My personal favourite? “Folks in BC are just so kind, gentle and pretty laid back, certainly more so than in Toronto.” This opinion was generally held by people who've never travelled to BC, but told me they considered me lucky to live in Canada's most socialist and Utopian province. I initially tried to offer a bit of honest information, but then gave up, choosing instead to let a few Ontarians believe there really is a place in Canada where one can spend more time hiking, harvesting magic mushrooms and hugging trees than working.
The reality is that Vancouver is a busy city with complex social problems, including a booming illegal drug trade and gang violence. In February (08), Statistics Canada released a study showing that Metro Vancouver has the nation’s highest gun-related crime rate, out-pacing even Greater Toronto.
Some of those hard facts are explored in the outstanding documentary Warrior Boyz, which screens here today in Vancouver, as part of the Vancouver Asian Film Festival. It'll also air on TV this season on Canwest Global. I highly recommend tuning in when it airs; it's an exceptional film, smart and relevant, and not just to Vancouver.
Stories about gangs and guns have dominated B.C. headlines for decades. Even the venerable American newspaper The Washington Post published an article headlined “Vancouver Struggles With Gang Violence.”
In spite of all the ink that’s been spilled, there’s little understanding about why so much blood has been spilled. More than 100 young men, many from the South Asian/Indo-Canadian community in Metro Vancouver, have been murdered in gang warfare in just over a decade.
"I thought this film had to be made, so why not by me?” Vancouver filmmaker Baljit Sangra told me last spring, when the film was about to debut at the DOXA Film Festival.
Sangra, born and raised in Vancouver, brings a level of understanding to the film that would be impossible for a filmmaker from outside the community. “It’s something that everybody talks about. There’d be social debates in households, like ‘Why do you think this is going on?’ And everyone would have their own answers.”
So Sangra set out, with the NFB’s support, to explore “why” so many lives have been lost. Warrior Boyz is a fascinating, rare chance to see the issues through the eyes of Indo-Canadians.
Her approach is hands on. Sangra tracks the lives of two high school boys, Tanvir, a 15-year-old 10th grader, and Vicky, 18 and in 12th grade, even taking cameras into their Surrey, B.C., school. She followed them for over a year, discovering that there are many young men like them, facing incredible pressures that put them at risk for gang involvement.
Sangra frames the younger boys’ experiences against those of Jagdeep Singh Mangat, a social activist and law student who once belonged to a gang. Mangat’s recollections offer a cautionary road map for his two young counterparts.
Mangat is a riveting presence on screen, sharing his experiences with raw, blunt honesty. “I just wanted to get out,” he says. “I’ve already been hacked open with a machete. I’ve got bullet wounds in my body and I knew that there was a contract out on my head. I was gonna be dead.”
Sangra’s approach, juxtaposing the high schoolers with Mangat, is smart. Many sociologists have observed that kids who are bullied and are prone to fighting display the same traits as kids considered at risk for gang involvement. There are many similarities between Tanvir, Vicky and Jagdeep, regardless of their disparate ages.
Each talks about suffering feelings of low self esteem, a desire to be accepted and respected, and frustration with racial prejudice. The two eldest, Vicky and Jagdeep, both mention that their desire to make life changes came from regrets about the pain they caused their families, especially their mothers.
“You get lost in all that fighting it goes from fists, to knives, to guns,” say Vicky, who switched schools to leave a troubled history behind him.
The film is remarkable for many reasons, but especially for the courage displayed by the filmmaker’s three subjects. The honesty and bravery shown by all three young men is extraordinary.
“I started out as almost every gang-involved person does, as a wannabe,” Mangat says in the film. “I thought these guys (gangsters) are awesome, they’ve got power. Nobody screws with them. And that was pretty appealing to a kid who had issues with self-esteem, until I got involved with a gang. Suddenly, it was like, I belong. That’s a very powerful emotion.”
Though Sangra treads lightly and without blame, it’s clear that the politics of race and culture need to be analysed as contributing to the issue. All the interviewees talk about feeling excluded and about “brown pride.”
Images of Mangat, talking about having bottles tossed at him as a small child along with racial slurs like, “Hindu go home,” are cause for every Canadian with conscience to search his or her soul.
He’s a haunting, and perhaps haunted, character. He’s smart, articulate, and has a ridiculously warm smile and terribly sad eyes. He looks backs at his experience and suggests there will be no end of warrior boyz, like (he used to be), Tanvir and Vicky, unless the social roots of the problem are understood.
Too many politicians suggest, he says, “That there’s something inherently wrong with the South Asian community itself. And that somehow the answers to what’s going on with South Asian young men in the last 10 years, are to be found completely, totally and exclusively within the South Asian community,” says Mangat.
“You have to put this into context. It’s a convergence of all sorts of factors, like the larger political economy and social change. How is this failure of the family? Why isn’t this seen as a failure of society?”
You can find more info about the film at http://citizen.nfb.ca.