Sisters Salakshana, Jeeti and Kira Pooni with their mother, Narinder (left), in a family photo of them in Williams Lake, where they grew up. (submitted photo: NFB)

DOCUMENTARY

VIDEO: Shattering cultural stigmas: Three Punjabi-Canadian sisters tell their story of sexual violence

Raised in Williams Lake, Jeeti Pooni led effort to create the documentary, set to debut at festivals

Three Punjabi Canadian sisters who grew up in Williams Lake are the focus of a heart-wrenching yet hopeful new movie that documents the impact of sexual violence they endured over many years while growing up in the lakecity.

One of the siblings, Jeeti Pooni, who now lives in Cloverdale, led the effort to have Because We Are Girls made, in an effort to shed light on the cultural stigma that is still attached to sexual abuse victims within Punjabi-Canadian communities. She also wanted to protect and empower girls today, including her two daughters.

The Williams Lake Tribune followed the women through some of the ongoing court proceedings relating to the allegations in Williams Lake Provincial Court in 2018, but cannot share those details due to a publication ban. The Tribune did interview the women outside of the courthouse April, 2018 after a day in court.

Jeeti is in Toronto this week for the world premiere of the film, shot over three years and directed by Baljit Sangra.

Jeeti knew filmmaker Sangra from her work in the fashion industry, and years ago told her friend about her difficult past.

The sisters — Jeeti, Kira and Salakshana — were abused by an older cousin beginning in their childhood years, but didn’t tell the entire family about it until 2006. As their relatives and police were made aware of the incidents, a court case slowly developed, as did the documentary film.

“I have a lot to do with pursuing the court case and making sure that, for one, we were heard and that the police heard us and the court case proceeded,” Jeeti told Black Press Media. “I had a lot to do with the film itself, because I was the one who approached the film board, the NFB, that a film should be made about this, and that was in 2014.”

Three years in the making, with the court case ongoing, Because We Are Girls will have its world premiere during Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival, held from May 1 to 3, and will open the DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver later that week, with screenings on Friday, May 3, and Tuesday, May 7.

CLICK HERE for screening details posted to the DOXA website.

Sangra’s 85-minute film, at times powerful and poignant, heartbreaking and haunting, also weaves in the moments of happiness and joy the sisters experienced as kids. In home movies, they are shown dancing, singing and celebrating weddings. In newer footage, they return to the playground at their former school in Williams Lake.

Ultimately, Because We Are Girls offers an empowering story about a conservative Punjabi-Canadian family coming to grips with sexual violence.

“I knew the story had to be told, and that it was a way for my sisters and I to be heard as well,” Jeeti said in a phone interview. “It was about changing attitudes and beliefs, and having the community wake up and not bury the issue of sexual abuse anymore.

The sisters felt silenced years ago, Jeeti added, “and that made me want to pursue this, because it can’t be this way anymore. And I have daughters, and to make this a better place for them, we have to start having this dialogue about sexual abuse.”

The movie reveals how the girls felt they couldn’t tell anyone about the abuse, for fear of “being shipped off to India” and being shunned for what happened.

“The biggest advantage he had was he knew we’d keep our mouths shut,” one of the sisters says of the accused, whose identity is kept out of the film.

“Any mention of him, there was no place in the film, no need,” Jeeti said. “At the time the film was being shot, the court case was proceeding, so there were things we couldn’t share, but now that it’s all wrapping up, I think the important thing is that this story is not about him, it’s about the resilience of my sisters and I, and stepping into our power and standing up for ourselves and sharing our truth, no matter if we’re believed or not. The story is more about that, and also when you see my daughters in the film, that’s when it should really hit home that my sisters and I were once little girls just like that, right. It’s to show that innocence and wake up the community to stop blaming the girls and the women.”

Sangra has crafted an intimate documentary about the family’s struggles, after Jeeti pushed the NFB to have her direct the feature-length movie.

“It’s not a story that can be told every day,” Sangra said. “It was more about Jeeti’s story at first, and I always imagined it as a family story, and we got them in one by one. We gained the trust of the family and the sisters.”

The sisters’ family members, including their parents, are shown discussing the past, the pain, the future.

“With getting them involved, I just had that sense, that feeling, because this wasn’t about blaming anyone or making anyone feel wrong in my family, right,” Jeeti said. “My sisters and my parents, they have that trust that I wouldn’t bring them into something where they’d be smeared in any way. I have so much love and respect for them, and they know that.… I think for my parents, they couldn’t help us, and whatever happened to us girls, happened to us, so this is a way for them to do something about it now, you know.”

Today, in addition to designing shawls for her To Desire business, Jeeti works as a motivational speaker focusing on sexual-abuse awareness. Her debut book, The Silent Stoning, is due to be published this fall, according to a description of it on her website (jeetipooni.com).

As dark as some moments are in the film, there is also some lightness and joy in Because We Are Girls.

“These horrible things have happened to me and my sisters when we were young and, in my case, into adulthood, but we still had a fun life and still did fun things – we weren’t miserable, nor do we live miserable lives now. I think that people think once you’ve been victimized, there’s a certain sorrow that lingers over you. And as you see in the film, there are happy moments and jokes we make, and that’s just us,” says Jeeti.

If anyone in Williams Lake would like to see the film, they can make a request to the National Film Board at info@nfb.ca.

Jeeti said she has received many requests from people wanting to see the film and feels it will be well received in Williams Lake.


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Cloverdale resident Jeeti Pooni in the documentary film Because We Are Girls. (submitted photo: NFB)

The new documentary movie Because We Are Girls follows sisters Salakshana, Kira and Jeeti Pooni (from left) as they come to terms with a devasting secret 25 years in the making: they were sexually abused by the same older relative throughout their childhood years. (submitted photo: NFB)

Baljit Sangra directed the new documentary movie, Because We Are Girls.

Cousin Raj Rana with sisters Jeeti Pooni, Salakshana Pooni and Kira Pooni gave the Tribune an interview outside the Williams Lake Provincial Court last year. The sisters are the focus of a documentary, Because We Were Girls. Angie Mindus photo

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