It's hard to watch Megan Mylan's Oscar winning short film Smile Pinki without having emotions. At the beginning it was sadness, but by the end you can't stop smiling as much a Pinki the young Indian girl whose life is totally changed through the surgery to correct her cleft lip. Pinki is an amazing girl with adorable pony tails and a loving dad. She can't go to school and is ostracized because of the way she looks. Luckily, she meets Pankaj a social worker from G.S. Memorial Plastic Surgery Hospital whose job is to travel to different villages and find children who need the surgery. This meeting changes her life forever.
The people who do this are amazing and I don't think I will ever see those Smile Train commercials in the same way anymore. The hospital performs about 3,000 of these surgeries a year with a 100% success rate. The problem is that there are so many kids who need the surgery with 35,000 children born annually with clefts in India. Smile Train operates in 76 developing countries and this year will have helped its 500,000 child. Wow.
Megan Mylan is an Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker and Guggenheim Fellow. Her film Lost Boys of Sudan, co-directed with Jon Shenk, won an Independent Spirit Award and was nominated for two national Emmys.
Please check out Smile Pinki starting this Wednesday, June 3 at 7pm on HBO. Other HBO playdates: June 7 (3:15 p.m.), 9 (9:45 a.m.), 13 (11:15 a.m.) and 22 (3:15 p.m.) HBO2 playdates: June 5 (1:15 p.m.), 7 (6:00 a.m.), 16 (5:30 p.m.), 20 (4:45 p.m.) and 24 (9:15 p.m.)
Megan Mylan answered some questions about her film:
Women & Hollywood: What about this topic moved you to want to make a film about it?
Megan Mylan: I enjoy telling stories of compelling people going through life transforming moments, and Pinki's story definitely had that. I'm also attracted to stories of people making a positive impact in the world, and Dr. Subodh and the incredible work of the Smile Train sure fit that. I loved the idea of being with a young child and their family when they find out that something that has so devastatingly defined their young life can be easily and completely cured. Journey stories are also always fun to tell, especially one set in a region as culturally and visually rich as Uttar Pradesh, India.
W&H: How did you pick the two children you would highlight?
MM: It was very important to me that we capture the first moment when the social workers meet the children and their families. Unfortunately I didn't have the budget to have the meter running while we traveled the countryside hoping to meet up with a character strong enough to carry the film. The solution I found was working with a great Indian field producer named, Nandini Rajwade who went out ahead of time with Ravi Anand, one of the social workers from Banaras under the guise of being generic health workers to scout potential characters, they talked with several children with clefts, but didn't reveal anything about the surgery program. Nandini sent me photographs and character sketches of about a dozen children. Pinki and Ghutaru both jumped off the page, there was a great sparkle in their eyes. Pinki's special closeness with her father and the strength of Ghutaru's mother were evident right away. Then when I arrived with the crew we went out in the field with Pankaj in the area where the children lived, but let him find them as he naturally would, handing out flyers, visiting schools and asking folks along the way. Casting is so important for character driven films, but it's always a lot of gut and a lot of luck getting it right. As soon as I met Pinki and Ghutaru, I was relieved and excited that we had made the right choices.
W&H: What did you learn most from these children and their families?
MM: There is really a different life rhythm in Banaras and the surrounding rural areas where our characters come from. The hospital while it was doing a dozen surgeries each day and receiving new patients 24 hours a day, was such a serene and nurturing place where doctors and social workers alike took the time to sit and listen. I am trying to incorporate a bit more of that calmness into my life.
W&H: Why are you interested in making films about social justice issues?
MM: They are issues and people who grab my heart and my head.
W&H: What role does the documentarian have now in light of the fact that news organizations have cut back so much in covering issues and topics of people like the ones covered in your film.
MM: It makes me sick all of the cut-backs in international and community reporting, we'll be a much poorer world for it and I'm not sure documentaries can fill the news void. Unlike news reporting, I make films that leave people a lot of space to come to their own conclusions. What I love about verite or observational-style filmmaking is its ability to pull an audience into a reality that may be very different from their own. I'm inspired by the simple idea that the better we know each other, the better this world is. Hopefully people come away from the film emotionally satisfied, having learned something, curious to find out more and thinking about their own life in a slightly different way. But it's not news.
W&H: Women direct far fewer fictional films than docs. Why do you think
women are so more successful in documentaries?
MM: Maybe egos are smaller in the documentary world, it attracts a lot of great women and men who tend to say "we" more than "me." One of the best things about working in documentary is all of the fabulous people I get to call colleagues. I love that most of the "big cheeses" in the industry are women.
W&H: What advice would you give to women who want to get into documentaries?
MM: The same advice I give to anyone interested in documentary. Find someone whose films you love and who you respect as a human being and do whatever it takes to work with them.
W&H: What's next for you?
MM: I'm directing a film on race relations in Brazil.