Turbans: Filmed in Astoria, About Astoria

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Astoria has provided an amazing backdrop for many films over the last number of years. In fact, we could tell a short story based on titles alone: A kindergarten cop freed a whale named Willy, short circuited, went a little goonie and became a teenage mutant ninja turtle for the third time. But does that really have anything to do with Astoria?

Enter Erika Surat Andersen. She, along with a group of volunteer actors, including Kavi Raz, star of St. Elsewhere ; Shishir Kurup, who has appeared in ER and Trigger Effect ; Amy Brenneman, who starred opposite Robert DeNiro in Heat and Sylvester Stallone in Daylight ; a cast of several children; and crew, will be filming Turbans for the first two weeks of August in Astoria.

Set in 1918 in Alderbrook, Turbans tells the story of an East Indian family struggling to maintain their cultural and religious customs while trying to adapt to life in Astoria. The story is filtered through the eyes of Karo, the inquisitive and feisty daughter of devout Sikhs, who must choose between their religious beliefs and customs and a strong desire for their children to gain an education. Karo's younger brother Ranjit and Kishan are harassed on a daily basis by schoolchildren, and their turbans become the focus of derision, as the harassment at school escalates to fighting.

 

Turbans is a 30-minute historic fictional film based on the memoirs of Erika Surat Andersen's grandmother and published author, Kar Dhillon, and her experiences as a young child growing up in Astoria from 1916-22. It was four years ago when Andersen discovered the 20-page story, written by her grandmother, simply entitled Astoria . “My grandmother was going through all of her things and handed me the story saying, ‘oh read this, read this.' It was a story about her years in Astoria and about her father working in the Hammond Lumber Company—catching logs that came down the river and collecting enough to build a house. It was fascinating to me,” said Andersen. “I asked my grandmother if I could make a film based on her story and she said it would be great. She's very visual. They way she writes, it creates images in your mind and that's what you need in film.”

As a writer, director and producer of film and video since 1986, and Assistant Professor in the Communication Arts Department at Loyola Marymount University, Andersen has written, directed and produced such film as None of the Above , a film about people of mixed-racial heritage, which was inspired by here own experience of being East Indian and Danish; Lifting the Blackout: Images of North Korea , a feature-length award-winning documentary based on an American delegation's visit in 1987; Questioning , a short film about the treatment of Arab-Americans during the Persian Gulf War; and Dead Air Live , a cable TV show produced in the Boston area.

Turbans began with a trip to Astoria three years ago by Andersen and her grandmother, “We booked a flight to Portland and drove to Astoria. On the way I was thinking, ‘Astoria could be anything—it could be riverfront condos by now. They could have paved over everything! How on earth are we going to find it after 80 years of my grandmother being away?' The amazing thing is that it hadn't changed. We pulled into the Chamber of Commerce and Jim Durham hooked us up with a man who went to the same elementary school within 30 minutes. Within two hours we figured out where (grandmother's) house was. And then it just started! Liisa Penner, archivist, genealogist and Astorian, heard about us, offered her help and hasn't stopped helping since. I call her our ‘guardian angel' of the project.”

With the exception of one indoor scene being shot in L.A., the entire movie will be filmed in Astoria. Says Andersen, “We really don't have a huge budget and everyone keeps asking, ‘why don't you shoot it in northern California or L.A. and pretend it's Astoria?' But I say, ‘you don't understand, it's really special there. I want to shoot it there. No place else feels or looks the way Astoria does, and it's where the story happened.' We're not using it as a backdrop—it's part of the film. During the time, there were three to four hundred East Indian men working in the lumber mills. They were big, strong men, recruited form the fields of California to come to the Pacific Northwest. For me, it's a missing piece of American history and it's a missing piece of Astoria's history.”

Although funded by PBS, Turbans us a low to no-budget film. The volunteer cast and crew of 25 will need housing for approximately two weeks at the beginning of August. Any models, hotels or bed and breakfast interested in donating a room or two would be thanked, not only by the grateful cast and crew, but in the film's credits as well. Got a spare room or couch? That will do too! The film offers some wonderful opportunities for those interested in learning the “ins” and “outs” of filmmaking. If you have experience in building theater sets, construction, painting, sewing, decorating, gardening, or costuming; or have access to an old wooden row boat, approximately 20 wooden desks or tables and chairs or camouflage netting please contact Liisa Penner. Leave your name, number and information at (503) 325-7852.

After its completion, the film will be shown in Astoria. Andersen is already embarking on the feature-length screenplay of Turbans . Her hope is to get real funding for a feature, “So who knows, maybe we'll be back!”

 

(Source: CUMTUX (Clatsop County Historical Winter, 1995)

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Contact T.S. Sibia
tssibia@sikhpioneers.org