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Tribeca 2023: A Welcome Shield
"American Sikh" makes a pleasant discovery out of a horrible truth.
The animated short bio-documentary American Sikh reminds me of a scene from Hollwoodland, where Ben Affleck as actor George Reeves, is performing a live show for families in his Adventures of Superman television costume. After a smoke break, George gets into character for everyone but is almost immediately met by a gun-wielding child, who wants to see a bullet bounce off of his chest. Like on television. Many decades later, we have kids and man-children go nuts for superhero flicks, treating them as more real than reel. Is it a sadness? Is it a sickness?
In American Sikh, co-directed by Ryan Westra and star/narrator Vishavjit Singh, fandom is used against its worst aspects, forcing ordinary people to applaud, hug, and welcome someone normally seen as “different.” In the case of this film, that difference would lead the real-life Vishavjit Singh on a decades-long quest to find some level of community comfort and acceptance as an American citizen.
Throughout the animated story, Singh evolves from his first days in this country, where he eventually chooses to remove some cultural references to his past - notably ridding himself of his turban for a while - to his more recent years in New York City, where he molds his heritage with the superhero character Captain America. This evolution maintains its colorful and cartoonish heightened reality and exaggerated emotions with ease, only ever toning things down when Singh himself tones things up… by going out in public, wearing the costume of a character that he created, Sikh Captain America.
The occurrence of 9/11, in American Sikh, isn’t the punctuated or show-stopping moment that one would expect in a movie. For Singh, there certainly was an expansion of anger and fear toward him and other Sikhs after the attack, but he had already been experiencing levels of bullying for years. No matter what new trends he followed, what new clothes he wore, or what music he’d listen to, fitting in would be this difficult thing out of grasp. Post-9/11, the film has this beaten-down air of exhaustion and depression, and it’s really felt too.
It wasn’t until he stepped out as Sikh Captain America that people high-fived him and embraced who he wanted to be. Wanted, mind you. American Sikh is a superb portrait of an America that’s splashed with color and yet dark and grey in the creeks and corners. It’s a cartoon, but never cartoonish about its subject. How could it be? The film does great when providing relief and release to the overall goodness that Singh himself represents, and the relief that comes out of such a vulnerable and inspiring action - the cosplay - definitely feels good to witness. But as good of an ending as it is, the ending is all but a truncated one, skipping to a finish rather than walking to one. So much time is spent on his trauma, and so little time is spent on his success - in and out of costume. This may have been by design, to suggest that more work must be done in the cultural sphere to win hearts and minds, though it could also have been a sly move to pull on heartstrings. I’m not sure, but I’ll go with the former for now.
American Sikh doesn’t fully explore the sadness of how he gains temporary acceptance, but certainly shows it somewhat in its quick ending. Singh reflects on how, out of costume, he feels the weight of the world. Getting off of a subway train, a kid asks for his autograph, recognizing him as the hero from the day before. Yes, it’s a schmaltz move, and yes it can be seen as more reason to feel bad for America as it is today. But… it’s also kind of sweet. Maybe it doesn’t matter if we want the world to be like a fantastical comic book or not. Maybe it’s just enough to stand out and be bold? Maybe. George Reeves did disarm the kid with a simple speech about good vs bad, so… maybe. 3.5/5
American Sikh is currently touring the film festival circuit.
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