Amid the picturesque valleys in the northern Italian province of Cremona, lies the country’s cheese belt. It is home to the famous Parmigiano Reggiano or Parmesan cheese. In these parts where proud Italian families have been farming for generations, Onkar Singh has become a familiar name in the cheese producing farms. “This work gives me a lot of satisfaction but it is not easy as the work timings are odd. The farm owners realise that the local Italians are not willing to do this kind of job,” says Singh, in chaste Punjabi with his wife sitting beside him, in the feature-documentary titled Sikh Formaggio. He has been working in the cheese industry of Cremona since migrating from Punjab in 1989.
The 21-minute documentary looks into the contribution of Sikhs in rescuing the cheese industry of northern Italy. The farmer from Hoshiarpur is part of the 16,000 immigrant Sikhs living here. A large percentage of them are employed as workers in the region’s cheese factories. The filmmakers — Katie Wise (22), Devyn Bisson (22) and Dan Duran (24) — all former filmmaking students at Chapman University, California, take us through the scenic valleys of this region.
They introduce us to Singh’s family in Cremona — his daughter who is about to pursue a PhD in International Relations, his younger brother who is completing architectural studies from school, and his wife. We are shown the cheese making process, from milking cows and churning milk in large steel vats to resting the cheese moulds in stacks. “We had with us a 2012 article from The New York Times, which read, ‘Sikhs save the craft of Parmesan cheese’. We just boarded a flight and let serendipity show us the way,” says Wise, over email from the US.
The trio does not speak Italian, nor did they have any connections within the industry to reach out to these Sikh workers. “We had a student from our university who was learning Italian, make phone calls for us late in the evening. We mostly got hung up on or confused cheese factory owners on the other side of the line. We only made one contact with a Sikh man who had nothing to do with the industry. But, he said that he could help us connect with them once we were in Italy,” says Wise, who made this film with the help of a grant offered by their University, which honours the Sikh community through their Sikh Lens Film festival.
The other workers from the cheese industry featured in the documentary include Inderjit Singh Bains, who also migrated from Punjab, eight years ago. All share the same reason for migrating — better work opportunities and living standards. Within years of them moving to this region, their families also migrated to the region. In order to adjust to “a different way of life”, they learnt Italian, set up a Gurdwara in Cremona, and preserved other customs. “We never felt we are not part of Italian culture. We think of ourselves as a hybrid,” says Jaspinder Saini, Onkar’s daughter over email. In the documentary, Dalido Malaggi, Mayor of Cremona, acknowledges the contribution of the Sikhs in saving the cheese industry in the region.
Apart from screenings in Italy, the film has travelled to more than a dozen festivals such as West Chester Film Festival where it won the Best Documentary, Global Visions Film Festival where it won the Best Short Documentary and the DocUtah Film Festival where it was nominated for a Raven Award. Jaspinder is now a celebrity of sorts in her village and is not keen on following in the footsteps of her father. “We (she and her brother) have chosen a different path. My parents never pressurised us in what we should do,” adds Saini. Currently, the filmmakers are looking to release the film in India.