Talent On Tap – Because We Are Girls – A Travesty for Humility

From the time we’re born there is a value and a quality that we struggle to hang onto as we get older. That is, our innocence. As children we look to our parents to shelter and protect us from losing this virtue. Once it is lost, we begin to eternalize emotional scars that impact the rest of our lives. For the individuals that steal it from us, they usually continue on with their lives robbing others of this precious quality needed to have a positive soul, to have dignity and to not live the rest of their life feeling violated.  We’ve seen the horror stories on the news but sometimes we only have to look at our own family tree to find violators of this atrocious act; the act of sexual abuse. 

 

For the victims that have been able to move forward despite not having their stories/experiences validated, I applaud your courage and your tenacity. You are survivors and ambassadors for change. The ‘Me too’ movement has certainly helped to turn the lights on the subject. Now we just need the loudspeakers to amplify the movement. If you have been a victim in silence, you are not alone and there is great strength in numbers. 1 out of 4 girls are victims compared to 1 out of 8 boys. Those numbers are extremely high and there is opportunity for change… if people hold their accusers responsible. 

 

The documentary film, Because We are Girls was written and directed by Baljit Sangra. It was produced with the help of the National Film Board. The film is a testament to the hardships and anxiety that victims live with on a daily basis. It reveals the pain, the anger and the tremendous shame of exposing the deep secrets kept under lock and key. I had the amazing opportunity to speak with Baljit Sangra and the emotional impact of her film.

 

 “How did you get involved in this story?”

“Jeeti Pooni, one of the protagonist’s in the film is a friend of mine. We go back quite a ways. I used to have a show on CBC and I did a piece on her awhile back and we’ve remained friends ever since. Later on I started making documentaries and did one on the South Asian community gang violence. She came to the screening and we started talking. She had asked me if I’d ever considered doing a film on sexual abuse. She said it’s something not talked about in their community. I said I would but didn’t know what my access point could be. That’s when she revealed what she and her two sisters had gone through. They had gone to police, they had informed their parents and were trying to bring it to court. I had gotten involved after the pre-trial. I had encouraged her to keep a video diary. Normally a filmmaker has to seek out their stories but she sought me out in the hopes that their story could help others.”

 

“After you had agreed to make the documentary, was it difficult for her sisters to talk about it on camera?”

“Not really, Jeeti’s relationship with her sisters is really tight so if she trusted me then they did also. My past films also demonstrate that there is no worry of exploitation.”

 

“How long did you follow the story?”

“I had gotten involved in 2015.  The National Film Board had a Green Light Development that requires the filmmaker to demonstrate on film some of the ideas you’re thinking creatively in order to be green-lit for production.  We finished in 2018 because of court delays and adjournments on behalf of the accused. It dragged on which required me to fund some of the production on my own. An entire year had gone by where none of the girls were allowed to testify. It’s very difficult to put your life on hold like that. They have to relive those memories every time they testify. The police statements are read over repeatedly and the defense is always looking for inconsistencies.  The accused was constantly coming up with reasons to cancel, delay and drag it out. It’s already a difficult task to book time with the Supreme Court. He did not want these girls to testify because of how damning it could be to him.”

 

“When did the film come out?”

“It first premiered at Hot Docs in May of 2019.”

 

“Do you think the ‘Me too” movement helped this story?”

“Oh definitely. People are talking about this issue and its shifting social values/taking a lot of the stigma and shame off it. Honestly, if we had made this film 5 or 6 years ago we wouldn’t have gotten this kind of attention, support and people coming forward. This conversation is happening globally.”

 

“Do you feel that shame and stigma keep people from talking about this?”

“Yes, it’s a hard thing. When you watch the film you see the mother talking about her own sexual abuse experience. One of the daughters had no idea that her mom had been a victim of sexual abuse and violence. It had only come out once the girls had revealed their own stories. She had finally realized why her mom had so many emotional issues growing up. As a child you might blame yourself. There is an impact with the secrets. It impacts your relationships with your partners, your children, your siblings and you see that in the film.”

 

“There’s a scene in the film where the sisters confront their parents as to why they didn’t protect them better. Did you know they were going to confront them?”

“I knew we needed a scene with all of them together and by this time the sisters had been to court and already testified so emotions were already running high.  Once one of them had mentioned why the parents never ask how they’re doing after going to court so many times, it just took off from there so I kept the camera rolling. It unfolded very verté and the interaction was very intimate and very raw.”

 

“What size of crew did you have working with you?”

“We couldn’t have too many people in the living room but generally we had a small group. We had a cameraman, assistant cameraman, sound, the producer and me.”

 

“How did the sisters feel after watching the documentary, were they able to have some closure?”

“After it was finished Jeeti had seen it but the rest of the sisters didn’t want to because they were still feeling raw after the testimony experience. The family had seen the screening before it came to Vancouver. I think with the Q & A and the response from the audience, it’s been cathartic and healing for them.”

“At the end of the film there is a disclosure that mentions the ruling is still pending. What was the outcome of the verdict?”

“He got off. On June 10th, using the ‘Jordan application’ the judge came down with his decision and he won that. The charges were stayed and he’ll have no record. We’ve started an online petition in hopes that the Crown will appeal it. They have 30 days from June 10th to file an appeal. The petition is to urge David Eby and the attorney general. He’d been found guilty on four of the six charges and the sisters have endured a 12 year journey to get to this point. I made it a mission to film until the end of the trial and to have it all thrown out because of delays. Delays that the accused had caused. The women wanted this to be over a.s.a.p. and the crown also knew the emotional toll it was taking on them. What does this say to other women of sexual assault? This was a strong case and I think it’s tragic that other cases will be impacted by this.”

 

“How has making this documentary impacted your own life?”

“Considering all women have experienced sexual harassment, I relate to it. It does make me reexamine so many things, such as values and looking back using more of a critical lens. It was like peeling back an onion and having a front seat to an incredible journey in terms of them taking it to the courts and the courage it took.  With the ‘Me too’ movement it could have been a precedent case that could further help strengthen other sexual abuse cases. To bare witness to that, to be on this journey and document it; it’s changed my life.”

 

“Has making this film changed your direction in any way as you continue to make more films?”

“I’m pretty consistent with the subjects I cover. I am interested in gender roles, I am interested in race, I am interested in issues that impact my community and shining a light on stories that need to be told by people that have the right lens to tell it. They gave me so much trust, including the parents; that weighed heavy on me. This could have been my own family and I didn’t want to betray that.”

 

“How has the family reacted to the judgement?”

“I’ve not spoken to them since the verdict but they are very supportive of their daughters and I’m sure they feel horrible for them. The fight’s not over yet though. There’s the petition and we’ll continue to make noise. There is still a possibility that the crown will appeal this and our local politicians will side with this issue and bring it up in parliament to make change. There have been so many amazing organizations that have been advocating for survivors of sexual assault such as Vancouver Rape Relief, Battered Women Support Services and other organizations so we need to continue to support the work that they’re doing. Collectively we’ll all keep moving forward.”

 

“Does their cousin (the accused) live in Vancouver?” 

“He lives in Edmonton and his name is Manjit Virk. His case is registered in Williams Lake, BC so it’s okay to mention his name.”

 

Baljit continues, ”Even moving forward, if someone sees a woman being abused, they need to say something. Even in conversations amongst men that degrade women, other men need to speak up and say its not okay. We all have a role to play in all of this. We all want a more empathetic and compassionate society.”                       

 

“Have you always been a very outspoken advocate?”

“In terms of my values, yes! I think a lot of it comes from my own values. My mom didn’t have a lot of choices growing up. My dad lived here and my mom came from India, it was an arranged marriage. I was always a feminist and she was always advocating for me to use my voice and education to stop perpetuating things like a dowry or gender selection. There is a clinic in Bellingham where women were going and terminating their pregnancies if it wasn’t a boy. She told me to go and protest against it. My mom has definitely been an influence on me. She has always told me I have a voice and that I have an opportunity to challenge things that are wrong. In India the wheels of justice move even slower.”

 

“What is it about subjects that grab you?”

“With documentaries, because they take so long it has to come from the heart. It has to sustain you, keep the drive going because you’re going to be with it a long time. These are real people with real lives and real stories. You have to have a real connection to it.”

 

“There were some beautiful cinematic shots in the film. It almost seemed like a deliberate contrast between negative emotion and beauty and innocence.”

“That was deliberate and we really didn’t want a talky talky film. In life there is darkness but there’s also light. There are ups and downs and we wanted to reflect that. Yes they’re survivors of sexual abuse but I have to find their personalities and you see that in the film. There are moments of dancing, laughter and a snowball fight. There’s so many things that I felt were important to include. Sometimes the audience needs to take a rest from their emotions.”

 

“How many times did you have to travel up to Williams Lake?”

“I went up about 5 or 6 times. I flew up most times but drove up when the story was in development. The drive is actually very beautiful in the summer.”

 

“Where can this film be seen?”

“It’s going to be shown at Vancouver’s Vancity Theatre from July 5-11. We got really lucky with the venue.” 

 

Having seen this film, we can all take something away from it. We can all be an advocate to report abuse for others or even yourself. Do not sit in silence, do not protect the abusers and do not miss this film while it is in town showing at Vancity Theatre.     

 

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