Megan Mylan’s reaction when she was first approached by Smile Train to do a documentary on their work was less than enthusiastic. “I get that a lot; even my mother thinks I should do a documentary on her and her work,” quipped the U.S.-based filmmaker during a recent press conference in the city. “I usually come up with my own stories, and don’t do documentaries for organisations.”
But two things changed her mind: hearing from a nurse how a one-hour, Rs. 10,000 surgery could give a child with a cleft lip and palate — who was often an outcast in his community — a new lease of life, and a growing appreciation for the model on which the non-profit organisation worked.
“I just thought it was a really great story emotionally — to be with a child going through that change, to be along for the ride as a storyteller was appealing,” said Mylan.
The big find
But who was that child going to be? Of the thousands of children who undergo cleft surgeries at Smile Train camps every year, who would be the focus of her film? Field producer Nandini Rajwade set out on the search with a social worker, and returned with about 15 snapshots, including one of a five-year-old from Mirzapur called Pinki Sonkar.
“Finding Pinki was our biggest piece of luck,” said the critically-acclaimed director of documentaries such as “Lost Boys of Sudan”. “If you don’t have a strong character that people want to identify with, you don’t have a story. Pinki’s picture just jumped out at us; there was this special sparkle in her eye.”
Watching the 39-minute Oscar-winning documentary, it’s easy to see what she means. “Smile Pinki” is anchored by natural, sensitive close-ups of the little girl, as her father gently ties her hair into ponytails before her surgery or as she takes in the chaotic scenes at the hospital.
In general, the documentary’s greatest strength is the quiet way the stories of these children and their families have been captured, sidestepping the traps of sermonising or cloying sentimentality.
But that process wasn’t always easy, according to the director, particularly as she found herself becoming more and more impassioned about the cause during the course of the filming. “It’s difficult to not let that bog you down,” she commented. “You have to allow the natural storytelling process to unfold and not start bullet-pointing all the facts.”
Up next for the director is a documentary on another cause she feels strongly about — that of racial inequality in Brazil, where she lived before becoming a filmmaker. “It’s an issue that’s always interested me,” she said, referring to the nation’s history of African slave trade. “The national myth is that’s no racial tension in Brazil, but there is.”