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Je Suis Superhero Creator Speaks

At its heart, the documentary Je Suis Superhero ( I am Superhero ) is a film about challenging stereotypes and biases - ...

Editor's Note: I had the blessing to see one of Harleen Singh's films, The Odd Couple, at the Parliament of the World Religions. She is a wonderful Sikh film-maker doing great work - finding ways to share the Sikh spirit through movies that include Sikhs but have a universal message. Her new film, Je Suis Superhero, looks at issues of race in comics. We interviewed Harleen about this project, and the Kickstarter campaign that she has launched to fund it.

Congratulations on the launch for your Kickstarter, Je Suis Superhero. Curious to know - how did this topic of bias capture your attention?

Here is a link to the Kickstarter campaign for the film Je Suis Superhero: 

http://bit.ly/JeSuisSuperhero

At its heart, the documentary Je Suis Superhero ( I am Superhero ) is a film about challenging stereotypes and biases - the story is told with a backdrop of comic books and its creators. 

Biases exist all around us and sometimes they start at a very young age. For example, if you think about it, 25% of kids in US are bullied in schools (the number is higher in UK) - and the only two reasons are looks and race. Even though its 2016, hate crimes are still prevalent, women are still underpaid (even in Silicon Valley), African Americans are still targets of racism, and my LGBT friends still have to fight to being recognized equally. So, biases in different forms are everywhere. 

As a Sikh woman, I have been stereotyped myself and saw people around me go through it as well and I wanted to do something about it. I wanted to  counter these negative forces, create awareness and make a difference and so I am making this film. 

And why did you choose comics and cartoons as a backdrop to illustrate this bias?

Comics are everywhere, in all cultures, in all countries and for all ages.Turn on television or Netflix and chances are you will see some show inspired by or adapted from a comic book. Go shopping at the mall or a department store and you will be guaranteed to find comic boom memorabilia and merchandise for sale. Movies based on comic books are some of the highest grossing films each year. Needless to say comic books have an important place in today's world, and have a certain influence on our society. 

Comic books have the ability to instill important values and life lessons into its readers, such as protecting the weak, believing in hope, and as Uncle Ben taught Spiderman, the lesson that “With great power, comes great responsibility.” For all of the good, comic books have a tendency to perpetuate stereotypes among people, especially gender and racial ones. Almost all the superheroes are anglo american male wearing a cape, with super human powers and often depict women in minor roles. There are no Sikh Superheroes or role models in this genre.

Since I wanted to make a film on stereotypes, this provided a perfect opportunity - and I don’t think anyone has attempted such an audacious story before this. Comics and films have a universal appeal, can leave a deep impression, and have an element of humor in them, all these made it an excellent backdrop. 

Why do you think this is an important topic to make a film about?

Sikhs have been stereotyped and misrepresented in the media. They have been the targets of hate crimes because people are not educated about who Sikhs are and what we stand for. We see similar issues routinely with the black community. In today’s world media drives everything and influences our thoughts. If we want to challenge the culture of stereotyping we need to use various forms of media and educate people on who Sikhs really are, we need to tell our own stories.

This film - Je Suis Superhero, is a step in that direction and hence is very critical. If we keep making such films persistently, and educate people, we will be able to change the culture of stereotyping. 

What drew you to Eileen Kaur, Vishavjeet Singh and Keith Knight as the focus for your documentary?

I think if you just look at them, Eileen, Vish and Keith look like they are worlds apart. And when you see them onscreen together, you immediately think - What are these disjointed set of people - an anglo woman, a Sikh and an African American doing together? So subconsciously, as an audience, you have already bucketed them - rightly or wrongly. And that’s where the film begins. 

As the film progresses, the audience realizes that while there are difference on the face of it , there are a lot of commonalities.They each have been stereotyped. However, in both their personal and professional lives, they have consistently challenged gender, appearance and racial biases. 

This combination of differences and commonalities  and the fact that people can hear their stories and say - “if they can challenge stereotypes, so can I”,  that's the power a film can convey and that drew me to Eileen, Vish and Keith.

You also have an independent voice in the form of three experts. Could you please tell me more about them ?

We wanted an independent voice in the film to talk about the role comics can play in breaking stereotypes and why the work of Vish, Keith and Eileen is important. So we reached out to people who are experts in this field. 

Andrew Farago is the curator of the Cartoon Museum in San Francisco - he talks about how comics change perceptions. We have Prof. Arvind Singhal a 30 year veteran in the field of Entertainment Education and Hollywood. He shares his thoughts on how the work of these artists can be channeled to challenge established stereotypes. Last, but not he least, we have Adam Elrashidi , a producer with Al Jazeera International who talks bout the role of media in creating and also breaking stereotypes.

Why did you pick a combination of French and English for the title of your film?

Je Suis Superhero - translates into English as “I am Superhero”. The name is inspired by the events that unfolded in Paris in January 2015 after shootings in a newspaper office and the “Je Suis Charlie” campaign that followed. Journalists and supporters embraced it as freedom of self-expression and for solidarity.

We want to take this idea a step further and through the title convey that anyone can be a superhero, because its not the external appearance , its the deeds that make you a superhero.

What do you hope this film will accomplish?

The goal of the film is to stir a conversation about how we should not judge people based on their appearance, gender or color of the skin. One film cannot completely change the world - we need to have smaller conversations in our communities to foster change. If we can make the audience think and enable them to start these conversations, I would say that we have accomplished our goal.

You grew up in India and now live in San Francisco. When you were growing up, did you have any favorite comic book or cartoon characters? Do you have any favorites now? 

Ever since I can remember, I loved comics. The idea that someone is dangling in the air, jumping from one building to the other, saving lives and helping those with lesser means fascinated me. The concept of good vs. evil drew me, but i did not have a favorite character.

Your Kickstarter campaign has already reached its initial goal. However, you have very critical stretch goals that you need to take this film as far as it can go. Would you like to say a few words about that?

Kickstarter is great platform to raise funds for creative projects. But it has an all or nothing aspect , which means that if you set your base goal and don't achieve it then you don't get anything. That is the reason we set our base goal very low of just $12,000. But our production budget is $65,000 to really make a world class documentary. We need this amount to acquire archive footage, music rights and add sound and animation. For example, one of the things covered in our film is the shooting at Oakcreek Gurdwaras in Wisconsin - just to obtain rights for the a 30 second footage from news channels that covered this event costs upwards of $2500. There are other such costs that all add up including marketing and distribution and fee for film festivals which can be very expensive. 

I hope that the community will chip in and help us achieve the goals. To thank them for their contributions, we have created exclusive merchandise, art and one of a kind rewards that they can proudly collect. 

I’d encourage everyone to go to http://bit.ly/JeSuisSuperhero , check out the fabulous rewards and contribute to the making of the film.

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