Baljit Sangra turns her lens to sexual abuse

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Because We Are Girls’ chronicles how 3 sisters who were sexually abused by a relative struggle to discuss it within their conservative Sikh family and community. Part of the Reel World Film Festival, the documentary will be screened on Saturday at the Famous Players Canada Square Cinemas in Toronto.

Here are excerpts of our interview with its Vancouver-based filmmaker Baljit Sangra.

How did you come to make this documentary?

A friend of mine, Jeeti, is one of the protagonists in the film. Knowing that I’m a documentary filmmaker, she asked if I would consider making a film about sexual abuse in our community. I acknowledged that this was a very important topic but asked what my access point would be. She then disclosed that she and her sisters were survivors of sexual abuse by an older cousin. The sisters never told their parents that they had gone to the police. Going to trial and breaking their silence was going to have a profound impact on the family. As the case got traction and moved to a preliminary hearing, the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) was approached, and the rest is history. I had been following this story as a friend, and later as a filmmaker. I think our friendship allowed for a degree of trust and vulnerability, which gave me the intimate access that comes out in the film.

What is the message of the film?

The film acknowledges the deep impact of sexual abuse on the lives of the three sisters, decades after the incidents. The journey they take is difficult and filled with confrontation, but it’s also a celebration of sisterhood that allows them to demand justice for the wrongs of their childhood years. The film is hopeful and is intended to create more dialogue and understanding around the impact of sexual abuse on survivors, while advocating for support. We hope to chip away at the stigma and taboo by talking about sexual abuse.

Any challenges while making the film?

The sisters pursue justice through the court system for the sexual abuse they suffered during their childhood. The film starts off with the sisters in court waiting for the verdict. There were challenges in following this thread, because there were so many delays before their testimonies could be heard; a whole year went by waiting. They had to prepare for testimony only to have it adjourned several times. This made it challenging to shoot and it took an emotional toll on the sisters. I was committed to seeing this thread through to the end and it took three years to get there.

What reaction did the South Asian community have to your film?

The reaction from the South Asian community has been very positive. I feel like we have touched people in a profound way that has allowed for us collectively, as a community, to unpack many issues, such as gender inequality, intergenerational trauma, and the misplaced shame and honour placed on women. It’s been a very empowering and transformative experience to watch the film together as a community.

Are you satisfied with the way it turned out?

When we had the world premiere at Hot Docs this year, and the sisters and I were able to share that experience with an audience, it was incredible. The audience engagement was incredible. We got a tearful standing ovation and so much love from the audience. So, any imperfections that I might have been concerned about just went away as I was able to witness the impact of human emotion in a collective space.

What’s next?

I’m hoping that this film travels far and wide and we can keep building on this momentum, to keep this conversation going. I am working on a feature film that is inspired by this film, set in the ’70s and ’80s. -CINEWS

‘Because We Are Girls’ will screen on Saturday, October 19 at 2 pm at Famous Players Canada Square Cinemas (2190 Yonge St, Toronto).

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