Growing up in India, Vic Sarin was not sure what his skin colour was, but he knew he did not want it to be any darker. "I could hear my mother's voice scolding: 'Get yourself in the shade and don't expose yourself to the sun.'" When he asked why, his mother would warn that his skin would get dark.
"Funny how such a seemingly small statement could have such a profound impact."
To this day, Mr. Sarin, a filmmaker who has lived in the Vancouver area for almost 20 years, cannot stand to be at the beach – not even to spend time with his own family.
He recounts the story in his documentary Hue: A Matter of Colour, which has its world premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival on Saturday.
Mr. Sarin, 68, is a renowned filmmaker and cinematographer. With more than 150 titles to his credit (including Partition and A Shine of Rainbows ), he has travelled the world telling all kinds of stories. Never has his work hit this close to home.
Hue is a deeply personal exploration of colourism, defined by Alice Walker (author of The Color Purple ) as the "prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their colour."
Mr. Sarin's interest in colourism was fuelled by his own experience, but he initially had no intention of making the film about himself. The idea he presented to the National Film Board of Canada, was a global investigation of the issue. The NFB loved it, but to illuminate the matter, felt Mr. Sarin should turn the camera on himself.
"They said, 'No, we think you should be part of the story,'" Mr. Sarin recalls during an interview at a beachfront coffee shop in Vancouver. "I thought about it for a while, six months, [because] I didn't want to be in front of the camera. Who wants to see this old man? … But the more and more I thought, I realized that it's necessary."
He made the decision in large part to bridge a gap between him and his children.
"I love my children, but I know there is a distance," he explains in the film. "Since I was a young man, I have always felt like an outsider, and looking back, I sense there is a connection between my behaviour and my upbringing in a colour-conscious society. As I grow older, I have a strong need to be close to them, and they need to understand why I behave the way I do. And I also need to understand myself."
Mr. Sarin's personal story forms the backbone of the film, while he travels the world speaking to people whose lives have been shaped by the shade of their skin. In the Philippines, he meets an entrepreneur who has answered her childhood bullies by creating an empire around a skin-lightening product – while drastically altering her own appearance. In India, he meets an actress in her 30s who believes her darker skin is the reason she is unmarried.
Some of the stories are devastating: In Tanzania, young children with albinism must live in a compound because local witch doctors hunt them for their body parts, which they say have healing powers. In South Africa, a light-skinned minister reveals a heartbreaking story about darker-skinned family members.
The film's ultimately hopeful tone is grounded in Brazil, where Mr. Sarin holidays with his family. There he meets a dark-skinned man who has emerged literally onto the world stage after a childhood shaped by crushing poverty – he and his brother could each go to school for only half a day because they had to share a pair of pants.
Mr. Sarin, who is light skinned, has his own stories to tell. A mother who insisted he wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants while he played cricket, even on blistering hot days. Locals, during a visit to India before he was married, casually remarking that he could easily find a good Indian wife because he lived abroad – and had light skin.
Mr. Sarin is candid about spending too much time with his work and away from his family, no time frolicking in the waves with his beach-loving children.
But he knows he is fortunate; he has not suffered deep trauma as a result of his experiences.
In fact, he now understands, it is probably the opposite.
"In some sense, it gave me incentive. It gave me a push to excel," he says.