Prof’s documentary chosen as gala opener of Sikh film festival

What is the meaning of Sikhi for today’s diasporic Sikh youth around the world? That’s the topic York sociology Professor Michael Nijhawan grappled with in his documentary film Musafer – Sikhi is Travelling, the gala screening at the seventh annual Spinning Wheel Film Festival opening this Friday.

It is also the world premiere of the film, which was shot in Frankfurt, Paris, London, Delhi and San Francisco between 2003 and 2009. Musafer will open on Sept. 25 at the Royal Ontario Museum’s Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, 100 Queen’s Park in Toronto. The 2009 Spinning Wheel Film Festival, a celebration of film by or about Sikhs, runs from Sept. 25 to 27. Parminder Singh, the voice of CBC’s "Hockey Night in Canada" regular season Punjabi broadcasts, will MC the gala evening.

Right: Sikhs protesting the French legislation banning religious symbols in public schools in January 2004, from the film Musafer

“It’s a film that we really made for the broad Sikh diaspora. So a film festival devoting itself to that end is a good venue for it,” says Nijhawan, adding that it’s also a film an external audience can get something from. He is planning to show the film at York in the near future, as well as in communities and film festivals around the world.

Musafer is the first documentary made by Nijhawan and his filmmaking partner, Frankfurt-based researcher Khushwant Singh. It tells the story of the interconnected lives of a younger generation of diasporic Sikhs, and came about while the filmmakers were doing ethnographic research in Germany. Nijhawan, the new associate director of the York Centre for Asian Research, started to film some of the Sikh religious festivals and spoken-word artists as part of his research, and was surprised by the issues repeatedly raised in conversations with the Sikh diaspora. “We thought we needed to get some of this information out,” he says.

Left: London-based artist Indi Kaur in an interview in Musafer

After the filmmakers shot footage of a demonstration in France against that country’s banning of religious symbols in schools, the project really took on a dynamic of its own, says Nijhawan. Shortly after, they met the film’s main protagonist, Indi Kaur, who also provides the film’s music, in London. Meeting Kaur was key to developing the artistic side of the film’s story.

“Many of the Sikh diaspora in mainland Europe and Germany feel like they are in social and legal limbo,” says Nijhawan. “A large majority of them went through the asylum law regulations in Germany and most had their cases dismissed, and their status became unsure. They can’t get permission to work and they can’t bring in their families, however, the courts are unlikely to deport them.” Some of that is changing, but there is still so little known about Sikhs in some of the European countries where they now find themselves.

Left: A scene from the langar (community kitchen) in Germany’s Frankfurt Gurdwara from Musafer

Emphasis in the 70-minute film is given to artistic expressions of Sikh youth and to in-depth conversations about the meaning of Sikhi during times of political upheaval and social uncertainty. The film does not attempt to portray the Sikh tradition in its totality, but instead sheds a light on the inner and outer journeys of particular individuals, their homing desires, as well as their boundary-crossing endeavours.

“We hope it will strike a chord,” says Nijhawan.

As the filmmakers did not initially set out to film a documentary, Musafer was shot in intermittent phases over a span of six years, and followed the protagonists’ as well as the filmmakers’ own trajectories.

Right: Gurwinder Singh, one of the protagonists in Musafer, with his child

The overall aim was to portray aspects of everyday Sikh diasporic lives that had been less marked by the grand scale of identity politics – though some of that is included in the film – with a particular angle on questions relating to matters of Sikhi or the Sikh way of living with the everyday social and political realities on the ground.

Nijhawan and Singh were also interested in issues of importance to a younger generation of “musafers/sojourners” without attributing labels, such as “second generation migrant”, “asylum seeker” or “economic migrant”.

Both filmmakers were raised in Germany and share a personal and academic commitment to Sikhi and Punjabi society and culture. Nijhawan has worked and written extensively on Sikh and Punjabi society and culture, both in South Asia and the diasporic context. He is the author of Dhadi Darbar: Religion, Violence and the Performance of Sikh History (Oxford University Press, 2006) and co-editor of Shared Idioms, Sacred Symbols, and the Articulation of Identities in South Asia (Routledge, 2008).

Left: Akal Singh Sahai (centre) practising kirtan in San Francisco, from the film Musafer

Nijhawan’s research at York focuses primarily on violence and suffering and its translatability in cultural practices. He is also interested in transnational religion, immigration and identity formation.

Some of the film’s funding came through York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies and teaching development grants, as well as the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada and, in its initial stages, the German Research Foundation.

The Spinning Wheel Film Festival was founded in 2003 to showcase films that address issues of interest or concern to Sikhs around the world, to present the Sikh world view and to encourage the production of high-quality films. The festival is open to Sikh and non-Sikh filmmakers and films from around the globe.

For more information about the film, visit the Musafer – Sikhi is Travelling Web site or the Spinning Wheel Film Festival Web site.