Saturday, March 9, 2013

Not a Feather, but a Dot

This week I am pleased to introduce Teju Prasad, an independent documentary filmmaker.  In this guest post he discusses why he decided to make the film Not a Feather, but a Dot. Please welcome him.

First, thanks to Dianne Hagan and the About Race blog for the opportunity to share my thoughts on my independent documentary film Not a Feather, but a Dot, that delves into the history, perception, and evolution of the Indian community in the US.
I'll start the post off by recounting an exchange at a post-screening Q & A:
Viewer: “Thank you for making the film, it’s great to see a positive side of Hindus when all we see is violence in the media.”
Me: (confused look): “Oh? Such as?”
Viewer: “Oh, like the Taliban.”
Me: (awkward pause, then awkward smile)*
*Note: The Taliban is an ultra-fundamentalist Muslim group, and has no connection with Hindus or Hinduism (other than their vitriolic hatred of them).
I repeat this exchange from time to time, usually when I get asked the question, "Why did you make the film?" Especially when the question is asked with the subtext, "Is a film like this necessary?"
I believe it quickly demonstrates the level of missing knowledge out there in the world, but as I've learned through the course of making the film and subsequent screenings at libraries, universities, and other venues, knowledge and information is only as good as people's motivation to learn. In some cases, that means having their previous conclusions challenged. In a way, that's the goal of any film: to reach audiences that would otherwise not have paid attention to the topic.
"Why did I make the film?" is the most common question I'm asked after a screening, so I think it'll make a good subject for a blog post.  First, I wanted a resource that was thorough, succinct, and accessible. Like many other Americans of foreign "ethnic" origin, the void of knowledge we're met with can be quite staggering. With the growth of documentary films over the past decade, it was a great vehicle to reach people. A film that could be used in schools, libraries, or just be part of someone’s DVD or digital film collection. There are many great documentaries out there that deal with immigration and religion in depth, but none that I felt really synthesized all of this into something accessible. I wanted to provide a starting point for further exploration. I wanted people to learn something, but not necessarily feel as if it were a boring, purely academic exercise.
The second reason was a bit more nebulous and open-ended. I wanted to ask the question, “What’s it mean to be Indian-American?” but really, at a basic level, ask the question, “What’s it mean to be [insert ethnic background here]-American?”
I recall a discussion in high school with a friend that occurred on an annual event called "Diversity Day." We formed groups and discussed our various origins, and the goal, I presume, was to appreciate and celebrate diversity. My friend pulled no punches in his criticism of the event, saying that such things were "reserved for the home" and that we should all focus on "being American." I asked him then with my logical, computer science, engineering mind, "Aren't you then defining ‘Americannness’ as a negative, as if being American is the lack of being anything else?" I had him stumped for a second. I felt very proud.
The discussion stuck with me because I found myself buying into this kind of dichotomy, well, pretty much my entire life. In the film I try to deal with the question “Will this dichotomy ever change, or will it always exist?” I wanted to ask, “What's it mean to be Indian-American?" from the perspective of, “Will the meaning change?” and “Is the end goal to have it not mean anything at all?” 
To do that, I set out to recount how the perceptions and state of the Indian-American community has changed over the past 100 years. Then I moved to a discussion of the immigrant experience and the psychological nature of stereotyping. What I found out was, as more versions of an immigrant group become known, the stereotypes were harder to sustain. Seems pretty obvious. 
But that begged a very “chicken and egg” inquiry: Was it incumbent on us as an immigrant group to create these alternate “versions” of ourselves to alter the stereotypes? Or were the stereotypes and prejudices (whether external or internal) what needed to change in order for us to create an alternate reality? And if they changed, what was the "critical-mass" point when society, en masse, would internally and collectively say, "Alright, this stereotypical association is no longer valid?"
I believe the film asks these questions. It shows the ways change has occurred. For example, when I was growing up, I remember seeing Indians on television in stereotypical roles. Now I see Indian characters with deeper back-stories that demonstrate obstacles and behaviors. There you have it, change. But the film also compares the political aspirations and obstacles of people like Dalip Singh Saund, the first Indian-American congressmen, and present-day Indian-Americans in politics, dealing with similar struggles. Is there change there? Well, maybe not as much.
It’s a question I personally go back and forth with, and I hope that watching films like Not a Feather, but a Dot will help answer.
Not a Feather, but a Dot is scheduled to screen on March 28th, in Durham, NC at the Southpoint Cinemas 17. All tickets MUST be reserved online to confirm the screening.
Preview the trailer and book tickets online here by March 21st.