The impact of sexual abuse can last a lifetime. Vancouver filmmaker Baljit Sangra’s new documentary Because We Are Girls provides a devastating glimpse into this reality for three courageous women. When we meet Indo-Canadian sisters Jeeti, Kira, and Salakshana Pooni—all now in their forties—they are awaiting the verdict in a B.C. Supreme Court case they have been fighting for more than eight years.
Abused as children by a male cousin who lived in their Williams Lake home, the Pooni sisters spent decades keeping their secret to themselves for fear of blame and punishment. Raised in a traditional Punjabi family that upheld conservative values of female subservience, the sisters learned that silent obedience was expected. Spliced between home video reels and photos of the girls smiling in their saris, we see clips of the colourful Bollywood movies that informed their childhood notions of duty and romance: women were modest and deferred to their husbands; if a woman was raped, she might even throw herself off a cliff out of shame.
Sangra manages, with sensitivity and depth of understanding, to convey the cultural frameworks that often compound the trauma of abuse in immigrant communities. Early on we hear of the racism and insulation that informed the girls’ small-town life, and how this impacted their family. The film then follows the trio as they resurrect the past and bravely confront the present, shirking stigma in order to heal and to ensure that further harm is not inflicted on others, their own daughters included. Intimate confessionals give the three women space to process their pain and grief; at the same time, we witness the resilience and solidarity they have built between them. Moments of laughter and joy persist, even as they face the exhaustion of endless court visits and the anger over what they consider inadequate support from their parents.
What sets Sangra’s film apart, is its dedication to depicting the nuances of gendered violence in a context where it is often poorly understood. For those familiar with the case that was still developing parallel to the film’s premiere at DOXA earlier this year, the final title cards will provide little respite from a harrowing journey. Even after all the work demanded of survivors, the systems meant to protect them still fail, time and again.
Because We Are Girls screens at the VIFF Vancity Theatre from July 5. The Pooni sisters as well as the filmmakers will be in attendance for screenings on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Visit viff.org for more information.