Jessi Thind is Head of Narrative at Behaviour Interactive where he brings his passion for storytelling to the team, including the recently released Stranger Things chapter. Previously the narrative director at Warner Brothers Montreal as well as one of the creative talents behind Guy Laliberté’s Unknown 9, Jessi co-wrote and produced his first feature film, Killbird, starring Elysia Rotaru and Stephen Lobo. All-American is his next cinematic undertaking.
“All-American” is a beautiful script that follows the meeting of a young misguided American woman (Jen) and an elderly Hindu-American man (Kal) who has first-hand experience with extremism and intolerance. As the man tries to help the woman and get her to open up, we discover things aren’t as they seem. In various heart-breaking flashbacks we see the characters’ back stories, what led them to be who they are today and where they can go from here.
CULT CRITIC – This is a very powerful story. What made you write this?
JESSI – I’d say All-American was my way of somehow coming to terms with what’s going on in the world today with the rise of extremism, intolerance and xenophobia.I also wanted to explore the strength of words or maybe even the magic of words to bring change to individuals, communities, and countries. The magic of words to empower and inspire people or to destroy and demolish them. All-American is a journey that ultimately explores the hate rhetoric that leads to Jen’s fall, and, conversely the uplifting words of a stranger trying to prevent her from doing the unthinkable.
CULT CRITIC -You touch on hatred, terror, white supremacists, the caste system in India, bullying, and the LGBTQ community. How did you prepare and research before writing the script? And what do you wish readers will take from it?
JESSI –All-American is more or less the culmination of my struggle with bullies including a recent incident with a past employer. It’s basically all my experiences with hate and intolerance all rolled into one story. I guess it’s about a lot of things, but what it’s mostly about is how hate, intolerance and extremism leads to self-destruction.
CULT CRITIC – Why did you choose the Sikh, of all immigrant groups, to be Jen’s target?
JESSI –Jen’s hate is blind, and she targets visible minorities in her community. Sikhs had nothing to do with the events that led to her anguish, and yet hate and anti-immigration rhetoric leads her down this dark, disturbing path against the ‘other.’Why did a woman push Sunando Sen in front of a New York subway?Why did an extremist attack Mahud Villalaz with acid? Why did an extremist attack the Wisconsin Sikh Temple? And, very recently,why did an extremist plot to blow up a Synagogue in Pueblo, Colorado? Why? There’s no answer. No real answer.Just blind hate.
CULT CRITIC – Have you or anyone close to you ever experienced this kind of racism?
JESSI –Growing up half French and half Indian I more or less lived in exile from both communities. I experienced racism from both sides as a child. Not to mention high school was difficult for many reasons. I used to rush out the fourth period class just as the lunch bell rang to hide in the library where I’d eat my lunch and read Stephen King novels.So much so that the librarian used to call me ‘Little King.’No one found me in the library, and though reading was difficult for me, King’s worlds offered a great escape. Those were definitely tough years, possibly the worst years of my life, and I feel for anyone being bullied in high school. It breaks my heart because every day it’s a horror story for those being bullied and it often feels like the end of the world. And sometimes it just takes a few words to lift a spirit. To help someone get through a dark time. Words matter. Words definitely matter. They are seeds we plant in others that can either blossom into flowers or spread like weeds. One kind, authentic word from a friend can make all the difference.
CULT CRITIC – Who inspired the characters? Are they based on real people?
JESSI – There are countless people and situations that inspired these characters. I think the strongest influence is Muhammed Ali, or rather the incident between Muhammed Ali and the suicidal Vietnam veteran who sat at the top of a building about to jump off the fire escape. While the crowd below used their words to destroy and demolish the man, trying to get him to jump to his death for their amusement, Muhammad Ali, who happened to be nearby didn’t look the other way as many might have done. He got involved, and he involved himself in a way only Ali could have, yelling beautiful, soul-inspiring words to the man as he asked him to wait for him. Ali storms up the building to the fire escape and stays with him, fills his ear with more uplifting words and ultimately saves his life. Now that’s proof undeniable that Ali was as good with his words as his fists. This was a fight he won that nobody really talks about, a battle for another man’s life,probably one of the toughest he ever fought, and the very embodiment of proverbs 18:21, ‘Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” There are other incidents and people like creative leader Guy Laliberté who uses his voice to motivate his teams and advocate for communities that lack access to fresh water, or Ayrton Senna the race car driver who gave up the Belgium qualifiers to save the life of a competitor when no other driver would. Or Cristiano Ronaldo who suffered a leg injury in the 2016 Euro finals and instead of sulking in the infirmary comes out to use his words to lift and motivate his team. But I’d say Ali saving this veteran’s life was a strong inspiration if not the main inspiration. Ali went out of his way to save the life of a man he never met. That’s the measure of a soul.A champ inside and outside the ring.
CULT CRITIC – You discuss anti-immigration groups in America and corruption in India. In the script Kal left one country for the other but found a whole new set of problems to live with. What do you feel people can do to overcome those and better their lives?
JESSI – Stay true to who you are despite the bullies and extremists who will try to change you. I mean, I don’t think it matters where you come from or where you end up. Extremism is everywhere, and the best is to refuse to give an extremist any kind of victory by letting their rhetoric or actions get to you. Cultivate tolerance and understanding for other ways of living and thinking, and use your voice to speak out against those who would disenfranchise and deny basic freedoms to citizens or immigrants based on country of origin, way of life, or cultural beliefs.
CULT CRITIC – Kal’s son’s stories are so full of imagination. Are they based on stories you grew up on? What inspired them?
JESSI –These beats speak to a systemic crack in the foundation of our educational system. Our education system was more or less designed for assembly-line, post-industrial needs, which strongly values one type of intelligence over the manifold types of intelligences we probably should be cultivating and developing. What we currently call a learning disability is perhaps more akin to a teaching disability in that it is the teachers who aren’t adequately trained to educate perfectly healthy brains that break the mold. Usually it’s the spacing between neurons or axons that make the difference in perception, style of learning and core smarts. Yet highly intelligent students with unique neural spacing not only fail at a much higher degree than ‘bell curve’ students but are robbed of their self-esteem on an almost daily basis by well-meaning teachers who believe they are dealing with a disability when in fact they are dealing with creativity—overwhelming, intimidating, non-conforming, high-octane creativity.The kind of creativity that challenges and changes the world.Just look at Leo Tolstoy, Agatha Christie, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Captain Underpants and Steve Jobs, whose dyslexic ‘Think Different’ campaign was homage to out-of-the-box thinkers who challenged and changed the world with their ideas. Kal’s son is dyslexic. He’s a little Spielberg who lives in his imagination and is shamed and ridiculed every day by teachers and students for thinking differently…or rather… for thinking different.
CULT CRITIC – If you could cast your script and choose any actor in the world, who would you choose to play Kal and Jen and why?
JESSI – Sir Ben Kingsley and Hilary Swank. No explanation necessary.
CULT CRITIC – Please share your reaction after receiving Jean Luc Godard Award.
JESSI – First shock, then amazement. I’m a big fan of the magazine and when I discovered I was nominated I could hardly believe it. Now I’m still sort of in disbelief that All-American received this very prestigious award. It’s a great honor and I am very grateful to be interviewed today.