Because We Are Girls is an empowering, feminist documentary by Vancouver’s very own Baljit Sangra. The film world premiered at Hot Docs 2019 in Toronto, and opened the 2019 DOXA Documentary Film festival in Vancouver. Several screenings have been added due to its popularity beyond Sangra’s expectations, all ending with a standing ovation and emotional discussions. I had the privilege of watching the film a few times, and interviewing Sangra about the process of its creation.
The documentary follows the Pooni sisters; 3 South Asian-Canadian women who unpack the traumatic impact of the sexual abuse they endured as young girls living in Williams Lake, B.C. They are on a difficult pursuit of justice as they attempt to hold their abuser responsible in the BC Court system. Baljit Sangra was a long-time friend of one of the sisters, and was just beginning her career in documentaries when she was approached to get involved. “It wasn’t until Jeeti went to the police in 2007 that she got the momentum to pursue creating this documentary. Then the NFB got involved, and I thought my relationship with her and being South-Asian Canadian myself would make it a good fit. It helped in terms of developing trust,” recounts Sangra.
This is a revolutionary time for women coming forward in the media regarding the traumas around their sexual abuse stories. The case against former film producer Harvey Weinstein in 2017 amplified the #MeToo movement in Hollywood cinema, and most recently E. Jean Carroll stands confidently on the cover of NY Magazine defending her rape accusations against President Donald Trump. While the spectrum of outlets in expressing these stories is wide and all equally important, the successes of the “Surviving R. Kelly” series and “Leaving Neverland” emphasizes the power of documentary storytelling. “It’s the most real form of telling stories,” says Sangra. “It’s real people going through real emotions”.
While most sexual abuse stories have parallel implications, it is imperative to consider the intersections of race and culture when analyzing these experiences. Because We Are Girls presents Punjabi culture as a dichotomy, with the women in the film exploring a paradoxical identity through it; as both suppressed and devalued through submissive, misogynist teachings, yet fulfilled in its enriched traditions of song, dance, and values of love and togetherness.
It had me thinking: to what extent is culture problematic, and where is the fine line between celebrating, and being critical of culture?
It was clear from the film that the parents of the three sisters were unwilling to be critical whatsoever, and even justified aspects of the culture in which they admittedly knew were problematic. However, they eventually go through a complex process of unlearning, as they see the profound impact of their inaction on their daughters. Sangra, who has been following the family for over a decade, can attest to their abundant support claiming that the very act of their participation in the film speaks volumes. “As parents, the weight of this happening to three of your daughters is pretty heavy. Now, they are a part of the film in a vulnerable way and attend almost every screening, despite what people think. That’s big and important and shows they’re not as traditional anymore. Everyone is a work in progress.”
The constant battle between shame vs support was prevalent throughout the film. The concept of girls being shamed at a very young age and bearing the responsibility as women of upholding the family honour. It perpetuated this perverse idea that women need to be pure, as they are a reflection of the family. There was always a constant concern about sustaining a positive familial reputation in the film, almost similar to the structure of a dowry. This was juxtaposed with these same women crying out for support, and holding their family, especially their male counterparts, accountable by calling out the double standards and the violent impact of their silence.
Bollywood cinema is compelling in that it is a visually stimulating representation of the Punjabi cultural paradox. Is Bollywood therefore problematic? Sangra answers: “Yes, however the portrayal of women can be better in all cinema. Bollywood definitely has notions of the heroin and certain qualities she should have, such as purity. A lot of women come on screen for a sexy dance, always portrayed through the male gaze. You don’t see more women storytelling, but there is still hope!”
Artistically speaking, I was attracted to numerous transitional shots; specifically, the scene that utilized the daughter of one of the sisters, literally grooming herself. She was a young girl no older than 11 years old, wearing traditional elaborate Indian attire, slowly putting on an excessive amount of jewellery and makeup, which transitioned into an older archival black and white footage of another young girl doing the same. This was juxtaposed with one of the sisters, Jeeti, describing the “grooming” element of sexual abuse; how the process became routine, and thus normalized. It was a truly powerful contrast. “It’s important to also highlight how naïve these girls were; the oldest sister spoke about asking her mother at age 12 how her brother was born, as she was under the impression he was ordered in the mail. Sex was never spoken about in the home, so how were they supposed to know what was happening to them?”
The component connecting the series of events in the documentary, was the tedious nature of the court systems that the sisters had to endure for years. Although the accused was eventually convicted on 4/6 counts, a recent ruling in favour of the accused under the “Jordan decision” has now caused all the charges to be dropped, and his criminal record erased. Given the verdict, I asked Sangra whether the process she witnessed the sisters go through, and whether the documentary itself was worth producing. “Of course, because they held him accountable, and wanted to be heard. If you’re going to put all your trust in the justice system, you won’t find healing or peace. What matters is that they were able to tell their stories and were finally heard.”
Because We Are Girls will be screening at the Vancity Theatre during the following dates and times:
Friday, July 5 at 6:20 pm*
Saturday, July 6 at 4:00 pm*
Saturday, July 6 at 8:30 pm**
Sunday, July 7 at 6:45 pm
Thursday, July 11 at 6:30 pm
*Director Baljit Sangra and the Pooni family in attendance.
**Producer Selwyn Jacob and the Pooni family in attendance.
Written by: Krystal Paraboo