I had arrived at the Indianapolis airport for the first time just hours before viewing a short film that not only took place there, but re-staged harrowing events that continue to haunt the inviting interiors of airports around the country. “Singh,” one of the finest cinematic works I saw at Heartland Film’s 2019 Indy Shorts International Film Festival, marks the astonishing directorial debut of Jenna Ruiz, a 19-year-old Indiana college student majoring in nuclear medicine, who solidifies her status here as a filmmaker of immense promise. Gurinder Singh Khalsa, the Indian American Sikh activist who has blazed trails for preserving religious freedom, plays himself—very well, I may add—in a dramatization of events that occurred in 2007, when TSA officers in Buffalo, New York, prevented him from flying to see his ailing mother, simply because he refused to remove his turban. In an excruciating, expertly crafted sequence, Khalsa moves through security as the paranoia of all who surround him is conveyed purely through the sort of everyday body language that could easily be overlooked—particularly by those not branded as “the other.”
The escalating nightmare that Khalsa gradually finds himself in is Kafkaesque, yet how he manages to combat it had the Indy Shorts crowd going wild. If there’s any justice in the next Oscar shortlist, “Singh” will make the cut. Before leaving Indianapolis, I had the privilege of chatting with Ruiz and Khalsa at length about their impassioned collaboration, the transformative power of storytelling and the message they intend on spreading throughout the world.
What initially drew you both to working together?
Jenna Ruiz (JR): I’ve been in the film industry since I was nine, when I was a semifinalist in “The Today Show”’s Kid Reporter contest, and after being in front of a camera, I knew that I wanted to do this for good. So my mom got me an agent here and I started acting. Through those experiences, I learned a lot about being behind the camera as well, such as the lingo used among the crew. When I was 13, I decided that I wanted to start making my own movies, so my friends and I would get together and make short films. I had my own 48-hour film festival team when I was about 15 or 16, and I was up for doing anything onset. Then I was asked to be a photographer at Heartland’s The Cultural Trail, a program occurring prior to the film festival that spotlights a particular culture. The culture that year was India, so Gurinder was there, and I took his picture with my Canon 5D Mark II, which doubles as a film camera. He asked me if I made videos as well, and I told him that I’m a self-taught editor well-versed in multiple editing programs.
That’s when he asked to interview me to work for his political action committee, since they needed media produced. I was still 17, so my mom joined us when we met for lunch, and I showed him some of my work. He ended up hiring me as the media producer for his committee, where I create weekly update videos, while also making my own films on the side. We got really close and my mom now works for him too. When he first showed me an article about what happened to him, I immediately was like, “Why has this not been made into a film yet?” It was such an extraordinarily unique circumstance that happened, and there were so many well-detailed articles written about it at the time. Once I got ahold of them, I suggested to Gurinder that I direct a film about his story. My mom and I began preproduction by ourselves and it turned into a much bigger project than we were originally assuming. We were just hoping for it to be a small project that we could do for fun, but when we realized that we would need to film it at the airport, it kind of got more real.
You filmed at the actual Indianapolis airport?
Gurinder Singh Khalsa (GK): Yes. It was very hard to get permission because the TSA had never allowed any filmmaker to use their security checkpoint as a location since 9/11. We were so blessed that we got the opportunity to film there, since the movie otherwise wouldn’t have turned out the same way. Jenna wrote the whole script within a week. I initially thought she would be making the film for fun, but that changed when I saw how serious she and her mom were in making it happen. They were both doing more in the preproduction than I had anticipated. It was beyond my expectation, and I said, “Okay, why don’t we aim for bigger and better?” When it came time to decide who would play me, she said it was hard to find the right person, so she asked if I would do it. I said, “No, I never did that!,” and she was like, “That’s alright, I’ll train you.” That lasted for three months, and I was so lucky that she got me used to memorizing lines and doing multiple takes of a scene.
JR: It was really fun. We ultimately decided that since he had lived the events depicted in the film, he could enact them on film. Gurinder is very determined and a really fast learner, so we figured that casting him would be the best decision. If it wasn’t working during the first week of acting training, we would consider our options. For each lesson, we focused on one page of the script, and I told him everything that he needed to know about being in front of the camera. It was like “acting for dummies,” where I gave him a crash course on the meaning of various terms he’d hear onset—like “action,” “stand by,” “quiet on the set.” It was important for him to know that he could only move on the word “action,” and that he would have to keep going through the scene until he heard “cut.” All of the things that I’ve learned over my years of acting training I cultivated into a short, condensed version that I spat out at him to see if he would be able to retain it. And he did.
GK: We both do everything with passion, and that extended to the training. She told me never to look in the camera, and through the whole process of training and during the filming, I didn’t look at the camera at all.
JR: We have footage of every acting class that we did because I wanted to put all of them on camera. I would send them to him and say, “Go watch these, and see what you can fix.” Since I wrote the script, it was a lot easier to break down the scenes. I could say, “In this line, I was trying to convey this,” or, “This is what will be going on in the background, and I want you to ignore it and be in your own head because you’ll be thinking about this.” He’d also send me videos of his acting, and I’d text him back telling him what to fix. His family was really helpful with that. We’d put in 12-hour days sometimes to make sure that the scenes read well. It got stressful at times, as it would with anybody trying to get a crash course in acting.
GK: One of the things I like about Jenna is that she believes in authenticity. She told me that in recreating what happened, it wasn’t about faking anything. I simply needed to think about what happened during that time and what I was going through. She was more confident than I was that this approach would make the work believable, and that is exactly what happened.
A good friend and colleague told me about the extra effort that he, as a black man, must expend to put others at ease, whether it’s aiding passersby or walking at a distance from fellow pedestrians. I was reminded of this during your film’s brilliant, near-wordless sequence that heightens our awareness of how Gurinder is being regarded with suspicion by people at the airport.
GK: Even these days, whenever I go to the airport, I get those sorts of looks all the time. Being born as a minority in India before moving here after 9/11, I’ve witnessed first-hand how Sikhs are among the most common targets for hate in various forms—bullying, persecution, racist comments. There are one million of us in America, and we’ve become more resilient and patient by choosing not to react with anger. I believe if somebody is treating you poorly, you should not have a negative reaction toward them. You should respond in a positive, civilized manner, with love and compassion, so that they will begin to feel differently.
People and situations are helpless without our response, so it is important that we take the opportunity to explain not just who Sikhs are, but how we—in a civilized society—should treat one another. No religion teaches you how to hate anybody. We are not born with hate, we are born with love and compassion. We learn to hate, as Nelson Mandela said, and anything we learn, we can unlearn. I always take the opportunity, in any situation like that, to spread this sort of awareness. People aren’t ignorant, they are not aware, and it is our job to change that. It doesn’t help to get offended. What I did at the airport was not for the sake of a Sikh turban. I was standing for everybody who believes in religious liberty and freedom of faith, and that is the message I want to give the world.
JR: A lot of people were wondering, especially during preproduction, whether I was the right person to direct this film, considering that I am a white female who has never lived with a turban and a beard. I am really lucky that my best friend since I was in sixth grade is a Sikh, so I grew up finding people with turbans and beards to be nothing out of the ordinary. I’ve been right there next to him when bullies have called him names like “towelhead” and “terrorist,” and those experiences informed how I went about directing the featured extras in the background. I made sure they were people who Gurinder and I knew really well. The lady who moves her bag very swiftly along is my grandma. The lady who gives Gurinder a very aggressive up and down look is my boyfriend’s mom, while the guy who smiles at her after being cold with Gurinder was in my acting class. When I was directing them to do these things, they were like, “That’s horrible, I don’t want to do that,” and I told them, “It is horrible, but people actually do it.” I’ve seen it happen. It wasn’t just something that I fabricated.
Watching these things happen to somebody you love is almost as jarring as having it happen to you, because you feel like there’s nothing you can really do about it. Like Gurinder said, if you react negatively, they have more negative things to say about you. I wanted to be that person who could speak from an outside perspective on Gurinder’s behalf to help get this message out there and make people like me more aware. Before I knew him, I wasn’t aware, and neither were the extras before they arrived onset. They knew it was happening, but they weren’t aware of how it was actually effecting people. When you have to actually act it and see what you’re doing to a real human being, it’s completely different. I did question whether people would accept somebody outside of their community representing their experience. My sole intention was to be a partner who has witnessed what’s happening and wants to help give it a platform where more people like me will be able to see it.
GK: From day one, Jenna said this will not only bring more awareness to the issue, it will inspire everybody to stand up for what is right, and that, for me, is the purpose. This film doesn’t just belong to me, it belongs to all 67,000 people whose signatures I presented to the U.S. Congress in order to change the TSA’s headgear policy. When the movie began to get attention from the media before its premiere this year, I was chosen as the 2019 recipient of the Rosa Parks Trailblazer Award. That would not have happened if we hadn’t decided to make the movie, and it was a very humbling experience.
What sort of discussion occurred between you both in terms of molding the scenes?
GK: For me, English is my fourth language, so in order to memorize the lines, I needed to make some changes to the script. It could not be translated word-for-word.
JR: There is dialogue in the film that is in Punjabi, and since I do not speak the language, I had to write that dialogue in English before getting together with Gurinder, his wife and their kids. They had to translate the words into Punjabi in a way that made sense to them. They told me what lines wouldn’t work in Punjabi, which required them to change certain sentences and grammar. For the subtitles, we had to find translations that were close variations of the original lines without being exact.
GK: We learned so much together on this project.
I believe “Singh” warrants comparison to Paul Greengrass’ “United 93,” another film where suspense is fueled by a race against time, requiring non-actors to recreate events from their own lives.
JR: It was a big family production in which many people learned how to act. Gurinder’s mom played herself in the film, and his son played him in the birthday party flashback. We wanted the real family dynamic there, which made the experience much different than if we had cast strangers. With actual family members, you can poke fun at them and tell them if they are doing a line wrong. I had more freedom as a director to criticize without having to worry about hurting someone’s feelings.
GK: By now, she knows more about me than I do. [laughs]
JR: We had to film the last scene where Gurinder is dragged out of the airport a few times. It was our very last scene of the shoot, and we were in a time crunch. We had to be out of the airport by 4am—we were there from 12am to 4am for two nights—and we were being babysat by a real TSA agent who had to watch us and kick us out when it was time to leave. The scene was very emotional, but it seemed rehearsed, probably because we had rehearsed it many times. Gurinder and I left the set while everybody else took a breather, and I told him, “When we do the next take, don’t think about how we rehearsed it. Just act as if you are being apprehended and taken out of an airport in front of actual travelers.”
GK: And that is exactly what happened! It happened in a way that was even worse than how we portrayed it.
JR: It is embarrassing and horrifying, and I wanted him to go back to that moment. I said, “The best part is, if you get yourself in that headspace, you’ll only have to do the scene one more time. Let them just grab you.” Then I told the people playing the cops, which included my boyfriend’s dad, that Gurinder had given them permission to grab him and drag him out of the shot. We had a stunt coordinator onset—Jim Dougherty, who also happens to be the film’s cinematographer and editor as well as my acting coach—and we had choreographed the scene like a stunt, but I ultimately decided to throw all that out the window. I just told the actors to give it their all while making sure no one got hurt.
GK: And it was the last scene anyway, so… [laughs]
JR: So we got back onset, and the take we filmed is what made the final cut. All of their yelling was ad-libbed. None of it was in the script.
GK: People who were arriving for their early morning flights saw us and said, “Wow! What’s going on?” Then they applauded, and many of us cried.
JR: I probably looked crazy as I was motioning to the people who were passing by to keep moving past us. I know what it’s like to be an actor and have someone flailing their arms in the background, so I did my best not to distract the cast. I couldn’t let anyone who wasn’t involved in the film have their face on camera because they hadn’t signed a release and I didn’t want to blur them out. Thankfully, nothing interfered with the footage. Nailing that last take was my favorite part of the entire experience.
GK: When you do something for the first time, no matter how well-prepared you are, you are—in the back of your brain—a little fearful of it. But Jenna’s confidence gave me confidence. You trusted her because she told you when something wasn’t working. Acting in this film was like going back in time. The emotion came naturally to me.
JR: I told him to think of what it would be like if his mother was actually on her deathbed. His mother doesn’t speak English, so directing her was very difficult since we’d have to communicate through other people. We also had conversations where she spoke Punjabi and I spoke English, and we’d slightly understand each other.
GK: There were many scenes that did not require a second take.
JR: The lighting guy was like, “I had to set all that up for one take?!” [laughs]
GK: After I was dragged out of the airport back in 2007, I was interviewed by ethnic media networks, and a lot of people on the live shows were calling in and saying how similar things had happened to them, where they were going to a wedding or a funeral and TSA officers ordered them to take off their turban.
JR: What was really helpful in the script-writing process was as soon as I was like, “Let’s make a film,” Gurinder had all the articles and interviews and TV spots to share with me. He also had the legal documents he used to file a claim with Homeland Security, so all of the officer names in the film are those of the real people, though some were altered so that we don’t get in trouble. All the dates, times and flight numbers directly paralleled the real-life situation.
The shot that broke my heart is the one that shows an officer throwing the picture of Gurinder’s mother in the trash. I was also enraged at how the officers blatantly lied to him, giving him false hope only to place him back at square one.
JR: That all happened in real life, and I was appalled when I found that out. They told Gurinder that if he went through the metal detector again, and it doesn’t beep, then he’ll be fine and won’t have to worry about getting arrested. As soon as he did, another officer came up to him and said, “I’m sorry, our headgear policy still won’t change, so you’ll have take the turban off…”
GK: If you promise something only to immediately go against it…
…then why should I trust you about anything?
JR: Exactly! I told Gurinder that we would be doing a final sequence that explains what happened after the events in the film, and I asked if there was anything he’d like me to scan in. He gave me a bunch of pictures and newspaper clippings, and then he said, “Oh, I also have Barack Obama’s signature.” He signed Gurinder’s petition when he was still a senator. We finished production in September of last year, and post was a very long process because there was something about the footage in its first rough cuts that wasn’t hitting for me. I wanted to edit the film myself, but I was not familiar at the time with the RED workflow, and I didn’t have a computer that was beefy enough to handle 4K files and make proxies fast enough, so I handed it off to Jim.
He is a very good editor, and I also knew he would let me be involved and direct the editing process. I know a lot of editors who don’t like to be interfered with on their work, but I knew that if we hired Jim, he would allow me to get my own flair and flavor in there. The problems I had with the footage stemmed from how scenes were set up in the script, so it was my fault. Jim and I met up for eight hours one day, and we scribbled out half of my script, editing-wise, before piecing it back together in a way that I felt was more powerful. The idea of where to place the phone call and flashbacks throughout the narrative, how to begin the film and when to cut to black all came out of that edit. I didn’t want to show any of it to Gurinder until it was done.
GK: The film was completed on January 10th, and she put together a trailer and poster too. The poster was highly publicized all over Indian media.
JR: I’m a hyperrealistic oil painter, so I thought about painting the poster, but then decided that I was okay with photoshop. Our composer, Jackson Sexson, is a really unique individual who approached us and said he wanted to do the score for our film. He’s a white dude who lived in India for ten years of his life, and his music turned out to be the perfect fit. Before we submitted “Singh” to festivals, we contacted a bunch of people in the media—mostly in India—to see if they would help promote it, and the film spread all over the internet. We got on FilmFreeway, which is a website where you build a page for your film, and then you can auto-submit to a bunch of festivals.
Our world premiere was at an Indian film festival in Canada this past May, and we got a really good response from the audience. I was so glad that was our first film festival because if the Indian community didn’t approve of our movie, then I’d know we had failed. I wanted it to be for them. Then we went to the Covellite film festival in Butte, Montana, where we won Short of the Year. Indy Shorts is our third festival, and we were selected as a finalist from 3,500 submissions. Everything just fell into place on this project. Since this was a SAG short film, we didn’t have any constraints. A big shout-out, however, goes to my mom.
GK: Her mother is the unsung hero of this movie.
JR: When the costume designer we had hired broke it to us that he had nothing ready, my mom ended up doing all of the costuming a week prior to shooting—all of the TSA uniforms, the guns, everything. Those patches on the uniforms were hand-sewn on by me and my grandma the night before the shoot, and my mom did the research on which patch goes on which shoulder. We were looking at a mirrored image, and accidentally sewed them on backwards, so my grandma and I had to stitch-rip all of the patches and sew them on the right way.
You also played the girl at the booth who’s unable to do anything for Gurinder, apart from telling him, “Have a nice day.”
JR: We were trying to figure out who to cast for that part, because he told me that actually happened where he was trying to get his luggage back, and they were like, “Sorry, it’s already on the plane.” I wanted to act in the film, but I didn’t know how it was going to work because I would be directing while getting in hair and makeup. I memorized the lines two minutes before filming because I was so worried about everything else. We did this scene at three in the morning, so I was very tired.
Which is perfect for the role!
JR: Yes! I wanted my character to be more of an empathetic voice, but also completely hopeless because what is a girl at a counter going to do? Finally, here is someone who feels bad for him, which is a reprieve from the hostility he’s been encountering elsewhere.
GK: She’s a good actor in addition to being a good writer and artist. We enjoy working together, and our next project will be a docuseries.
JR: I’m also about to start writing a feature film that is going to be very similar to “Singh” in terms of subject matter, but our show, which is currently in preproduction, will provide a platform for people in Indiana who wouldn’t typically have a platform in the media. We are looking to do an episode with the Amish community, as well as one about the various historic cemeteries in Indiana. I’m really passionate about telling people’s stories, whether it’s through documentary or narrative film, so I think that will be a really cool opportunity for us to do that. And we owe it all to Heartland, since this is where it all began.
“Singh” will screen on Saturday, September 7th, at the Indian Film Festival of Cincinnati, and Saturday, September 14th, at the inaugural Victory International Film Festival in Evansville, Indiana. For more info, follow the film on Facebook.