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"North of 49" Gone South
Sikh News Network, Palermo, NY, Apr. 2, 2004
Photo: North of 49
North of 49 is a documentary about a fire that burned down a temple called Gobind Sadan in upstate New York. The incident was prosecuted as a hate crime which took place a few weeks after 9/11. But the film is awful, to say the least. It is amateurish, boring, incomprehensible and, worst of all, it falsely claims the temple to be a Sikh place of worship.
The story takes place in a small town just south of the Canadian border where the locals are mostly farmers and hunters. Ralph Singh and his wife bought a large farm from a widow at the request of a man they refer to as 'Babaji.' Babaji turns out to be a 'holy man' from India whom they and the other worshipers follow. The land contained two buildings: 'One to house the holy book, which appears to be the Guru Granth Sahib, although the name was never mentioned; the second to house the eternal flame.' What is that about?
It seems that although the temple had been there since the mid 80s, the followers of Gobind Sadan did not mingle with the locals and were looked upon as outsiders. After 9/11, four teenagers burned down the building housing their holy book. Three of them are serving time in state prison. The fourth was an expecting mother; the father was one of the arsonists. She has since had a baby boy.
The film relies on T.V. news clips and interviews with some of the locals, including the pregnant teenager who serves periodic time at the local jail. It was disturbing to see the mom-to-be smoking cigarettes throughout the film.
The most interesting part of the documentary comes when the film crew makes a trip to India with Ralph Singh. Inside a building located near Delhi, the viewers see a row of people reading from holy books and doing choar [waving the whisk]. They also do choar to a statue of Christ, to a lit menorah, to statues of Hindu gods and more. The visitors are shown meeting with 'Babaji' and apologizing for the fire. 'Babaji' shown is sitting in a chair while his adoring followers do arti [worship] to him and doing pangra [Punjabi folkdance] to some keertan-like music. It was both entertaining and nauseating at the same time.
This is the kind of film fit for people who slow down to see the car wreck at the side of the road.
Filmmakers Richard L. Breyer and David Coryell are professionals, but it seems that they did not do any basic research into Sikhism. Perhaps they would have discovered some discrepancies between practices at Gobind Sadan and a Sikh place of worship. Instead, they let Ralph Singh define Sikhism for them. Interestingly, we do not remember Ralph Singh call himself a Sikh, although he let the narrator describe Gobind Sadan as such. Perhaps he and the 'Babaji' followers should more accurately call themselves Gobind Sadanists.
The documentary has been shown in some universities and recently aired on cable T.V.'s Hallmark channel. We don't expect, we hope, it will get much more coverage than that. The tragic outcome of this film is that the public gets a false idea of what Sikhi is about. Gobind Sadan people follow many faiths and rituals. They break many tenets of Sikhism, namely that the Guru Granth Sahib is the only Guru and not to perform rituals.
Although we believe that people have a right to follow any religion they choose and that all hate crimes are wrong, we do take offense to Ralph Singh and Gobind Sadan allowing the documentary to refer to themselves as Sikhs.