In 1991, I was doing my masters in New York, when I was asked to handle production for a documentary that centred around the co-existence of Hasidic Jews and Black Muslims in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights area. Friends, relatives and most other people warned me to stay away. They were not entirely wrong because Crown Heights was racially very sensitive and it had just been in the news due to its communal riots. A gangster hub, Crown Heights was infested with gun-toting drug dealers. I remember thinking that everyone there was either a murderer, or an arsonist.
That said, I made up my mind to go into the tiger’s den. But then came certain people who broke these stereotypes. For starters, there was Richard Joyce (name changed), who ran a ‘reform programme’ for juvenile delinquents. These were kids who were out on parole for various crimes; some of them had even committed murders for just 20 bucks! Joyce was of the opinion that some of these youngsters were good at heart. He felt that peer pressure — fuelled by ‘hate speeches and racial incidents’ — had led them down the path of crime. These boys (aged 12-17) were upset over neighbouring Jews getting preferential treatment and it had now turned Crown Heights into a breeding ground for hatred.
Part of Joyce’s programme was to build bridges between the warring communities, so he invited us over to film a friendly basketball game between the two. Here I witnessed a different form of aggression, but the fight was not about religion or peer pressures. During the game, a Jewish boy fell to the ground and hurt himself. Soon after, the game came to an abrupt stop and everyone gathered around him. The player, who was dunking, stepped forward and offered the Jewish boy his hand in support. Then the game resumed.
Were these the same boys who hated each other and had rioted against each other a few days ago? “It’s their love for the game that kills the hate within,” said Joyce. I learnt a valuable lesson that day. That was not all. After we reached our hotel room, our sound recordist realised that he had left behind his leather jacket in the basketball court. We told him that it was too much to expect kids with a criminal background to return his $400 dollar jacket. But just then, Joyce informed us that one of the boys, who was incidentally convicted on three counts of murder, had returned the jacket thinking it belonged to one of the Jewish kids. Needless to say, we were left speechless.
Be it criminals in Brooklyn, militants in Kashmir or fundamentalists in Gujarat, I now know how amazingly complex and simple the human race is. Perhaps one of the ways to defeat hatred is to break stereotypes.
Filmmaker Rahul Dholakia is best known for his National Award-winning film, 'Parzania'. It tells the true story of a Parsi couple whose son went missing during the Gujarat riots.