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West Van filmmaker explores the controversial concept 'colourism'
Vic Sarin's mother used to scold him for going out in the sun.
"Get out of the sun, your skin will get dark," she warned.
While the other boys took off their shirts to play cricket in the intense heat, Sarin was ordered to stay covered from head to toe.
"Long pants, full sleeves, dripping sweat," he explains, looking back at his childhood in Kashmir, India.
Like many other Indians, says Sarin, his mother knew her children would be quickly judged on their skin tone. She strived for them to remain light, a visible sign of a higher class.
Now a veteran filmmaker living in West Vancouver, Sarin wanted to see if other cultures experienced "colourism" — when people within the same ethnic group discriminate against each other based on differences in skin tone. He examined how colourism affects people in the Philippines, Africa, Brazil and back home in India in the documentary Hue: A Matter of Colour.
Camera in hand, he visits a businesswoman in the Philippines who tells of devastating experiences growing up with darker skin than her classmates.
"Dark skin is pulling me down," she recalls of constant schoolyard taunting, tears in her eyes even though decades have passed. Because of her skin, both students and adults caller her derogatory names such as "low class" and "skinny."
Now fair with blonde streaks in her hair, she owns a successful skin-lightning business where men and women can change their skin tone, often starting with their faces and moving on to their arms and legs.
Sarin meets one woman, about to be operated on, who says lighter skin will make her "prettier" and freely recommends it to others even though the surgery is expensive.
Visiting South Africa, he meets a woman whose relationship with her older sister was torn apart because they were born with different skin tones. Her sister is much darker and was treated differently by relatives when she was young, proving discrimination can occur within families as well.
In another scene, Sarin ventures to Tanzania where people with albinism are killed by witch doctors because of the belief their light skin can cure aliments. In a shocking interview, a journalist tells the story of a mother being forced to give up her baby who was killed for her limbs to be used in witchcraft.
Although skin tone is discussed openly in many cultures, says Sarin, political correctness has taught Westerners to avoid the subject.
"We do talk about physicality all the time — we say 'he's tall, he's overweight or he's underweight, look at the colour of his eyes, the colour of his hair' — so why can't we talk about the colour of skin? What's wrong with that?" Sarin says to The Outlook.
Before moving to West Van with his wife and three children, Sarin worked as a filmmaker in Australia, where his diplomat father moved his family, and Toronto.
His accolades as director and cinematographer include Genie, Gemini and Emmy nominations and the Kodak Lifetime Achievement Award. Partition, his first feature film, is a love story set against turmoil at the end of British reign over India and is based on events he heard about and witnessed growing up in Kashmir.
But despite his international success, the effects of growing up in colour-conscious India are still present. Seeking approval from his mostly white colleagues, he didn't pay enough attention to his first wife and son and the marriage ultimately ended.
He's now married again and is concerned how skin colour will affect his son and two teenage daughters who have a light-skinned mother.
"Once I started the discussion I was amazed how openly people came up with their own thoughts on this and how it has affected them in so many ways," he says.
Hue: A Matter of Colour shows at Vancouver International Film Festival on Sept. 28 at 9 p.m. and Oct. 1 at 4:15 p.m. at SFU and Oct. 11 at 10 a.m. at Vancity Theatre.