Q&A: Because We Are Girls writer and director talks cultural silence and breaking the cycle around abuse

by Carolyn Bick

Baljit Sangra is the writer and director of Because We Are Girls, a documentary film about three sisters who suffered sexual assault at the hands of a trusted relative. Sangra talked with the South Seattle Emerald about the making of the film, the difficulties in breaking away from a culture that teaches girls and women that they are lesser than their male counterparts, and how cultural dynamics between older and younger generations play into the narrative.

Carolyn Bick: Tell me about your film. How did you even come to find this story, in the first place?

Baljit Sangra: I came to know about this story through Jeeti. She is a friend of mine, and in the film. She came to me several years ago. I had done some other documentaries, and she knows I make documentary films, and asked had I ever considered doing a film on sexual abuse, especially within the South Asian community. I said, ‘Well, that would be a good film, and important, but what would my access be?’ And she revealed that her and her sisters were survivors of sexual abuse. So that is kind of how it started.

At that point, she told me they had gone to the police, they hadn’t told the family that. And the files had stayed with the police for a very long time, but, eventually, it did get investigated, with a preliminary hearing, and was recommended to go to supreme court. And they knew that going to court and revealing this secret would have a huge impact on their family.

For a lot of it, they kept it to themselves. Obviously, they told their parents that they were sexually abused, and that comes out in the film, but going to the police and all of that, and pursuing it –– chasing down their files to see if there’s anything happening, they did that on their own, they didn’t tell their parents.

CB: This film isn’t just – and I don’t use this word lightly – about sexual abuse. It’s about everything that goes into it, especially misogyny and the way Punjabi culture teaches girls and young women to act. Can you talk to me a little bit about that?

BS: The sisters reveal that dark secret, but it also exposes the real heavy patriarchal culture they grew up with. That’s a really important part of the film. I end up exploring the immigrant experience, the relationship –– where they felt, in terms of the hierarchy at home, the impact of popular culture on them, which was Bollywood. And just where their parents were focused, you know, wasn’t really focused on them. They were new immigrants, and were really focused on bringing the rest of the family here, working – all of that.

At home, I think the girls felt at an early age that their father wanted a son, that there was this sort of gender inequality that they saw in the house. It kind of explores all of those themes. I think it’s important to lay that down, and I put that all up at the front, so that when it comes to the climactic scene later, where they confront the parents, it really comes together.

The response has been very positive, and everybody we’ve been showing it to has been able to relate to it on some level.

CB: I thought the way you spliced in old Bollywood clips was really well done. I think I understand why you put them in there, but can you explain why you chose to put old Bollywood clips into the film, and those ones specifically?

BS: These were films from the ‘70s –– that’s when [the family] came. That was also the happiest childhood memory, was going to the cinema. The Punjabi community would get together once a week and a film promoter would rent a screen at a local theatre, and everybody would go. It was like a highlight. And I think it was real escapism for the whole family –– the father, the mom, the kids, they all would go. And the father loved –– he would buy the records, so they really grew up with the music, those songs, so the kids would act out the scenes and the dialogues, play sort of that fantasy role. And there’s that one scene where one of the daughters had an arranged marriage at a really young age that she just imagined her father would find her a movie star, like a Bollywood movie star. And reality hit, like, life wasn’t like that Bollywood movie.

CB: I also noticed a lot of the dialogue and everything like that around Bollywood movies, specifically in the clips that you chose, as well –– it was really just, like, blatantly sexist, and showed women having no bodily autonomy.

BS: It wasn’t that challenging to find clips, to be honest. Those scenes were in all the movies. Like, in most of the movies. It wasn’t rare, and that just, again, informs the role of women, gender inequality, what is valued in a girl. Purity, virginity, obedience, being submissive, beautiful, everything.

CB: To me, the most interesting dynamic in the film was between the parents and their children. It was as though the parents wanted to support them, but the confines of how they were raised got in the way. Is that the sense you got, too?

BS: I think they were conflicted. They were raised a certain way, and they did talk about it. The mom had said, ‘If you had come to me earlier, I would have shut it down … I would have told her to keep it quiet.’ She just felt like that is what she should have done. That was her role, and, obviously, come to see now that the big priority is what will people think, family honor, and their biggest duty would be getting their daughters married, that real focus on marriage, so –– yeah, they were conflicted with their own values, and what they had grown up with. And then it gets challenged with the girls getting sexually abused by somebody [the parents] really cared about, who lived in their house. The father really saw that guy as a son, before his own son was born.

He was so conflicted. And also, now, all that they’ve gone through, I feel like they wanted to support the girls, but, sometimes they just don’t know how to. And the girls interpreted as –– [the parents] should have come to court, checked in with them more often. That would have made them feel like they were being supported. They didn’t feel like they were being supported. But the parents felt like, in their own way, they were supporting them.

[The sisters and I] talked about it, post-screening, and [the parents] really just know that, the way they were raised. They passed that on. And I am sure they witnessed this happen in their own growing up, and this is how people reacted, or it just never got out. So they are products of their own upbringing. It’s intergenerational trauma that keeps getting passed, especially on the mom’s side, for sure, because she can’t unpack it. It’s just too much.

I think with the movie and –– they came to the opening night in Vancouver, the parents came, and the audience really gave them a lot of love. And it took a lot of guts for them to be part of this movie. Overall, it’s been healing for everybody.

CB: I really did want to talk to you about the really emotional scene towards the end. I know that you know them, I know that they are your friends, and it took years to make this, but, did it feel difficult or intrusive to film those scenes we see towards the end? How did you do that, without getting in the way of the family’s authentic conversation?

BS: Oh, yeah, it was super-difficult. I was just crying. There was one camera, me and the sound guy.

We were just trying hard to be as invisible as possible. We maybe stopped once, to quick change the batter, but we just rolled. And, luckily, you know –– there was only one camera, and he was focusing on the right [thing], anticipating that conversation, and getting a really nice flow filming it, but we really were filming it like a fly on the wall. And it just happened, and we just kept rolling.

I found it really hard to cut that scene down into just one, that’s why it’s broken down into two. There was just so much emotion there, you know what I mean? And the shame aspect, when [one of the sisters] is like, “You don’t look at us in the eyes. When you look at us, you feel like you’re ashamed of us,” and then through to the final confrontation, where she’s just says, “I felt like I was drowning, and you guys [the parents] are making it worse.” 

And then she starts crying, and the mom gets up, and the sister gets up and hugs her, and you could see the other sister’s face, who was sitting on the couch –– she’s hearing a lot of news for the first time. Everything is written on her face.

CB: Was there anything you learned –– not necessarily about the case, the sisters –– but even about yourself, in the course of making the film that surprised you, or that you didn’t really expect?

BS: I think being on this journey with them, and following the story that had a lot of delays, adjournments, frustrations –– a whole year went by, when they were trying to get their testimony in, and the defendant made up all these excuses.

So, filming stuff, which I didn’t use in the film, where they are just venting, and so on edge and –– that, for me, was how hard of a journey this is, when you bear witness to how challenging this is, makes you –– I thought about it, and I am sure they did –– for other women moving forward, and going through this, how could this be better? How could we fix this, this broken system? It’s very flawed.

So, that was really emotional, and just gave me a sense of the worldwide struggle to get justice for women, it’s very hard. So, that was huge, for me, and education for me. You can read an article, but when you are there, you are in court watching this, and then –– all of it. That was like, “Wow. This system –– we need to take this apart.” This is just wrong, in so many ways. It’s broken.

It made me unpack a lot of this stuff that I hadn’t really revisited. I’m Punjabi, I come from the same background as these guys, parents came around the same time. So, yeah, just kind of like, you forget how hard it was, and what was expected of women, and how hard it was. And, also, when I had to revisit these Bollywood films. I watched them, too, as a kid, and was like, “Wow.”

You always thought the family honor rested on you. I remember that now. On the girls. And a girl who had somehow dishonored her family was like a huge deal. And there were girls, where the parents packed them up and sent them off to India, and they got married really young. And, so, all of that started coming back to me. You kind of forget about that, those narratives, those stories, where this came from. 

That was good for me. I’m making films, I’m independent, I’m doing my own thing, but when you’re following their story, and these are your friends, and you sit, and you start unpacking all the stuff, it’s heavy.

CB: Is there anything else you want audiences to know about this film, or anything important about the case? I know it’s still ongoing, based on the text cards at the end.

BS: Basically, the Crown just asked for an extension, to see if they are going to appeal it or not. I really hope they appeal it, because, if they don’t, that’s it, it’s over, done, no more. And it’s not just about them. I don’t think any woman would do this for revenge, ever. It’s so arduous. You’re doing it so it’s easier for the next person, and to set a precedent, some case study. I think all of that is so important. If the Crown doesn’t appeal this –– yeah, I don’t know, it’s really hard.

But … if you’re looking for justice only in the justice system, that’s going to be disappointing, right? They wanted accountability, they wanted their truth out there, and I think the film does that. We amplify that voice. And we are all having these kinds of conversations. So, I think that’s important, too. If you put all of it, like what’s going to come out in court, that can’t be everything, it can’t be. You’ve got to find your strength somewhere else, and dig deep. And yes, they were sisters, and they supported each other, but if another woman would come forward, she should reach out. She would have a sisterhood, too.

Women who come forward and break their silence and share their stories –– they’re doing it for other women, because it’s just way too hard. Who has three years of their life to go through court?

Because We Are Girls is part of Seattle’s Tasveer South Asian Film Festival, and premieres at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave., Seattle, WA 98122, on Saturday, Oct. 5 from 4 p.m. – 6 p.m. More information about the screening can be found here.

Featured image courtesy of Baljit Sangra.

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