The first feature film by documentarian Baljit Sangra, Because We Are Girls is an examination of how the devastating effects of sexual abuse can cross generations, cultures and continents. It’s a powerful story that, while lacking in visual panache, is abundant in emotional power and sociopolitical weight.
The film follows Jeeti, Kira and Salakshana Pooni, three sisters from a culturally conservative Punjabi-Canadian family in rural British Columbia. Starting during their childhood in the late 1970s, all three were abused by an older cousin who had recently moved from India into the family home. All three are pressured into silence for years but finally confront their family about the issue and eventually take the case against their abuser to the Supreme Court of British Columbia.
Sangra and her subjects highlight how the societal bigotries of both Indian and Canadian cultures failed the sisters at every turn. Their parents’ desire to have a son is manifested in their outward disappointment at having three daughters. Salakshana outlines how the birth of her brother in 1978 changed the tenor of her household by saying, “Happiness first came to my house at 12 years old, when my brother was born.” When the sisters first bring the abuse forward, the family prioritizes the comfort of the men (including their abuser) over the safety of the girls.
Meanwhile, when the case finally goes to trial, Because We Are Girls illustrates how the Canadian courts do much more to protect abusers than survivors. The sisters also talk about how their experience of Canadian racism continues to impact their lives. When visiting their old elementary school, Salakshana remembers playground taunts and says, “I can’t even speak English clearly. Still, when I see a white person, even now, my English doesn’t come out as (clearly) … I don’t feel comfortable.”
From a filmmaking standpoint, this feels like typical NFB documentary fare, which isn’t necessarily a negative. Sangra’s visual approach is unremarkable, but her greatest strength is her commitment to her subjects. She’s clearly spent years with this family and approaches their story with care and compassion. The sisters’ parents, who struggle to display the slightest vulnerability in front of their children, open up for Sangra and her camera, laying bare their fears, regrets and shortcomings in raising their kids.
Sangra also incorporates excerpts from popular Bollywood films of the period to great effect. The cultural impact of Bollywood cinema looms large over the sisters’ lives. They talk about both the positive and harmful impacts of those movies. They outline how meaningful it was to see women who looked like them sing and dance onscreen, but express how the often submissive roles of those women characters reinforced their silence.
The onscreen Bollywood sexism will look familiar to viewers of Hollywood films as well. It reveals that harmful misogyny is ubiquitous in mass media globally, while also showing the rarity of a cinematic depiction of women standing up to that misogyny. It’s that rarity which makes Because We Are Girls special.