Interview English

We are one people, one world, one humanity, says Alex Sangha on the need for inclusiveness in society

The documentary Emergence: Out Of The Shadows traces the journey of three people from conservative South Asian families who expressed their sexualities.

Vinay Giridhar and Alex Sangha

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Directed by Vinay Giridhar and produced by Alex Sangha, the documentary Emergence: Out Of The Shadows offers an insight into the experiences and struggles of gay and lesbian members of the South Asian community in Vancouver, Canada.

It traces the disparate journeys of Kayden, Jag and Amar, who expressed their sexualities within conservative South Asian families. They faced denial, shame and despair and were confronted with tradition and taboo in their Punjabi Sikh cultures. Yet, amazingly, Jag’s parents and Amar’s mother chose love over rejection and embraced their children for who they are despite societal conventions. The three trace their journeys and lay bare their emotions in this moving and inspiring documentary.

The director and producer of the film spoke exclusively to and shared their experiences. Talking about the inspiration for making Emergence: Out Of The Shadows, Giridhar said, "For me, Kayden’s story was the most powerful, to start this film... for somebody to be disowned for being gay, where the family refuses to pay his tuition fee and he is abandoned even though he has family here in Canada. He contacted so many organizations for help and it’s only Alex who got back to him, with meaningful help. His story for me was crucial.

“Another thing for me was adding the parents [in the documentary] because I know Alex’s mom and she is an amazing woman, I could literally talk to her for hours. I told Alex that we had to have his mom in here. And then we have Jag and her parents and the contrast of Kayden not having his parents there.”

L-R: Sangha, Kayden and Jag

For Sangha, however, the journey was more personal. He explained, “When I was in high school, there was no support for me. There was no internet, no cell phone, no gay-straight alliances. I was all alone. Things have improved slowly, but it’s still very challenging and very difficult.

"When Kayden came to me and told me he had been rejected and disowned by his entire family for being gay, it was so traumatizing for him. The psychological trauma, the emotional trauma, the distress. He messaged 14 or 15 organizations and only I and Vinay from Sher Vancouver went to meet him.

"Imagine what would have happened to this young foreign student in a foreign country with no money, no immigration status, if Sher Vancouver was not there to support him. So, I did not want other kids in our community to suffer in silence. I wanted them to be supported, nurtured, loved. I realized we cannot make this film without it being balanced with different stories of gay men, gay women and older, younger generations, because the experiences are very different.

"The other thing that I thought was that it’s very important to educate the parents. We don’t really need to educate gay and lesbian people, but the people you need to educate are parents and the broader society.”

Not only does the film trace the deeply personal and moving journey of the three people and their families, but it also offers courage and inspiration to individuals and communities struggling with acceptance.

However, being one of the protagonists in the film was a deeply emotional journey for Sangha. “Reliving and being triggered about all these deep feelings and emotions I have had about my childhood and my adolescence," he said, "even my mom touches on domestic violence and alcohol abuse in the film. I have some vivid memories of that when I was growing up and how alienated I felt and how scared I was of my father.

"Then when I went to school, how bullied I was. It was hard for me to fit in and make any friends. This is an experience of being lonely and alienated that a lot of queer people face. [But] you don’t have to be queer to understand that. A lot of people have a hard time fitting in. If you are different in any way, you will be discriminated against.

"It was really hard for me to relive it. It was kind of traumatizing. At the same time, it was emotionally therapeutic and brought closure to me that I got this deep pain that I have had for so many years out of my system, and I have shared it.

"The film actually shows the lifelong trauma that people keep within them from childhood. You can really carry this struggle, this pain within you for a long time. So, this film in a way was traumatizing for me but also therapeutic.” 

In bringing the families within the ambit of the exploration of sexuality, Emergence: Out Of The Shadows acknowledges the extraordinary courage of both the parents and their children to fight the traditions and taboos of society.

Despite the parents knowing about their children’s sexuality, the process of making the documentary proved revelatory in many ways.

Giridhar explained, “It’s amazing that although Alex’s mom accepted him, they never really communicated with each other about her struggles. They never talked about how she felt. It was through this documentary that he [Alex] realized that his mother had to go through many struggles to accept him.

"It was the same with Jag’s family; they never talked about it. Jag and her brother also never really communicated about it. Though we say our families are close, we are not as close that we can share everything. I didn’t know who would say yes to a documentary like this. You need to have people who are willing to give their voice and then have their parents in it too. Jag is also a volunteer and a big part of the Sher [Sher Vancouver LGBTQ Friends Society] group. We asked her, and the parents said yes because they wanted to do it for a good cause.”

Being entrusted with such moving stories was a huge responsibility for the director. “This is my first documentary film and I hadn’t done anything like this before," he said. "But doing something this deep and talking to people about the trauma they have been through, you go through that journey with them and then reflect on your own life. It is an amazing feeling to be trusted with their stories like this, for the cast to just open their minds and hearts to me... that is a huge honour for me."

In fact, what has emerged from Sangha’s struggles is an empowering organisation, the Sher Vancouver LGBTQ Friends Society, which is a charity for LGBTQ+ South Asians and their friends and families. The arts, cultural and social service organization provides free crisis counselling, and through its peer support groups, volunteer opportunities and outreach presentations empowers LGBTQ+ South Asians to combat the bullying, homophobia and rejection that many of them face.

Discussing the response to the film, Sangha said, “The message is really getting across to the South Asian community, which really is the community we want to talk to. People realize that this film is a social impact documentary. We are here to send a message through Sher stories to make life better for the next generation.

"In the film, you realize that homophobia and transphobia are not just gay issues. Anyone can be a victim of homophobia and transphobia, including heterosexual kids and straight people. So it’s in our mutual interest for a healthy society for everyone to support and love each other. This is our broader purpose.

"The film doesn’t have an agenda. We just want people to listen to the reality and the facts and come to their own conclusions as human beings. It’s a real story, it’s an authentic story. I think if we remember that at the end of the day we are one people, one world, one humanity and we treat people how we want to be treated, everything will be fine.”

The documentary had its world premiere at the Cinema Diverse festival in Palm Springs, California, and has been received very well, winning a Special Mention for Best Feature Documentary for Giridhar at the Chicago South Asian Film Festival. It has also been selected at several major South Asian and queer film festivals across the globe. It is being screened as part of the Reel Pride Film Festival, which is the oldest such event in Canada and is being organized virtually from 12 to 17 October.

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