A bleak family history unfolds in the NFB's Because We Are Girls

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      A documentary by Baljit Sangra. In English and Punjabi, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable

      More incendiary in substance than in style, Baljit Sangra’s new documentary takes a straightforward approach to some pretty bleak family history. The film’s innate humanism, and the thoughtful qualities of its sisterly subjects, emphasize their disturbing past without sensationalizing it.

      To oversimplify things, Kira, Jeeti, and Salakshana Pooni were already coping with everyday questions of assimilation as a Punjabi family in rural Williams Lake, B.C., when their otherwise loving and supportive parents brought relatives from India.

      Because of entrenched patriarchal roles, the girls were often put in the care of an older cousin, and didn’t feel capable of fighting back when his bullying turned sexual. Although they compared notes, the siblings were afraid to alert the adults for more than the usual ramifications.

      “Bad girls get shipped back to India” is the dry way one now explains their reticence.

      The Pooni sisters were thus forced to endure torment and intimidation until they were of legal age to stay in Canada. The film is framed by their joint court case against the cousin—an event so recent it caused the film’s intended VIFF premiere last fall to be postponed.

      To fill out a National Film Board tale that mostly consists of rather indifferently filmed interviews, Sangra uses Bollywood clips, family photos, and archival footage to convey the complexity of the family’s appalling situation.

      “There is shame all around,” admits the women’s chastened father, during one confrontation.

      But somehow, he’s still not quite sure where the blame really belongs.