Two weeks ago, I introduced the film project with WINGS and ROOTS by filmmaker Christina Antonakos-Wallace. with WINGS and ROOTS is a 90-minute documentary that tells the stories of five people from different immigrant communities living in New York or Berlin, Germany, who have struggled to shape their identity in various ways.
The film features The Langar Hall’s own Sonny Singh, a Sikh living in New York. Part of his story was featured in the well-received short documentary Article of Faith, spawned from the with WINGS and ROOTS project, that portrays Sonny’s activism around bullying of Sikh school children in New York. Another short film, called Where are you from from? was also produced out of this project.
Below, Christina Antonakos-Wallace discusses the film and provides great insight about its intended message regarding the immigrant experience and the search for identity.
How did the idea for with WINGS and ROOTS come about?
CAW: Many forces came together which led me to develop the concept for the film, which brings together the stories of children of immigrants in two different immigration societies. To begin with, it was personal. I grew up in the Greek-American community and was involved in racial justice activism from my teenage years. I wrestled with my own identity, and the relationship between immigration, culture, assimilation and racism. Then in college, I spent a semester living in Greece with some of my extended family, and was repeatedly mistaken for an Albanian immigrant. I was literally asked to leave buildings and shops because people were afraid I might rob them. As a 5’2” white woman in the US, I had never experienced this fear in people’s eyes. The incidents were shocking, despite all I knew about racism in the US, through the stories of my friends and colleagues.
I took these experiences as a gift, because they led me to really question nationalism, the ways I romanticized my own ethnic identity, and gave me new ways to think about my questions of assimilation and racism outside of a narrow US lens. I realized that Europe, just like the US, was in desperate need of new ways to think about their national identities. When I had the opportunity to go to Germany, I found that German political rhetoric about immigrant communities was rampantly racist, coded in talk of “cultural differences,” “integration,” “radical Islam,” among others. I began asking young people with immigrant backgrounds if they would be interested in a project like mine, and the “YES!” was so resounding, that I knew I had found the right place. Given Germany’s economic power and history during WWII, I found Berlin a symbolically important city to compare with New York.
The stories that are featured in the film are very diverse and also distinctive from the “mainstream.” How were these stories chosen — was there something special that you saw in each (or all of them) that appealed to you for this project?
CAW: Indeed, I was intentionally searching for very different stories to feature in with WINGS and ROOTS, because immigration is so often narrowly represented in our media. In fact, I resisted feedback to focus on just one story/group in each city. It was crucial to reflect the diversity of immigrant experiences, and be able to make connections to issues which are often seen as distinct – immigrant rights, post-9/11 racism, cultural identity, and the ideas of who is allowed to belong in the United States and Germany.
I was looking especially for underrepresented stories that were politically urgent. I sought out young people who not only had different backgrounds, but also different approaches to their identities. More importantly, I looked for young people who were articulate, active and creatively building the kinds of inclusive societies they would like to live in – whether through their art or activism. I wanted the film not only to challenge stereotypes, but offer inspiring models of inclusion and social change.
The people featured in each of the films are from very different origins (Bolivia, India, Turkey, Macedonia, and Vietnam) and diverse life experiences. Did bringing this variety together into one film pose any challenges for you? Were there other aspects that you had to contend with?
CAW: Having such different individuals included in the project has made it incredibly rich, but has certainly prolonged the shooting. There were many overlaps between the protagonist growing up with immigrant parents and as “non-white” people who experience racism. There are also differences. For example, Tania is undocumented although she has been in the US since the age of 4. Her experience growing up as an American without legal status is very particular, and has caused a range of struggles that range from her work life to her relationships. Her family did not want to be filmed, which was challenging. Similarly, as Sonny is a practicing Sikh who wears a turban, and his religious identity is completely intertwined with his experience of racism and cultural difference. The experience of being “otherized” both in dominant society and also in their communities is something all of the protagonists share.
A documentary that is part of this project, Article of Faith, features a Sikh American activist, Sonny Singh, living in post-9/11 United States. How has that been received and what more can we expect to see about his story in with WINGS and ROOTS?
CAW: We released Article of Faith a year and a half ago, because we knew we wanted to begin education and outreach work before the feature film was done. Article of Faith has been incredibly well received both in and outside of the Sikh community, and I am happy that it is regularly screened in schools and by the Sikh Coalition.
At one school screening, Sonny and I walked into an assembly of 100 high school students. As we walked down the aisle, we heard students making “Osama” slurs. During the post-film discussion, I called that out. We discussed the impact of that kind of prejudice and harassment – both inter-personally and socially. Later, one of the students approached their teacher and told her that he had been one of the students making the comment. Now he understood how wrong it was. That same day, another student with a disability, approached Sonny and to tell him that he is her hero, she also struggled with school bullying, and was inspired by his willingness to fight back.
I am so glad we released Article of Faith in advance, because those are the days I get the fortitude to overcome any obstacles faced producing this long-term project. I know how much more powerful the work will be when we have all of these stories together.
In the case of the feature-length film, Sonny’s story will be more multi-layered beyond the issue of bullying and harassment. It will include intimate material with his friends, family in India, his energy as a performer with multiple bands, and his activism on the streets of NY during Occupy Wall Street. We will get to see more about Sonny beyond what we might traditionally associate with a Sikh.
Was there anything you learned about the Sikh American community after creating that documentary that you didn’t know before?
CAW: Filming in the Sikh community was one of the highlights of working on with WINGS and ROOTS, and I learned so much! As someone raised Greek-Orthodox, each time I entered a Gurdwara, I felt I was entering a sacred space. I was met with so much openness, generosity, and warmth – both literally and figuratively – I was offered tea before I could even take my shoes off! The collective creation of that sacred space was so powerful – Langar is an incredible tradition, as was watching children participate in Kirtan. The idea of the whole body as sacred is something that resonated with me deeply. I also learned about Sikhism’s roots in fighting against inequality and tyranny and was moved by the symbolic ways of reflecting in dress, names, and so many forms of action.
Filming the work of the Sikh Coalition was also powerful. I was inspired about how the Coalition worked on issues not only for the benefit of the Sikh community, but for all people who are denied their civil rights and targeted by racial and religious profiling. I think the Coalition builds on some the best of American civil rights traditions to advance justice.
I hope I continue to be in close relationship with the Sikh community long after this project is complete.
What is the underlying message you hope will be communicated to the audience? Who do you think is the audience for this film?
CAW: My first audience for the film is young people and adults who have struggled with their own sense of belonging – particularly along racial/cultural/religious/national lines. I needed this film as a young person, so that guides me.
For a more general audience, who may not have ever experienced these issues personally, I hope there is a deepened empathy with the experience of diverse immigrant and religious communities, including the Sikh community. These stories are so rarely told, and so human and multifaceted representations are really important.
We cannot define our nations, communities and cultures in such fixed or narrow ways – it only leads to exclusion and violence – and that is my message. My hope is that the film gives audiences very different but relatable people who have found their own ways to root themselves, and have trusted their visions and wings. A second message is that immigration is a global reality, despite how it is represented. It affects us across generations, across our communities and across borders. We need to start relating in more international ways.
What do you see as your role in such a film that features several different narratives and unique experiences?
CAW: I have played so many roles in making this film, but in perhaps the most important is to watch/listen deeply, to be present with the film’s protagonists, in order to be able to create a film out of moments that reflect the deeper truth of each person’s story. On a practical level, I choose the protagonists, the questions, where and what we should capture, how it is described, etc. In some way, my perspective is embedded in every image and sound. But with that, I have a responsibility to make sure I am honoring the great gift that my protagonists shared with me in telling their stories. That means making something which is both true to them and beautiful as a piece of art.
Is there anything that you learned from each story, and/or took away from all of the stories collectively?
CAW: I learned more than I could ever write in an interview like this! I learned how to communicate in German, for one thing! But indeed, the process of making this film has transformed me, and affirmed my belief that we must be prepared to imagine belonging to beyond the categories we are so attached to, to let go of some of the comfort and security of the known, and learn to take comfort our interconnectedness.
What was the process behind making with WINGS and ROOTS, and what stage are you in now?
CAW: Working on this project has been a labor of love. It started as part of my thesis at Parson’s School of Design, and expanded to Berlin shortly after that. I filmed from 2007-2012, and we are now ready to edit the film, which is why we have recently launched a Kickstarter campaign, in order to complete the film early next year.
Along the way, the team has grown to over 20 collaborators working on a voluntary basis. We released the two short films, Article of Faith and Where are you from from? and we have done over 110 screenings, many with workshops such as bullying, Islamophobia, immigrant rights, Sikh awareness, and exploring one’s own migration story and identity.
We are currently building an elaborate interactive website, which will host the over 50 interviews I conducted during my initial research, an interactive immigration timeline of the US and Germany, and opportunities for visitors to add their own stories.
We are excited to be getting close to releasing all of this work out into the world!
Once this film is complete, what are the next steps?
CAW: We will start screening it in festivals around the US and Europe, and continue our screenings in schools, universities and community based organizations. The interactive website, ReimagineBelonging.com (not live yet) will be up, and we hope to have discussion guides available for anyone who wants to use the film or tools in their community. We hope to be presenting at conferences, classrooms, street fairs, festivals, and as many places as we can spread the work. Please get in touch with us if you want to be part of spreading the project, or contributing in some way.
How did you get into filmmaking and what are some of your influences as a film-maker?
CAW: Documentary filmmaking brought together my practice as a visual artist, my activism on social issues, and my interest to open space for public dialogue. It was a really natural fit, but took some time doing other things, so my influences include not only filmmakers, but artists, theorists, and activists. I am a big fan of many filmmakers like Kim Longinotto and Marlon Riggs, but am also inspired by my peers who are making beautiful and socially relevant films against a lot of industry odds.
Where can we learn more about your work?
CAW: You can follow the with WINGS and ROOTS on Facebook, Twitter, and our Website! Besides that, it’s hard to learn about my work because I have chosen to put most my public energy into the project. However, I do produce films for non-profits, and sometimes work as an media educator, so feel free to get in touch. I also have some small, more personal film and visual art projects, and hope that once this film is done, some of those will make it out into the world!
Thank you, Christina, for your time in providing such insight about this great and needed project, and best wishes for the success of this film!
To help bring with WINGS and ROOTS to completion, please visit the film’s Kickstarter page and make a donation.
[Cross-posted on The Langar Hall]