‘First I thought this happened to me because I deserved this.’
This heart-breaking line comes as three sisters – Jeeti, Kira, and Salakshana – reveal the reason for their reunion. Now in their forties, they have all returned to British Columbia to seek justice against a much older cousin who groomed and sexually abused them as children. Vancouver filmmaker Baljit Sangra’s documentary follows them as they prepare their cases and await a verdict. Two and a half decades later, they have the distance from a conservative upbringing to imagine the possibility of justice.
While noted in publicity material, the reason for this reunion is not immediately explored in the documentary. Sangra allows viewers to get to know the sisters as a family unit, enjoying each other’s company and talking about their heritage, before revealing the task at hand. However, even here, the seeds are planted. The sisters talk at length about the culture of subservience and silence that their traditional Punjabi household upheld, and Sangra splices their testimony with clips from Indian film and television that reinforce the worldview Jeeti, Kira, and Salakshana grew up in. The documentary’s critical look at their heritage never veers into judgement; there is an understanding of the baggage that their particular brand of conservatism and patriarchal values passed onto them, but also an understanding that it cannot wholly excuse or explain their abuse.
The candour and courage of the three sisters is immediately striking. Each woman speaks confidently and eloquently to the camera, assured of their words, frank in their descriptions of the abuse they faced, and secure in the fact that they have realised their faultlessness. They are unafraid to go into detail of the molestations – and their incredulity at the permissions granted their cousin – but the most impactful statements are the insights they bring to the psychological impact of their conservative family dynamic. While still a brutal viewing experience, this articulate exploration turns trauma into something comprehensible – and therefore surmountable.
The sisters are similarly open about the responsibility they feel in stopping this cycle and protecting, but not sheltering, their own daughters. They remind their daughter and nieces that they are going to hear things they’ve never heard before, possibly things that will confuse and upset them, as they prepare to testify in court. This moment of honesty and acceptance shines in direct contrast to the silence and lies they were encouraged to cultivate growing up. That said, however honest the sisters are with the camera, each other, and their families, they do not get the same treatment in return. Their truths are met with deflections, if not dismissals – an infuriating obstacle highlighting the specific cultural and wider societal discomfort around a tragically common crime. That said, when these conversations get through – as the next generation understands why their mothers and aunts have been distant at times – there is compassion, perhaps even closure. This trial is not just important for the sisters, but for everyone in their lives.
In the end, Because We Are Girls joins the list of vital, necessary, and exhausting documents to the seemingly never-ending issue of sexual violence and the silencing of survivors: precious little progress has been made on this age-old problem. This process of laying bare survivors and their stories, exposing them and their worst moments, with little promise of justice has played out over and over, and this documentary shows a process many are all too familiar with. However, it is hard not to feel elation at sisters’ celebrations in the moment, as the credits roll over champagne and dancing after the guilty verdict is delivered. This victory is immediately undercut with the knowledge that the conviction was tossed out due to Canadian judicial delays – a slap in the face after the decades the sisters spent waiting for justice.
Because We Are Girls screened at Glasgow Film Festival 2020 on the 4th and 5th of March
by Carmen Paddock
Carmen is an American living in Scotland. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School, and while now working in technology she keeps her love of film alive through overenthusiastic writing and an unhealthy amount of time spent at the cinema. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ever After, and Thor: Ragnarok. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie