Sofian Khan is the founder of Capital K Pictures— a New York-based production company focusing on documentary work. His shorts have appeared on PBS, The Documentary Channel, Fusion Network, The Atlantic and Huffington Post. He recently won best film in the 2015 Fusion Doc Challenge with his short ‘Timeshifters’. Here, he shares a profound personal experience that combines wit, charm, and the need for social introspection that is direly in need.
I grew up in Long Island with a widely diffused sense of identity. From my English mother I got my appreciation for BBC comedies and chocolate, while my Pakistani father blasted Qawwali music in the car and took us every summer to see our cousins in Karachi.
Then there were my American friends, mostly Italian, who I played baseball and video games with. The only hint that I was different from them surfaced when bacon, pork ribs or prosciutto was on the table, and I politely declined to partake. A brief explanation would suffice, followed by dessert. Nobody gave these small differences much thought. We were oblivious to how much would come to separate our experiences in the coming years.
Throughout high school in the 90’s, I honed my interest in filmmaking into what would one day become my career. By the time I was at college in 2001, I was working as a cameraman when I wasn’t in class, shooting low budget music videos and whatever corporate work I could swindle my way into. These were days when much was learned, when many mistakes were made, and when I began to discover the world for myself through the lens of my camera.
I’d moved from the suburbs into Brooklyn that year, arriving just in time to witness the city’s worst calamity. New York’s resilience and tolerance in the aftermath inspired me. It was only three years later that I experienced the pull of a dark undertow I hadn’t seen. That was the day I first felt the diffuse sense of identity I had grown up with start to narrow.
I was filming the New York City skyline from Laurel Canyon Boulevard in Brooklyn. The cemetery was in the foreground; the skyscrapers of midtown towered behind in the distance. As I wrapped up, putting the lens cap back on and closing the tripod, I suddenly felt a hand grab me by the shoulder.
At first, I was sure I was being robbed. It was a bright summer afternoon, but there were few people to be found on this desolate street under the Kosciuszko Bridge that connects Brooklyn and Queens.
My instinct was to pull away, drop the tripod and protect the valuable camera in my arms like a running back with his football. It was the fruit of much hard work, that camera: easily my most prized possession. But as I tried to move away across the street with it, I felt the hand catch me again by the elbow. Then, a second hand grasped the nape of my neck and pulled me back.
A man’s hoarse voice shouted into my ear: “Stop! This is a citizen’s arrest!”
I stopped. The words echoed in my mind as I tried to reorient myself. I’d heard the phrase before in movies, but what exactly did it mean? And why was someone saying it to me now?
Finally, I was able to turn my head as the man loosened his grip. I saw that he was wearing a hard hat and had a utility belt around his waist with a walkie talkie on it. He looked vaguely like Sylvester Stallone, I thought.
“What are you doing?” he demanded.
I struggled to find my voice. “Filming.”
“What? Filming what?”
“No, I saw you. You were pointing your camera at the bridge.”
“I wasn’t,” I insisted. “I was filming the city. In that direction.” He’d finally taken his hands off me, realizing that I wasn’t going to run. But he stood close, and his manner felt aggressive.
“I don’t believe you,” he said flatly. “I’m calling the cops.” He grabbed his walkie talkie and told someone, perhaps a fellow worker, to call the police. Then he explained our exact location and the guy on the other end said he would take care of it.
We stood there for what seemed like a long time, in silence. A couple of cars pulling off the 495 glided past indifferently. The edge of a cloud dimmed the sun for a moment. I didn’t know what to do.
“Can I pick up my stuff?” I gestured to the half folded up tripod lying on the sidewalk like some strange three-legged creature breathing its last. He stared at me. Then he waved me past with his walkie talkie and shadowed me as I lifted it up off the ground and closed its legs. I leaned it against the stone wall of the cemetery and then started to put my camera into my backpack.
“Hold on,” he said. “Leave that out so the cops can look at what you’ve got on there.”
Now that the initial shock had worn off, I found myself getting angry. But I placed the camera on top of the wall and stood there without saying a word. The man had one hand on the wall next to me, as if to cut off my escape in that direction, and I noticed that he hardly met my eyes as we waited for an update from his walkie. Several minutes later, the voice on the other said the cops were on their way.
The absurdity of my situation suddenly hit me. I felt embarrassed that I had allowed myself to be cornered like this. Why didn’t I just take my things and walk away? What right did he have to keep me there when I’d done nothing wrong?
“If I was doing something shady,” I suddenly started to say to him, “why would I go around with this big camera and a tripod? Doesn’t it seem kind of stupid?”
He looked at me like I was calling him stupid. I took the cue not to proceed any further along this line of reasoning. The following silence was even more tense.
“Where are you from?” he finally asked.
“Long Island,” I replied.
He looked blank. “Where were you born?”
“Plainview Hospital,” I told him. He still looked skeptical. “Sorry, I don’t carry my birth certificate with me.” Now I could hear my anger starting to come out, soaked in sarcasm. I took a breath and continued in a conversational tone. “We lived in Hicksville,” I explained. “Then we moved to Syosset. That’s where I grew up.” After that, I didn’t know what else to say.
“I’m from Farmingdale,” he offered.
That tidbit felt like an olive branch. He didn’t elaborate, but something about his demeanor softened. It was a confirmation of familiarity, however small, that had been planted. He was still committed to having the police come and question me of course— but there was no more aggression in his posture, and far less tension in the ensuing silence.
When the squad car finally pulled up, the officers listened to the construction worker’s account of the situation. Then they took my details, ran them through their system and asked me what I was doing there. I explained myself, and then volunteered to play back the footage I’d shot of the graveyard and the city.
An unmarked car arrived a few moments later and two detectives joined us, leaning in to watch the small flip out screen. “What kind of camera is that?’ one of them asked. “The image looks great.” They asked me a few more questions, mostly about the camera, and then told me I could go.
Looking back as I walked toward the subway, I saw the construction worker standing alone on the corner under the bridge as the police cars pulled away. I gave him a nod, and with a hint of mockery, added a brisk salute. He stared for a moment, then turned and walked away.