Friday, February 13, 2009

SMILE PINKI -- and an interview with filmmaker Megan Mylan

Just yesterday, in TrustMovies' post on Gomorrah, I posited the notion that this film's utter lack of hope had ruled it out of consideration for a Best Foreign Film "Oscar." Now, I find myself covering a new short documentary chock-a-block with hope -- and, sure enough, it has been honored by the Academy with that much sought after Oscar nomination.

SMILE PINKI, produced and directed by Emmy-nominated/Guggenheim fellow Megan Mylan, follows two rural kids from India -- the title character, a little girl named Pinki, as well as a boy called Ghutaru -- both of whom have cleft lips. In completely straight-ahead fashion, the film moves along, first via the recruiting people announcing the availability of the free operations and ferreting out likely candidates (including Pinki and Ghutaru) from the hinterlands and explaining the situation to their families, after which we all make the trip to the hospital, get ready for the operations -- and see their results.

Within this fairly standard format, Mylan packs in a lot of interesting detail, from the way in which the recruiters work to the look and feel of rural family life, the hospital procedures, and especially the feelings of the children themselves about this operation and what it might mean to them. I remember (from my own childhood in the early 1950s) one of my school mates who had a cleft lip, the reactions to which ranged from polite appearing-not-to-notice to outright, often rather nasty, teasing. These Indian children seem to suffer the same. One young man, who has teeth growing directly out of his nostrils, appears especially hard hit. There is no getting around the particularly grotesque look that this defect lends those whom it afflicts, and so, when help finally comes, the change is so quietly spectacular that you can expect your tears to flow. Mine certainly did, and I don't think Ms Mylan can legitimately be accused of jerking them. The response is simply part of our -- viewers' and subjects' -- shared humanity.

I could do without, however, the tag line on the Smile Pinki poster (shown above), "A Real-World Fairy Tale." This is no fairy tale. Yeah, yeah -- I know this is just a "marketing" ploy, but the term somehow cheapens the hard work of India's G.S. Memorial Hospital, the outreach staff, and the efforts of the world's leading cleft charity The Smile Train, which, since the year 2000, has provided more than 309,000 free surgeries for children who would otherwise have gone wanting. Each surgery costs $250 and takes around 45 minutes. That's a pittance of time and -- considering how important is the operation to the life of the recipient -- money. So get out your checkbook. Whoops-- I'm living in the past again. These days you can do all -- or most -- of your contributing online. (If, that is, anyone has any money left.)

Since I haven't seen any of the other nominated documentary shorts, I can't make a legitimate comparison in terms of content, style or results. Smile Pinki is certainly worth seeing, and for those readers interested in doing so prior to the Academy Awards presentation, the film will screen this month at the following locations:

Today, February 13, in Boulder, Colorado, Film Festival
Sunday, February 15 at MoMA in NYC
Tues and Wednesday, February 17-18, in San Francisco at the Kabuki Theater
Saturday, February 21, at the Writer's Guild in Los Angeles
Sunday, February 22, at the Paley Center, NYC
Sunday, February 22, at the National Archives in Washington DC
Thursday through Saturday, February 26-28, in Columbia, MO, at the True/False Film Festival.
You can also access the Smile Pinki web site for info on further screenings in March.


TrustMovies had the chance to speak briefly with filmmaker Megan Mylan (shown, right) a few days ago. Here's a quick recap of our conversation, during which some post-viewing questions were answered by this bright, quick and very accessible young woman:

TM: I noticed in the film that your main character is called by two different names: Pinka and Pinki. Is the latter a nickname for Pinka?

MM: Yes, that's a kind of nickname, but it's Pinka that is the nickname for Pinki. Pinki's father calls her that as an endearment, but she calls herself Pinki.

What happened to the young boy who appears to have teeth coming out his nostrils? We don't see him post-op, so I wondered if they actually did his operation, and was it successful.

Yes, they did operate on him and it was successful. It was actually a three-part surgery for him. But it went very well. You actually do see him post-op, when the doctor is doing rounds with the journalists.

Really? I must not have recognized him, maybe because the difference in the way he looked was so great. Is this cleft lip/palate condition what Joaquin Phoenix had, pre-surgery? Does he know about the film?

You know, I had always sort of assumed it was. But somebody told me that he has said in interviews that a cleft palate was not the condition that he had. This kind of problem -- and the surgery for it -- used to be much more common in our country, but we do not see it as much of it anymore and when children are born with a cleft they receive surgery as a baby. Clefts are a very common birth defect, the exact cause is not known, but it is much more common in poor countries and most likely tied to the prenatal nutritional health of the mother. In India, as in most countries, the wealthier the mother is, the healthier she's likely to be. You can almost chart this via income level.

Once parents and their kids arrive at the hospital, after being recruited, do they always get served? Eventually?

Yes. No one is turned away. As long as the child is healthy enough for surgery, the operation will go forward. Four times during the year, the hospital schedules what it calls the registration day. Everybody focuses their energy on getting the word out about these operations. They hand out flyers, go to far-off villages, do radio announcements, and so on. Each quarter they will net maybe some 600 children (and their accompanying families)

How do they families live while waiting for operation?

One group is scheduled right away: the older children. It is more important for these to have the operation as soon as possible because, most often, the younger you are, the easy the operation and the better the results. Next come those who have traveled the farthest; they are scheduled right away, too. And while the hospital staff is wonderful, really, it is the family members who are the basic caretakers -- which you can see from the movie.

The hospital itself is a very interesting place, as well. The work that this hospital does is as much social work and humanitarian work as it is medicine. The hospital we spent time was a very nurturing place, with a unique gentle energy to it, very different from my experience in U.S. hospitals.

What was the most difficult part of the filmmaking process for you?

Without a doubt it was communication -- just being able to communicate properly with my subjects. I have done films in languages I don't speak before, but with this film, communication was even more difficult because Pinki's family speaks a particular dialect of Hindi and there are not many people who speaks both their dialect. So translations can be very difficult. Nandini Rajwade, our field producer, along with the social worker Pankaj Kumar, really helped out so much with this! It is always so important that the subject of your documentary understands why you want them to tell the story of their life. Pinki's mother could not understand even the idea of a foreigner -- that anyone could come from anywhere different. She had never been outside her village, there is no television, and all that sort of thing. I think it was at the moment that this became clear to me -- then I realized the really immense cultural chasm I had to leap in order to have the kind of "partnership" I wanted to have with the family. I sort of had to trust in our mutual humanity -- mine, theirs, our crew, everyone.

What part of your particular filmmaking process do you enjoy most?

I think it has to be the closeness you begin to feel with your subjects. I feel like I know Pinki's family now, even though I have never spoken a word to them with out a translator, a lot is communicated even without words when you spend intense time with someone.

I feel like the film captures the essence of the family relationship, especially Pinki's relationship with her father. Also that special feeling in the hospital that was so warm and nurturing. If I had not been able to convey these things, I would have felt like we had failed.

You surely did not fail on that score. Do you think you'll keep making documentary films? It's a hard road in so many ways…

Definitely, as long as I make enough to pay my bills, I am happy. I can't imagine doing anything else. It's a gift to get this close to people and tell their stories!

Can we talk about your newest project -- the film on racial equality in Brazil? This country has long seemed to me one of the least aware of the need for a decent Social Contract with its citizens.

Brazil has been so famous for being a country of racial harmony and being so racially inclusive. Many Brazilians think they already have racial harmony. "We have no race problem," they say. But this is just not true. I lived there in the early 90s, so I have some hand-on experience in the country. They have a different history of race, and there are issues of not just race -- but class to explore. Fifty percent of the population is black, but only two percent of university students are black. The subject has intrigued me for a long time, and I've wanted to make a film but always wondered how. But I've keeping my radar up for a way in. And in the last two years this issue has come to the forefront. Things like affirmative actions and racial quotas for schools are being put into effect but it isn't going all that easily. The changes are being heatedly debated.

How far along are you with the project?

We're nearly finished with filming and are now doing post-production. The final product will be a feature-length film that follows three characters, one of whom is currently the country's only black senator. Another is a pop star turned entrepreneur who has launched a TV station for black Brazilians. And the third character we follow is a woman who is a granddaughter of slaves who lives in "maroon" society -- called Quilombos.


Anonymous said...

Smile Train Is All About Outcomes .Smile Pinki really shows what kind of good this charity does for the world. Changing lives and making children smile!

James van Maanen, said...

Thanks, Anonymous --
But, gosh, you couldn't possibly be connected with this particular charity, now, could you....? (Click and find out.)