Vic Sarin's scars from discrimination run more than skin deep. His formative experiences of trying to prevent his skintone from becoming any darker were so ingrained in him that even to this day, he avoids joining his family on the beach on their vacations.
In fact, the local filmmaker's wife describes him as an outsider to his own family, who uses his camera to find a way in.
That dynamic succinctly describes the approach Sarin took with his latest project, Hue: A Matter of Colour. In the National Film Board of Canada documentary, Sarin (who previously shot Partition and A Shine of Rainbows) travels to Tanzania, the Philippines, South Africa, Brazil, India, and Canada to hear stories of how people treat each other based upon their skintone.
Interviewees include Filipina businesswoman Elvie Pineda, whose difficult experiences growing up being ridiculed for her dark skin propelled her to launch a skin-whitening company. There's also a Tanzanian journalist trying to find out who exactly is hunting down albino Africans for their body parts. Along the way, there are also stories about how family members are treated differently based on their skintone, how some darker skinned people face threats of rape and violence, and how challenging it is for darker skinned people to find spouses.
All these stories are framed by Sarin's own personal journey.
Sarin, as he explains in the documentary, spent his childhood in India sheathed and sweltering in long sleeves and pants, even in the hottest weather, to avoid becoming any darker skinned than he already was. His mother's scolding left such a deeply ingrained impression upon his psyche that it created a rift between himself and his own children, and has been something he's been conscious of his entire life. But not all of it was negative.
"I see the freedom of my children…they go on the beach and they don't care about anything because they're immune to that consciousness," he said by phone from Kelowna where he's preparing to shoot another film. "I missed out on some of that so-called freedom. But on the other, I gained something too. I became far more conscientious of my career….That drive, I think came from there…if you feel you are number two or number three, you do work hard to excel to overcome those misgivings."
Consequently, he embarked upon an exploration of how this phenomenon manifests around the world. He wasn't interested in addressing racism, but rather how members of the same ethnic group, or even within families, discriminate against each other based on the gradation of their skintone.
He said he was affected by two Indian parents who, almost in tears, talked about how desperately they want their darkskinned daughter married. Unfortunately, she faces nothing but rejection.
"Yes, she's got a suitor who wanted to marry her and then he [the suitor] found out that she's quite dark, and he rejected her," Sarin said. "Then I said what about his own colour? He said he [the suitor] can't even see—he's blind….That to me is sad."
Sad is an understatement. Examples like that, which are echoed throughout Sarin's film, prove how deeply the discriminatory values run.
Most of all, Sarin wanted to reveal the emotional impact, rather than engage in an intellectual discussion about it.
"I'm much more curious and interested in the human side of things," he explained. "I'm not into the so-called technical end of things, you know, why and how and analyzing….I wanted to purely get into the human side of it: how it felt for people rather than how they thought about it. I'm more interested in not how you think but how you feel."
He also wanted to broach the silence surrounding the subject so that dialogue can start.
"We do have preferences in real life. We talk about somebody's height, we talk about his hair, we talk about his weight. But when it comes time to the colour of skin, we somehow don't go there. It doesn't make sense to me. It's all part of physicality. We should be open about and not be so politically correct….So I just want to open up the can, basically."
He also said he made the film for his children so that one day they might be able to understand him better.
"It's like a picture postcard for my little kids. Because it's very hard to describe to them at this age why and how I behave the way I behaved sometimes over the years. Hopefully this film will make them understand. 'Oh, now I understand why Dad did not go with us on vacation or why Dad did not do this or do that'."
He says in his lifetime, he has seen a lot of change and draws inspiration from that. He also recognizes how his children are growing up sheltered from the kinds of experiences he had.
But he does hope that this helps those who are dealing with these issues, in addition to reaching those who are unfamiliar with it. That's why he wants to show how people feel about it, rather than just what they think.
"I'm not an expert in dealing with this issue but…I can tell you what it does to us on a human level….It's not a dissection intellectually….At the end of the day, do I really care about why? I care about how I feel about it."
Hue: A Matter of Colour will screen at the Vancouver International Film Festival on Saturday (September 28) and Tuesday (October 1) at SFU, and on Friday (October 11) at Vancity Theatre.