A Warrior's Religion- A new film about gang-violence in Punjabi community in Vancouver
People are angry, frustrated and fed up with the brazen nature of gang violence which has jeopardized public safety, especially with the spate of violence that has occurred this week.
The number of youth who get sucked into the underworld of gangs has been disconcerting for Mani Amar, a young writer who decided to make a film about it. It took Mani close to three years to complete his film titled, “A Warrior’s Religion,” which will be released next month.
A few weeks ago, Mani came to Langara College so I could preview the film with him and at the time he said to me: “It had to be done. How many more people need to die? We are past the 130 mark of deaths in our community. The issue is not slowing down.” This piece aims to shed light on what led to making the film, the interviews with the high profile gangsters and questions about the title which might be considered controversial for some people.
I asked Mani what drove him to make the film and he said: “How readily we have accepted gang violence and how engrossed we are in it is what propelled me to do it. We are so relaxed about an issue that we should not be relaxed about at all.”
Mani described the film as a poetic documentary which does not state the premise blatantly. Instead it aims to arouse an emotional connection with its audience.
He noted: “This film propels someone more strongly into taking action than by dictating the message. One technique to drive people to act is for the audience to imagine that it is their son who is killed. In the film, I show a mother's tears (Eileen Mohan, the mother of the innocent victim Chris Mohan, 22, of Surrey, who was killed in gangland execution style in 2007 in Surrey) so the viewer can experience instant images of their own son.”
Another effective strategy to spark action is through interviews with previous gang members including that of high profile Indo-Canadian gangster Bal Buttar. Mani explained that he got to know Buttar when he volunteered at the medical facility where Buttar was staying. He also looked after him.
Mani said: “When I met Buttar, I laid it out on the table directly to him and said to Buttar, “I don't respect you. You have an opportunity in your life to show youth that this is what gang violence will bring you.” For whatever reason, Buttar accepted the challenge. In the end though, I reaffirmed that it's only death or jail to get out.” For Mani, what resonated most from the interviews was Buttar’s way of explaining karma: “You take blood. That blood gets taken from you.”
Lastly, I asked about the title: “A Warrior’s Religion.” The film makes reference to the Sikh religion which is clearly manifest with diverse images ranging from Sikh temples, scenes from a Vaisakhi parade, to well known martyrs, and a powerful image of the Khanda (one of the most important symbols of Sikhism) in flames with bullet holes in the background.
Mani explained: “ I chose the title for a couple of reasons. One issue is that these guys (those who died in gang-related activity) come from a warrior background.” Secondly, whether you like it or not, Sikhism was based on the warrior principles from our tenth Guru and forward.”
I asked Mani why this warrior image is linked to gangs and he said: “A lot of people think of being in gangs as being the equivalent of being a warrior, a warrior gangster.” Mani added: “Across the globe, Sikhs have always been defenders of the oppressed and the violence they use is as a very last resort, when defending a cause.”
In the film there are pictures of Sikh martyrs and I asked him what purpose they served in the film. He explained: “I want to show that being a warrior does not necessarily mean being a gangster or murderer. I showed these images of killed or beaten Sikhs defending the Sikh religion. Thirdly, like it or not, the majority of gang-related violent deaths in the last 19 years in B.C. in the South Asian community are directly linked to people of Sikh background.”
However, the images of the Khanda in the film might spark controversy among some Sikhs. Once at a Langara forum on gangs, there were heated reactions by some members in the community towards a panelist who displayed the Khanda on a slide in his anti-gang presentation. Langara student Gurpreet Singh Ghag who also saw the presentation was one of the people who took offence to the display of the Khanda and shared his views with me this week.
He said: “The reason why some gangsters use the Khanda symbol is because it looks cool. It is attractive for youth with the two swords and the image of weapons which is warrior-like. But these guys are the ones who turned their back on their religion. It should be used as a symbol of the Sikh religion not as a symbol of gangs.”
Ghag was especially concerned about what people from other communities with little knowledge about Sikhism might think when they see the symbol associated with gangs.
He said: “It’s the perception, that’s the issue for me.”
Ghag, who wears a turban and a necklace with a Khanda symbol, held the pendant in his hand and said: “The Khanda should represent a warrior of peace and a warrior of brotherhood, it’s a religious symbol which is precious to me.”
One academic who is well read in Sikhism pointed out that a common perception among Sikhs as to why the use of the Khanda in this context might be problematic is that in “Sikh Scripture you cannot find many quotes that define Sikhism as inherently violent and through Sikh history, Sikhs have fought only for the oppressed and the underprivileged; so this perpetuates a misunderstanding that the very practice and belief of Sikhism is something to be avoided and potentially harmful.”
Indeed, perceptions on the use of the Khanda are varied.
In closing, the problem of gangs is multifaceted and must be tackled on multidimensional levels. One strategy is to educate and raise awareness about the false glamour of gangs. For some, the film might be valued as part of the fix to this complex social ill with its clear message that gang life comes with a very high price.
As Mani said: “We have a problem and that is what I wanted to shed light on. Our world represents a Humpty Dumpty image, so my question is: Who is going to put it back together again? The message to you is: We have to.”
We are all stakeholders including government and unless there is more fervent action the line-up of funerals will continue unabated.
The movie’s premier screenings are March 18 and 19 at the Bell Performing Arts Centre, Surrey.
By Indira Prahst
Instructor of Race and Ethnic Relations, Department of Sociology, Langara College, Vancouver