Newhouse professors tell of teen’s path toward tolerance
Newhouse professors tell of teen’s path toward toleranceApril 28, 2003Nicci Brownnicbrown@syr.edu
Hundreds of hours of film; a pilgrimage half way around the world; and a journey from ignorance to tolerance will culminate May 1 with the public premiere of “North of 49,” an hour-long documentary by two Newhouse professors. The film examines the aftermath of the Nov. 18, 2001 arson at Gobind Sadan U.S.A., a Sikh temple in the upstate New York community of Palermo. It will be screened at 5:30 p.m. in the Westcott Cinema. Admission is $5 and will help with the reconstruction of the temple.
The four teenagers found guilty of the Gobind Sadan attack claim they burned down the converted farmhouse because they thought the turbaned Sikhs who worshiped there were cheering on the terrorism of 9/11. The teens-Joshua Centrone, William Reeves, Mitch Trumble and Cassie Hudson-say they believed the temple’s name meant “Go Bin Laden.” Two were sentenced to four to 12 years in prison; two, including the then-pregnant Hudson, served 90 days in county jail. “North of 49” focuses on Hudson’s transformation from an ignorant and confused teenager to a young woman-and mother-prepared to accept and respect those different from herself.
Designated as a hate crime (a federal offense), the Gobind Sadan arson made international headlines and brought Oswego County the kind of publicity no area wants. However, Richard Breyer, a professor of television-radio-film, says the region might well have represented all of America following the 9/11 attacks. “The attacks prompted widespread suspicion and distrust of those different from the mainstream,” Breyer says. “We uncovered some troubling intolerance for outsiders-the Sikhs have not been alone as targets of arson or other forms of discrimination.”
Breyer partnered on the documentary with David Coryell, a screenwriter and adjunct professor at the Newhouse School. The two started working on the project about two weeks after the 100-year-old building was burned and were able to capture some vivid-and hard hitting-footage of the events that followed. “We managed to develop some fairly amazing access to a number of the local residents-blue and white collar,” Breyer says. That footage includes local television news coverage, courtroom proceedings, and comments from the prosecuting district attorney, the arsonists’ families, Sikhs who worshiped at the temple, and members of the Palermo community.
In February 2002, Breyer traveled to India with Mark Lichtenstein, president of the Mexico (N.Y.) School Board. Lichtenstein made the 7,500-mile journey as an “ambassador” for his community; one of the teens convicted of the Gobind Sadan arson attacks had been a student at Mexico High School. Lichtenstein and Breyer traveled to Gobind Sadan, India-about 15 miles south of New Delhi. Once at the farm-based commune, Lichtenstein formally apologized to Baba Virsa Singh Ji-an internationally known Sikh spiritual leader and Gobind Sadan’s founder.
The name of the documentary, “North of 49,” refers to the section of upstate New York above Route 49 in Oswego County. The area is characterized by farmland, extreme winters, and what Breyer describes as a “certain proud isolation.” Coryell says researching and filming the documentary was an “eye opening and mood altering” experience. “Even though the area is only 40 or so miles from Syracuse, it seems as though once you pass a certain latitude you enter into a different culture zone completely. We’ve been invited to children’s birthday parties, church benefits, Rotarian breakfasts and corn harvestings. But we’ve also encountered hostility. At one stage we were run off the property of a biker trailer park we’d driven into for some footage – it was something of a close call.”
“North of 49” was funded in part by the Newhouse School and a Sikh foundation. It will be distributed nationally by WPBS-TV/Watertown, N.Y., and the Filmakers Library in New York City. It will also be used in classes at the Newhouse School and Syracuse Univerity’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. An earlier version of the film was shown on the SU campus in February as part of “Illuminating Oppression: A Film Festival on Human Rights in South Asia.”