Local students share global stories with documentary

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Local students share global stories with documentary
The Baywatana team. (Photo/Courtesy)

REGION – On March 25, 2020, ISIS raided a Sikh place of worship in Kabul, Afghanistan, killing 25 people.

ISIS’s attack was just one of the many attacks on religious minorities dating back to 1996. Facing religious persecution, religious minorities — Sikh, Hindu, and Jewish people — were forced to leave their longtime homes and find asylum.

While ISIS’s resurgence was well-documented by mainstream media, stories of the exodus of religious minorities in the region remained largely untold. Now, an ambitious group of local students are ready to put the immigration of religious minorities into the limelight.

After months of work, the group produced “Baywatana: The Untold Stories of Afghan Sikhs and Hindus,” which delves into people’s emigration from Afghanistan and journey to the Western World.

Starting production

Baywatana — which means “without country” in Pashto — was produced by six teenage students from Central Massachusetts: Aekem Singh, Sahej Singh, Jaskeerat Singh, Jasratan Chopra, Tanisha Kaur Kapoor and Suner Kaur Chopra. The students attend Shrewsbury High School, Worcester Academy, St. John’s High School and Algonquin Regional High School.

The group was mentored by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Harbaldeep Singh.

The group operates under the name Nishkam TV, a nonprofit founded by Harbaldeep Singh in 2016. Nishkam — which means “selfless” — is an online television channel created in partnership with the New England Sikh Study Circle, New England Khalsa School and Westborough Gurdwara Sahib. According to its website, the group focuses on “building [dialogue], increasing understanding, and promoting interactions between different faiths and cultures to ultimately bring us closer as one humanity and enhance our lives.”

Nishkam TV students work on one of seven “teams” in the organization: the production team, the content team, the talent team, the marketing team, the newsletter team, the social media team and the production design team.

As Aekem Singh described it, it’s not all about filmmaking and the camera. He’s a member of the content team, whose work involves research and conducting interviews.

“For me, when I go into the future I want something involved with writing and research and being around people. I really use what I’m passionate about when working with Nishkam TV. I put my interests in that,” said Aekem Singh.

In 2021, Nishkam TV produced “Declaration of a Revolution,” which followed the farmers’ protests in India. The documentary won awards and entered film festivals. The group’s sophomore documentary, entitled “SEVA,” highlights Sikhs during the COVID-19 pandemic. SEVA was recently sold to PBS.

With such success producing documentaries, Nishkam TV attracted the attention of some large groups.

According to Kaur Chopra, the Parliament of World Religions, one of the world’s largest interfaith conventions, reached out to Nishkam TV. The convention told the group that the theme of the parliament this year was defending freedom of religion and human rights and, having seen their previous work, asked them to create something that fit that theme.

“We eventually brainstormed and spent a while coming up with different topics, and something that really stuck with us was the topic of Afghanistan,” Kaur Chopra said.

The group said Afghanistan stood out because the little-known story of religious migrants could make a big impact.

Local students share global stories with documentary
The team traveled around the world for the documentary. (Photo/Courtesy)

Filming begins

After nailing down the subject of its documentary, the Nishkam TV group began planning and fundraising. The money for the documentary was primarily sourced from the local community.

“It’s a community effort for us because we fundraise within our Gurdwara community. Everyone supports us with this because they know what we’re doing is contributing to our community. It’s not like we have all this money — we obviously don’t have all this money as a student-run team with a couple parents advising us. The community comes together to help us with these big projects,” Kaur Chopra told the Community Advocate.

The generosity of the community gave the students around $350,000 to work with.

Nishkam TV students, though they are in high school, used the most sophisticated equipment. Harbaldeep Singh said the group wanted to “break the perception” of poor-quality teenage productions.

“We’re trying to get the highest-quality footage we can. There’s been many other people who will do it, but they won’t go high quality… We used Netflix-grade cameras, professional lighting equipment, professional sound equipment,” said Sahej Singh. “We’ve worked on previous documentaries. The quality of this one — it’s not really comparable.”

The group traveled around the world for interviews, including trips to Vancouver, London, India and New York. At one point, the group visited New York back-to-back weekends to get footage for the documentary. In total, the students conducted 65 different interviews and compiled 170 hours of footage. Condensing the hours of footage into an 80-minute documentary took intense editing; the students said they edited 12 hours per day for several months.

“Our first priority is not to get it on Netflix or anything, but it was to bring these stories into the media however we can. We wanted to get the best quality materials to give these people the justice they need, to make a high-quality production that tells these stories, and to bring that emotional impact. For us, as we’re trying our best to get our names out there and get these stories heard, it’s a mini-goal to get these stories on Netflix, but our first priority is to get these messages across,” said Kaur Chopra.

“There’s not much light shed onto this topic, and so we want to bring it out and bring it to life,” said Jaskeerat Singh.

Local students share global stories with documentary
The team used professional equipment to make the documentary. (Photo/Courtesy)

Documentary complete

After months of travel, editing, interviewing, and everything else associated with producing a professional documentary, Baywatana premiered at the Parliament of World Religion conference in Chicago on Aug. 15. The auditorium was full — the group reported hearing people cry during the emotional documentary.

“During the process, we were very overwhelmed and we went through lots of struggles… but when it was done, there was this relief. We made it. We presented our product,” Jaskeerat Singh said.

“We felt so proud and so emotional… I teared up a little bit. The actual product itself was so emotional and so sad, and on top of that I had my own emotions when I was watching it [because I worked on it]. It came together well,” said Kaur Chopra.

For more information on Baywatana, visit https://www.baywatana.org/. For more information on Nishkam TV, visit https://nishkam.tv/

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