“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” the oft misattributed quote goes. It’s impossible to estimate how many unspeakable crimes have been carried out in the darkness or perhaps right in front of us while going unpunished or unreported. The reasons are many: fear, shame, guilt; all heaped upon the victim by the abuser in order to ensure silence. And as Baljit Sangra’s doc Because We Are Girls soberly illustrates, even breaking that silence can lead to a whole new world of hurt.
By any account, sisters Salakshana, Jeeti and Kira Pooni appeared to have a normal upbringing in Williams Lake BC. Born to immigrant Punjabi parents, the three enjoyed the outdoors, sports and Bollywood movies. But beneath the veneer lay a dark secret. All three were sexually abused by an older male relative from India.
As instructed by their traditional Punjabi upbringing, the three treated the man with the accorded respect, calling him “Bhaji” meaning brother. Even as they continued to be abused in their own home, they stayed silent fearing if they blew the whistle, they would be sent back to India like other girls in their community. Despite finally breaking down and telling their parents, the couple opted to keep a lid on the affair, fearing the families reputation thereby forcing the sisters to harbour this secret well into adulthood.
The film catches up with the sisters years later as after realizing their abuser was still active, they went to police and finally got their day in court. Due to restrictions reporting an ongoing trial (the film’s premiere at VIFF last year was even delayed over this), we’re only granted glimpses of the sisters outside the courtroom as their struggle to bring their abuser to justice drags on. An epilogue ultimately reveals he was convicted on 4 of 6 counts, but charges were stayed in June 2019 with a Judge citing an unreasonable delay in the case violating the accused’s right to a speedy trial. An appeal is currently pending.
The film is a touch watch, but a necessary one. The three sisters are given ample room here to tell their story which is supplemented by accounts from their parents, brother and other family members. While archival material is utilized where possible, the film also uses some of the sister’s younger female relatives as avatars for certain sections. It’s an effective device that breathes extra life into their account.
The film’s real strength is the access director Baljit Sangra is granted due to her close relationship with the family. One particularly emotional scene centres on the sisters (Kira in particular) confronting their parents directly on their inaction even when they found about about the abuse their daughters suffered. It left nary a dry eye at my screening.
Where the film falters somewhat is in it’s uneven structure. This isn’t particularly helped by the near-complete erasure of the girl’s abuser Manjit Singh Virk. While I understand the filmmakers reasoning behind this approach, wanting to give the sisters centre stage after being overlooked for so long, the utter lack of any name, face or even abstract figure to latch on to is ultimately to the film’s detriment. It leaves certain events difficult to follow and waters down the sister’s story more than it should.
Because We Are Girls is a raw and emotional journey, but a necessary one. The story continues even now with legal proceedings still ongoing. It speaks to pain that has been passed down from generation to generation. Only when this chain is broken can any hope of change begin.
Because We Are Girls will be available to screen on NFB.ca later this year
Catch Darren’s interview with the director here.