Three sisters, an abusive cousin and the culture that enabled him

FILM by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Because We Are Girls
RPL Film Theatre
Feb. 14—16

If documentaries are already a tough sell for the general public, imagine what Canadian docs must face to reach audiences. It’s a shame, considering how strong they can be. Just in the last couple of years we’ve got Angry Inuk, nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up and Anthropocene.

Because We Are Girls is an NFB offering worth your attention. Baljit Sangra’s film revolves around the Pooni sisters. First generation Canadians, Jeeti, Kira and Salakshana struggled mightily growing up. Bullied at school by white kids and ignored at home, they already had their plate full when an older cousin started to sexually molest two of them.

Growing up in a Punjabi household in which silence was encouraged and sex education was limited, the sisters didn’t speak about the abuse until well into adulthood. By then, the trauma had taken a variety of shapes. Their strong suspicion their cousin remained an active predator sprung them into action.

First-time director Sangra makes her presence known throughout the film without appearing on screen. Instead of going with perpetually hokey reconstructions, Sangra uses old clips to Hollywood movies to illustrate the Pooni’s trials and tribulations to remarkable effect.

The filmmaker also choses to focus on the sisters’ emotional trauma, as opposed to the legal proceedings against their abuser that frame the documentary. This decision is a bit harder to understand, although one can appreciate where Sangra is coming from.

There’s no clarity on the judicial process or what’s at play, and this becomes a distraction.

Because We Are Girls also puts the blame on the shortcomings of growing up in a traditionalist home. This isn’t me casting judgement, but the sisters’ parents themselves acknowledging it. They confess their culture’s default position is to not believe girls.

The climatic confrontation isn’t with the cousin, but with the father, who they think didn’t do enough to protect them. Startingly, he still thinks the girls are at fault to a degree.

In the end, Because We Are Girls is about overcoming trauma with others’ help and ending traditions that enable predators. All messages worth your attention.