, is the president and CEO of Future Computing Solutions, Inc. in Yorba Linda, California. He has lived in Orange, California, for 30 years, is a father of three, a husband and a philanthropist who always looks to see how he can give back to his Sikh community. Singh emphasizes that the media is powerful, and the average uninformed person will absorb the images flashed at them and assume a person who wears a turban, like Singh, is a terrorist he said.

“From that standpoint, I think these (documentary) students learn that there is a lot more compassion and greatness under a Sikh’s identity,” Singh said.

When Sikhs became the targets of hate crimes, it became apparent to Singh that Sikh stories were not being accurately told even though the community that has lived in the U.S. for more than a century. To help tell these Sikh stories, he founded the SikhLens Film Festival in 2002, which quickly gained a following, but it wasn’t the media exposure that he and the SikhLens Foundation wanted, he said.

Spencer Santini films Harleen Kaur and her mother. Photo courtesy Spencer Santini.

So they decided to start a scholarship program in a film school so that students could one day have key positions in filmmaking, Singh said. By becoming more comfortable with Sikh stories, producers may green light these types of subject matters in the future, which would expand media representation of Sikhs, Singh said.

After speaking with film schools based in Los Angeles, Singh realized he was overlooking one not far from where he lived.

In 2012, with the help of Dodge College of Film and Media Arts Dean Bob Bassett, Singh started a small scholarship of $2,500 a year. It has since grown into a full program of $100,000 a year. The program takes place over the spring, summer and fall semesters and is called Project “S,” with “S” standing for Sikh. The budget covers the cost of travel, production, post-production, and marketing.

Swimmer has taught the international documentary class since 2012 and still enjoys watching the students absorb a new worldview.

“I love to be with students in the field and just see their eyes and hearts open and their curiosity blossom,” Swimmer said. “Making sense of the unfamiliar. That is the heart of learning.”

Santini filmed two documentaries in Bradford, England. One is about 17-year-old Harleen Kaur, who is a martial artist and a leader in her community. Kaur travels to India to give cancer tests to women and advocates for self-defense and gender equality.

“If she’s doing this now, what is she going to be doing in 10 years?” Santini said.

The second documentary is about Raj Singh Tattal, a pencil and graphite artist who creates lifelike drawings. Santini’s group discovered that he struggled with depression for 12 years and was diagnosed with autism at age 38. He inserted his perfectionism into his art which helped him work through his depression. In Bradford, Santini’s group experienced what the inside of a Sikh place of worship, called a gurdwara.

“Every day, nonstop in every gurdwara, (Sikhs) are cooking for people that can’t afford to eat or are homeless, and they will feed them whether they are Sikh or not. And that to me is how I think of them. They’re such loving, caring, good people,” Santini said.

Junior news and documentary major Jordyn Romero’s group traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, to film.

“I learned that Sikhs are inspired by equality and that drives all of their actions and their willingness to help anyone, no matter what religion, race or gender. That was really special,” Romero said.

Romero and her group filmed a Sikh music producing duo called “Tigerstyle,” a Scottish folk-pop group with a more than 135,000 Facebook followers. Their second documentary focused on a woman named Trishna Singh, who started her own nonprofit for Sikh women in Edinburgh to help them get jobs and break away from traditional roles as housewives.

Trishna Singh said she was astonished that someone from America had heard about her nonprofit’s work and that its impact made the students want to travel to Scotland to film a documentary about her.

“When I realized it was about me, that was even more humbling,” she wrote in an email. “I was a ‘wee Scottish Sikh woman’ who was doing what she felt strongly about. Why would they want to film me?”

When agreeing to do the film, Trishna Singh considered how the exposure would allow people to learn about the different faces of the Sikh community.

Chapman documentary students film Trishna Singh.
Photo courtesy Jordyn Romero.

“We were an invisible group of women and we were headhunted by an American university to be their project. It was something that people dream of, and we, who had always been on the ‘bottom’ rung of the ethnic community’s ladder, would be in the spotlight. It was too good an opportunity to turn down,” Trishna Singh wrote.

She will be attending the film festival in November with her children and grandchildren.

This international documentary scholarship program has created the perfect fusion, Bicky Singh said. He gets to help his community while furthering the careers of Chapman documentary students. But his relationship with Chapman extends beyond the Project “S” scholarship. His daughter, Anupreet Singh, graduated in 2016 from the Argyros School of Business and Economics and he sponsors another program at Chapman called Destination “S” for filmmakers to take a sabbatical to travel to other countries and produce a film about Sikhs. Additionally, Bicky Singh and his foundation sponsor the World Religion class’s trip to India, which began in January this year.

“It’s just pure love and passion,” Bicky Singh said. “Growing up, the main focus (for me) was science and engineering and math, so I went in that direction. But more inside of me was art, film, and history. I am experiencing that life through this program for myself.”

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