DOXA 2019: Trauma turns to sisterhood in Because We Are Girls

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      When Vancouver filmmaker Baljit Sangra started to make her new documentary Because We Are Girls, she felt herself moving between two wildly different but deeply connected worlds.

      One was the bleak and snowy B.C. mill town of Williams Lake, where the true story takes place. There, three Punjabi-Canadian sisters joined forces to speak out about sexual abuse by a cousin 25 years ago, and struggled to reconcile with their traditional parents.

      The other was the brightly hued, musical fantasy world of Bollywood, which she interweaves expressively into the story of trauma and justice—to increasingly unsettling effect.

      That’s because Sangra, who grew up steeped in the Punjabi culture here in the Lower Mainland, realized while making the film that she had been fed similar messages about submission, honour, and purity by Bollywood cinema as a girl.

      “When I asked these three sisters, ‘What was your happiest moment?’ they said, ‘Going to the movie theatre in Williams Lake,’ ” she tells the Straight over the phone, before the film’s premiere at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival. “Once a week the Punjabi community would show a Bollywood movie there. And for the girls that was kind of your fantasy, and probably informed their ideas of romantic relationships and the role of the woman.”

      As shown in the retro clips she threads through the documentary, the films are obsessed with chastity—the idea that truly “good” girls don’t get raped.

      “The heroine would be so pure. And even if she didn’t do anything she had to beg for forgiveness,” she observes of characters blamed for inviting the actions of men. “So we come from the same cultural background, I grew up with the same cultural norms, and I got the shame and the honour thing. You don’t even realize how much this is impressed upon you.”

      That’s just a hint of the complex web of cultural messages Sangra found herself exploring as she followed the three sisters—Jeeti, Kira, and Salakshana—through taking their abusive cousin to trial.

      “The court case is a big thread, but it’s also about family, relationships, the immigrant experience, and racism,” Sangra explains. “It’s like I’m peeling this onion, and you don’t realize the layers until you start doing it, and there are just more and more.”

      The idea for Because We Are Girls started directly enough. Jeeti, a Surrey fashion-store owner whom Sangra had befriended through past work on Channel M and Citytv’s arts-and-entertainment series VIVA, asked the director if she’d make a documentary about sexual abuse. Soon after, she disclosed what had happened to her.

      When word came that the ordeal was finally going to make it to court, Sangra knew she had to act—first by asking Jeeti to keep a video diary, and then by hauling her equipment up to Williams Lake, holing up in hotel rooms with the sisters, and recording the way they were dealing with blowing open a subject that’s taboo.

      “In our culture, you can’t even talk about sex, let alone sexual violence,” Sangra explains, noting that the #MeToo movement was exploding at the same moment.

      It was Jeeti Pooni who first approached filmmaker Baljit Sangra with her story.

      In Because We Are Girls, she digs deeply into the individual pasts of the sisters, from an eldest sibling doomed to a toxic marriage, to a youngest whose free spirit was continually quashed. She also explores their mother and father’s relationship, which started with an arranged marriage in India.

      “While I was making this movie, I really felt the way that our mothers and grandmothers had absolutely no voice,” Sangra says. “It made you just feel that there were generations of silence.”

      Sangra digs into the pressure Jeeti’s family experienced to bring other family members into Canada as immigrants. At one point in the film, Sangra shows an old picture of the family’s small Williams Lake house filled with children and adults, with over a dozen living there as they struggled to find their footing in a new country. One of the newcomers, a male cousin they’d been reminded to obey, began to abuse the young sisters—a trauma they didn’t realize they’d shared till they opened up many years later.

      Sangra also stresses the way the sisters are fighting to break the cycle of abuse for their own daughters. At one moving point, a tearful Jeeti, exhausted at the prospect of facing the perpetrator in court, tells her daughters, “We’re doing this for you.”

      “They felt strongly: ‘We’re not passing this down to the next generation. We have to take the taboo off it,’ ” Sangra explains. “In Punjabi there is a word, izzat, and it means ‘honour’. We learn that word when we’re little—it’s especially impressed upon girl children—and how it reflects on our family and our family name. So it’s embedded in your culture. That’s how the perpetrators get this power: they know that family honour will make them stay quiet.”

      The National Film Board-produced Because We Are Girls is one of a few films that Sangra has made about her community, including Many Rivers Home, about South Asian seniors living in assisted care, and Warrior Boyz, about South Asian gang culture. But none, she says, has hit her so hard personally. She admits to several times breaking down into tears behind the camera, during filming—most debilitatingly during a scene near the end, where a sit-down tea with the sisters and their parents suddenly turns into a cathartic confrontation. The unsaid is finally said—and unbearable questions, like “How much did you know was going on?”, are finally asked.

      “It just sort of happened, to be honest; they just started the conversation that they didn’t feel supported by their family. And we just let it roll,” Sangra explains, then adds: “It’s not a movie about blaming or attacking. It’s about how a family copes with something like this.”

      For now, the court case remains unresolved: last year, the Supreme Court of British Columbia found the accused guilty of four out of six charges of sexual assault, but he has filed a Jordan application, alleging that his charter right to be tried within a reasonable time was compromised. Judgment is expected on that in June.

      Whether the judge accepts or denies that application, Sangra feels the documentary can build momentum. And filming it has committed her to a cause.

      “I feel connected with them forever and it’s changed me and empowered me for sure,” says Sangra. “We’re committed to making change. And the more we talk about it, the bigger impact it has.”

      The film ultimately instills hope—not just because of Sangra’s approach, but because of the surprisingly positive attitude of Jeeti and her sisters in the face of trauma. Sangra sees inspiration that goes far beyond the South Asian community.

      “If she didn’t have sisters, there’s no way she would have gone forward with it,” Sangra says. “And I think a lot of women might really relate to that. In this era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, you can mobilize a sisterhood. You can find sisters, for sure.”

      Because We Are Girls screens at the Vancouver Playhouse on May 3 and at the Vancity Theatre on May 7.