Ben Rekhi on 'The Reunited States': We see people we disagree with as enemies of country

Justin Rao
·4-min read

Mumbai, Apr 21 (PTI) Indian-origin filmmaker Ben Rekhi says his latest documentary 'The Reunited States' aims to chronicle the political polarisation across the world, but with the intent of highlighting that individuals will always have the power to rise above the hate.

Inspired by the book of the same name by Mark Gerzon, 'The Reunited States' follows four unsung heroes in the United States who are working towards bridging the racial divide in a politically volatile atmosphere.

The film profiles the struggles of diverse individuals-from an activist whose daughter was killed when a car drove through a crowd of counter-protestors in Charlottesville, to a former Republican strategist driving across the states with his wife to understand what has caused the massive polarisation.

In an interview with PTI over Zoom call from Los Angeles, Rekhi said though the 90-minute film is based in the US, its messaging is global.

'The themes that we have explored in the film are universal- about the divisions we face across race, religion, gender, and of course politics. What's happening here in the US is not unique. We are seeing it across Western Europe and in India.' Rekhi, born in northern California to a Punjabi father and an American mother, described himself as the 'intersection' of the two cultures.

Growing up, he would visit a Gurudwara and a Church on alternate weekends. The religious and cultural blend at homemade Rekhi more empathetic towards diversity, something the world is currently struggling with.

'I've always had this fascination of trying to understand those 'different' from us... and to acknowledge that disagreement is ok in a democracy. It's a helpful trait because then you push each other to find better solutions. But dehumanisation is not ok.

'That's what is happening now. We are seeing people we disagree with as enemies of the state, as dangerous to the country. We can't live with this divisiveness anymore, it's shredding the fabric of the society.' It was this thought-to film the growing divide-which compelled Rekhi to co-direct his first documentary 'The Hidden Vote' in 2018, which profiled minorities who supported former US President Donald Trump.

That documentary made the 42-year-old director-who had till then helmed features like 'Waterborne' and Kal Penn-Radhika Apte starrer 2018 fantasy thriller 'The Ashram'-realise the 'power of cinema' 'Art is the most powerful medium for moral transformation. My favourite films, the kinds even I want to make, are the ones which entertain and also transform you, allow you to see the world slightly differently...

'Not every filmmaker needs to have something political to say. But the ones I resonate with are the ones using cinema in a way to change how we see the world,' he said.

'The Reunited States' serves not only as an extension of Rekhi's efforts to understand through his protagonists what has caused the divide but where the country has reached after years of simmering division.

The director grew up in a mixed neighborhood. While his immediate neighbours were Japanese immigrants, an African-American family across the street and to the other side, a white family.

As Rekhi recalled, he was raised surrounded by tolerance, but maybe 'it was just where I was living in California.' 'What has happened now is that it felt like we were moving towards a more diverse and inclusive society... But the racist undertones were always there and they came rushing back to the surface with full force now. It was not like it was a different country- it was just in hiding.' What it has resulted in, according to Rekhi, is a fractured sense of truth.

There are people who don't agree that legitimate elections are being conducted and then those who subscribe to conspiracy theories, he said.

To reach common ground, Rekhi said, will take a 'long time to work through' as everyone today has a different sense of reality, which is 'scary.' 'It's personal for everyone. Everyone has lost friends, family members, co-workers over political disagreements. It's shredding the fabric of American society.

'What we hope comes from this film is our own personal stake in this. What each of us can do. It's not only up to our politicians to fix this, we have to fix this for ourselves,' he added.

Backed by producer Raj Krishna, 'The Reunited States' will stream on an OTT platform in the country soon. PTI JUR BK BK