Cinema Asian America: Tami Yeager Discusses ‘A Dream in Doubt’

Four days after the 9/11 attacks, Balbir Singh Sodhi was killed at his Phoenix area gas station in what was the nation’s post-9/11 hate murder. To his killer, Balbir Sodhi’s beard and turban-articles of his Sikh faith-symbolized the face of America’s new enemy. To his family and other Sikh Americans, Singh Sodhi’s murder would transform their lives forever and plunge the Sikh American community into the complex terrain of race and the war on terror. Tami Yeager’s moving “A Dream In Doubt” follows Rana Singh Sodhi, Balibir’s brother, as he attempts to make sense of the new world around him, and fight the hate and injustices which arose as the nation responded to the events of 9/11. “A Dream In Doubt” is available this month in Cinema Asian America on XFINITY On Demand.

Get “A Dream in Doubt” here.

“A Dream In Doubt” was completed four years ago in 2007. As we mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11, why is it important for you to continue to share this film with audiences?

TY: “A Dream In Doubt” is uniquely suited to inspire dialogue and understanding about post-9/11 hate crimes while also exploring the country’s core values of freedom, justice and the American Dream. The film follows Rana Sodhi’s journey as he deals with his brother’s murder—the first post-9/11 revenge killing.  Rather than isolating himself and his family, Rana strives to educate others about the Sikh American community even in the face of continued hate crimes in his hometown. This story is timeless as long as we are a nation of immigrants and a nation at war.

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I have shed many tears this week while listening to the anniversary reports and remembrances of the victims of Ground Zero, Flight 92 and the Pentagon, and their families.  I am also reminded that we were all victims of that horrifying day.  We were all scared and afraid.  No one knew what was going to happen next.  We clung to our loved ones and waited.   Like all of us, the members of the Sikh, Muslim, Arab and South Asian American communities were terrorized by this outside enemy. Then, on 9/14/01, Balbir Singh Sodhi was murdered and suddenly these Americans found themselves terrorized on two fronts. I believe it is important to recognize Balbir’s murder (and the thousands of other hate crimes) as an important moment in our collective history. “A Dream In Doubt” helps viewers create a meaningful conversation about identity, immigration, the impact of hate crimes on communities, and what it means to be American.   With that said, it seems impossible to believe that ten years have passed since 9/11 and the threat of post-9/11 hate crimes and intolerance is as palpable today as it was on September 14, 2001 when Balbir was murdered.

You yourself are not Sikh, however, you have been involved in working with the Sikh community. Can you tell us a bit about your motivation for making this film?

TY: At the time of the 9/11 terror attacks, I was close friends with several Sikhs, including the film’s co-producer Preetmohan Singh, a turban-wearing Sikh-American. Preet was experiencing stares and threats, and at the same time, his day job was to respond to violent attacks and civil rights infringements that were happening nationally. Through Preet’s experiences and other friends’ accounts, I learned about the fear and pain that the Sikh, Arab, Muslim, and South Asian communities were feeling because of the hateful intolerance of their neighbors.

Discover more interviews with Cinema Asian America filmmakers.

Born many years after the Japanese internment camps, and as the child of early civil rights’ activists, I felt strongly that we couldn’t sit by and watch as America turned back the clock. At the same time, I assumed that somebody else would tell the story and that a national dialogue would surely take hold. But two years after Balbir’s murder and several hundred hate crimes later, most American’s still knew little about this new epidemic. It was at this point that I decided to contact the Sodhis. The trial of the murderer, Frank Roque, was coming up so it was perfect timing. Ironically, when I first spoke with Rana Sodhi in May 2003, I learned that another member in the Sikh community had been shot only a week earlier in an apparent hate crime. At this point, I knew there was no turning back.

” A Dream In Doubt” took four years to make; tell us a bit about the process of locating, following and shaping the story which you tell in the documentary.

TY: I didn’t know exactly what I would find nor how I would tell the story but I felt strongly that Balbir Singh Sodhi’s murder needed to be documented much like the stories of James Byrd, Vincent Chin, and Matthew Shepard. When I set out to make the film I was coming from a place of fear and frustration and was expecting to make a film about hate and xenophobia. But by focusing on Rana, Balbir’s youngest brother, it turned out to be a surprisingly uplifting story about faith, hope, patriotism and forgiveness. My own assumptions were turned inside out in the process. I was so fortunate to witness first hand that hope truly does have the power to overcome hate.

Have you kept in touch with the Sodhi family? How are they doing today?

TY: During the process of making and screening the film, I became very close with the Sodhi family.  We speak regularly to each other and our relationship continues to grow.  The Sodhi businesses have expanded successfully, including the opening of a new Indian restaurant. Rana’s children, Rose, Satpreet, and Deep are now in high school and quickly entering adulthood.

Rana is still actively involved in community outreach and activism. He and his family have been featured in many news stories, books and films since 9/11. Among other recognitions, they were invited to a special event at the White House where they had the honor of meeting President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.  Rana continues to dedicate his life to educating others about diversity within America.

At the same time, it seems as if Rana may never be given respite from the trauma of his 9/11 experience. He continues to have people make angry remarks about his turban, his accent, and his ethnicity.  In April of this year, an Arizona State Senator passed a bill to have Balbir’s name removed from the 9/11 memorial in Mesa, Arizona.  The attempt to have his brother’s name taken from the memorial was painful and very ironic.  In the year after Balbir’s murder, the Phoenix / Mesa area had rallied around Rana and his community. Part of the community’s healing was to include Balbir Singh Sodhi on the memorial as a 9/11-related victim. For Rana, this acknowledgment was one of the reasons why he proudly calls himself American.  The good news is that Rana and others worked successfully to get the bill repealed so that Balbir’s name proudly remains in tact on the memorial.

What are you working on now?

TY: Since finishing “A Dream In Doubt,” I have focused much of my efforts on a commitment to connect audiences with meaningful media.  While executing (along with Preetmohan) a national screening and engagement campaign for “A Dream In Doubt,” I worked as a digital distribution consultant for the Tribeca Film Institute’s “Reframe” Project. I also helped conceive and launch the multi-media engagement campaign for “The Calling,” a four-hour PBS series that explores religious leadership from an interfaith perspective. Currently, I am working on the development of several new documentary projects and am freelance consulting for other independent filmmakers.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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