August, 2020
Photo Credit: Emily cooper

Baljit Sangra: Shedding Lights on society’s dark secrets

By Surbhi Gogia

Childhood sexual abuse is shockingly common but rarely discussed tragic issue across the world. In South Asian families, the situation becomes much more frightening since the victims (especially girls) are asked to stay quiet and burry it as a dark secret in their hearts — by their family members. Most of the South Asians feel that their family’s honour will be at stake if people around them discover that their daughter was sexually abused.

It is already hard to imagine the trauma of developing hearts and minds of those little girls who are sexually abused in South Asian families. Can the situation get much more ridiculous? Indeed, because instead of getting support and sympathy, the victims are made to feel guilty of a horrendous act as if they are some way responsible. The toxic legacy of childhood abuse carries on in the lives of the victims and shapes survivor’s future to a great extent.  Recently the World Health Organisation formally recognized the existence of complex post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition from which it is thought many survivors of childhood abuse suffer.

Meet Baljit Sangra, the Vancouver-based filmmaker, who has finally broken the ice on this tabooed topic by making a heart-wrenching documentary on three Indo-Canadian sisters, who were victims of sexual abuse in their childhood. The documentary Because We are Girls is based on the true story of the Pooni sisters belonging to a conservative Indo-Canadian family that lived in a small town of Williams Lake.

The three sisters Jeeti, Kira and Salakshana as per the documentary, were sexually abused by an older relative beginning in their childhood years. After remaining silent for nearly two and a half decades, Jeeti decided to come forward when she saw a picture of the same relative with another child. She could feel the same guy who abused her, was still active and abusing other kids. She not only wanted to protect other young relatives but wanted to set an example for her daughter as well. It wasn’t until her early 20’s that she learned they’d all had similar experiences. The sisters went to their parents, hoping to address the issue within the family. But when their parents failed to hold their cousin accountable, the sisters reported their abuse to the police.

“It was 12 years ago I broke my silence and shared my story of sexual abuse with my family. At that very moment, I knew it was more than just about me. It was about protecting my daughters, my sisters, other girls and telling the truth of what had happened to me and my sisters. From that moment forward began my journey of being a voice for those girls and women who have been denied a voice and have suffered sexual abuse,” mentions Jeeti.

The Pooni sisters have been fighting the legal battle over a decade. They thought that they finally got justice when the male member was found guilty last year. But just when the sisters were expecting sentencing they were shocked when the case was stayed due to the fact that the trial process took too long and the accused argued that his charter rights were breached. The sisters are hoping the Crown will appeal this decision. Justice may be delayed for the sisters, but Jeeti and her sister’s courage to step forward and talk about this incident has definitely set the ball rolling. It has inspired Baljit to bring Because we are Girls and the Pooni sisters’ story to the world. “I guess a lot of people are now talking about the issue. The response has been positive. After the film screening, we were touched to see men coming forward to talk about childhood sexual abuse. By having an open conversation, we are trying to take away this stigma,” says Baljit.

Born and brought up in Vancouver, Baljit pursued her passion for story-telling by getting into film-making. An award-winning film makers and a three-time Leo Award nominee, her films have routinely premiered at festivals around the world. Before this powerful documentary Because We are Girls, her previous documentaries include the award-winning Many Rivers Home, a personal story about seniors living in assisted care at the end of life; Warrior Boyz, examines the long-running gang scene unique to the Indo-Canadian enclave of BC’s Lower Mainland and Hockey United , which follows two amateur South Asian hockey players with their eyes on the NHL. She also sits on the board of the Documentary Organization of Canada, , is the Co-Chair of Doc BC and was a programmer for the Vancouver Asian Film Festival.

She says she decided to make Because We are Girls into a touching documentary because she has always been passionate about using films to explore social justice especially issues surrounding race and gender. “Also Jeeti is a good friend of mine. She told me how she and her sisters were survivors of sexual abuse. Their file had stayed with police for a long time. And once the file got to a preliminary trial and then moved to the Supreme court their story had a momentum and we talked about this journey being a documentary. There is a very rare chance of a historical sexual abuse case to make it to the Supreme Court because of the lack of evidence. But there were three sisters against one male cousin. The crown thought it was a strong case,” Baljit says.

The National Film Board was approached and an 85 minutes documentary was made.

The film starts at a snow-covered town of Williams Lake, where the sisters are waiting for the trial to begin. But instead of digging directly into the toxic topic of sexual abuse, the film beautifully portrays early lives of these three sisters and their family. On the surface, it looks like a happy close-knit family that is celebrating, laughing and eating together. Yet no one can guess that all family members including mother, father, the three sisters and their brother are carrying unbearable pain in their hearts.

Full of nuance and layers, Because We Are Girls weaves poetically between past and present, darkness and light. We witness the emotional toll that pursuing justice through the courts and confronting their family for not protecting them as children take on the sisters. But we also share in their happiness as they bond with their daughters and dance along to their favorite Bollywood songs. As the film deftly intertwines touching home footage of the young, innocent girls they once were alongside uplifting scenes of the strong, empowered women they have become, the family’s unconditional love flows freely through it all.

As the documentary slowly leads towards that one dark truth of sexual abuse, the world of Bollywood becomes more prominent. It may sound weird to see Bollywood songs in between a serious film, but the musical fantasy world is beautifully interwoven in the story making it as essential as it was during the three sisters childhood days. The sisters seem to be sharing a love-hate relationship with Bollywood. Tthey are shown dancing to popular Bollywood songs, but the other hand, they articulate that Bollywood movies are partly to be blamed for their sufferings.

Baljit who herself grew up in a South Asian family, feels Bollywood forms an important part of a South Asian household. “We are all grown up watching those films where women are always shown as pure and chaste and once their purity is at stake they are severely punished by the society,” she says.  For the Pooni sisters, Bollywood offered a beautiful world of escapism in a small aloof town. Unable to spend good quality time with their parents, since they both worked and also since their house was always full of people from India, Bollywood formed their idea of love, romance and even how women should behave and react in various situations. If their happiest memories of childhood were going to watch Bollywood movies their worst memories too are attached to Bollywood movies. It took the sisters such long time to come out in open about their sexual abuse because they had seen the fate of women in movies who lost their chastity. They were scared to talk about it with their parents.

“For a lot of women talking about sexual abuse is not easy. They keep the secret to themselves. Talking about sex in itself is a taboo in South Asian culture forget about discussing sexual abuse. Family’s honor is 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 honor will make them stay quiet,” Baljit explains.

The documentary becomes much more intense with three sisters recalling details of their sexual abuse. Salakshana, the eldest Pooni sister, discusses how it felt to be raised in a family and culture that did not value daughters. Kira, the younger Pooni sister, talks about how their present is being affected by what happened to them in the past.

The climax scene where all the family members sit together to talk about what could have been done to deal with the situation is most heart touching. Every family member including father and mother break down to tears because they could not offer the right support to their daughters. Made of human follies, insecurities and influenced by male-dominated culture, the Pooni family tries to come to term with this reality.

The film ultimately offers hope because of the positive attitude of the sisters in the face of trauma. Straying from typical portraits of the journey to healing, Baljit has offered a unique and powerful tribute to women’s strength in the face of profound trauma.

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