Baljit Sangra uses documentary and factual entertainment to explore social and cross-cultural issues. A three-time Leo Award nominee, Sangra’s films have premiered at festivals around the world. Her previous documentaries include “Hockey United,” “Many Rivers Home,” and “Warrior Boyz.”
“Because We Are Girls” premiered at the 2019 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival on May 1.
A family must come to terms with a devastating secret: three sisters were sexually abused by a relative. The sisters break their silence to protect other girls in their family and to be an example for their daughters.
The film is about the misplaced shame and family honor perpetuated in a patriarchal culture, which relies on female submissiveness and obedience. It explores this dark topic through an empathetic lens that celebrates sisterhood amidst profound childhood trauma—a lens that is feminist and empowering.
One of the protagonists, Jeeti, is a friend of mine. She told me that she and her sisters were victims of sexual abuse by a relative they grew up with. Because we had a friendship and we come from the same background, I think there was an established trust that allowed for vulnerability. We grew up with the same cultural and social values. I understood why she kept this a secret for over two decades, and I felt that I could relate to her story.
The sisters went to the police in 2007, and the file sat with them for years. Eventually, they had a pre-trial, and the case got moved to the Supreme Court in 2015.
At that point, we knew there was momentum and a story following this journey. 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 a filmmaker, it was so empowering for me to be on this journey with them, to bear witness to how they persevered and saw this through.
I hope the film becomes a call to action to have more dialogue and awareness about the impact of sexual abuse on survivors and to advocate for support.
I hope the film becomes a call to action to have more dialogue and awareness about the impact of sexual abuse on survivors and to advocate for support. With the momentum of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, I think there’s momentum in our communities as well to have this conversation—to challenge the stigma and taboo.
I hope the film challenges the sociocultural values that perpetuate women’s subservience and obedience. We hope to shift the misplaced shame from the survivors of sexual abuse to the perpetrators, as it’s not the victims’ secret to keep. Keeping silent only feeds into the power of the perpetrator. The film highlights the lengthy emotional toll of pursuing justice through the courts for survivors of sexual abuse; it’s a broken system, and we need to address that. Lastly, the film also celebrates sisterhood, which allowed these women to demand justice for the wrongs of their childhood years.
There is a court thread in the film. There were so many delays before their testimonies could be heard that 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.
The film is produced by the National Film Board of Canada. I was hired as a director of the film.
I’ve always been interested in storytelling and was drawn to filmmaking as a way to express the views of the underrepresented. I’m passionate about using film to explore social justice, especially issues around race and gender. I’m motivated as a filmmaker to shine a light on the truth to bring about understanding, compassion, and empathy. As a documentary filmmaker, you’re an independent spirit fighting for space and the truth in the age of fake news.
Best advice: Push yourself outside of your comfort zone, be prepared, and constantly ask yourself who is telling the story to whom, and why. Worst advice: Give up—documentaries take too long.
Be true to yourself, and follow your passion. Think about how this story can be told best, be open to experimenting in your visual language, and try to create an environment that’s warm, where people feel safe and respected.
Surround yourself with talented people who get your vision and believe in the project. Support other women.
“Bhaji on the Beach,” directed by Gurinder Chadha. It’s a narrative feature film directed by a South Asian woman. The story is set in London and revolves around a group of South Asian women from various faiths and generations who go on a day trip to Blackpool. Along the way, many issues are explored that spoke to me, such as growing up between two cultures, racism, cross-cultural relationships, the immigrant experience, and feminism.
I related to the film and appreciated the female-centric point of view. The fact that it was written and directed by South Asian women gave me inspiration and showed that there was an audience for diverse stories. It made me want to be a filmmaker.
Since these movements emerged, I feel there has been a shift in cultural and social values that have chipped away at the stigma and taboo around the issue of sexual violence. There is a sense of sisterhood being mobilized globally, as witnessed by the Women’s March. You see women coming forward, breaking their silence, and sharing their stories to help other women and girls.
In making this film, it felt like we were part of a movement. It validated what the women were going through. However, racialized women, immigrant women, and poorer women, all of whom are more vulnerable to the power imbalance, have played a disproportionately smaller role in the #MeToo movement.
Published originally as “Hot Docs 2019 Women Directors: Meet Baljit Sangra – “Because We Are Girls”” in Women & Hollywood, by Sophia Stewart!