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Meet the Academy Award Nominees: Megan Mylan--'Smile Pinki'

By Tom White


Over the next few days, we at IDA will be introducing--and in some cases, re-introducing--our community to the filmmakers whose work has been nominated for an Academy Award for either Best Documentary Feature or Best Documentary Short Subject. As we did in conjunction with the DocuWeekTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase that we presented last summer, we have asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films-the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far, and the impact of an Academy Award nomination.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Megan Mylan, director/producer of Smile Pinki, which is nominated in the Documentary Short Subject category.

Synopsis: Pinki is a five-year-old girl in rural India born desperately poor, and with a cleft lip. The simple surgery that can cure her is a distant dream until she meets Pankaj, a social worker traveling village to village gathering patients for a hospital that provides free surgery to thousands each year. Told in a vibrant, vérité style, rich with nuance and complexity, this real-world fairy tale follows its wide-eyed protagonist on a journey from isolation to embrace.



IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Megan Mylan: I was 24, living in Rio de Janeiro and working as a fundraiser for Ashoka, a nonprofit network of social entrepreneurs. I guided tours of high-dollar contributors visiting our Brazilian projects. I loved traveling around Brazil and sharing the work of amazing people changing the world in all sorts of creative ways, but I hated fundraising. One day, I had an "a-ha" moment and realized that I could still travel, meet incredible people, share their stories and make a social impact while making movies. I started volunteering with a Brazilian documentary production company; went to Berkeley for masters in journalism and Latin American Studies; and got my first job as an assistant-to-the-assistant editor for Jon Else, etc., etc. I feel so lucky to have happened upon this career where I get to learn so much and wear so many different hats. Of course, I still do loads of fundraising, but it's worth it.

IDA: What inspired you to make Smile Pinki?

MM: As a filmmaker who focuses on social issue documentaries, it's rare that I get into a film knowing we're likely to have a happy ending. I was excited to tell the story of this beautiful hospital and a team of doctors and social workers treating their patients with such compassion and quality care and making a positive impact. I continue to be inspired by the simple idea that the better we know each other, the better this world is, and I hope people come away from my documentaries feeling like they better understand the life of someone living a very different reality.

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

MM: The biggest challenge for me was communicating and finding common ground with the patients and families in the film. Like many of the patients, Pinki's parents are illiterate dirt-farmers. They had never seen a movie or met a foreigner. I really wanted them to understand my motivation for making the film and gain their trust. I worked with a great field producer, Nandini Rajwade, who along with Pankaj Kumar, one of the social workers in the film, patiently translated my conversations from English to Hindi to the family's dialect and back, but it was still hard to know through the levels of translation that I was being respectful and clear. I chose to trust the sensitivity of my team and rely on eye contact and instinct.

IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

MM: In many ways the film is very much how I envisioned it. I knew I wanted to make a vérité film with the young patients as the central characters. From my first research conversations, I felt that the story had a magical fairy tale quality to it even though it dealt with social ostracism and crushing poverty. But I was still surprised by how much a story that on the surface is about surgery, is really not at all a medical story. The work of the hospital is as much social work and counseling as it is medicine, and I was happy that that came through so clearly in the footage. While the children remain the main characters, I was thrilled that the wonderful humanity of the hospital team and the special environment they've created came through.

IDA: As you've screened Smile Pinki--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

MM: I always love with vérité how much each viewer sees and discovers something different. I hadn't anticipated how powerfully audiences would connect to Pinki's father and the other parents in the film. Audiences--especially people with children of their own-comment frequently that they can relate to and are overwhelmed by the parents' tremendous feeling of responsibility and hopelessness and that they feel a huge sense of relief when the children are freed from the burden of their clefts.

IDA: Where were you when you first heard about your Academy Award nomination? Although it's only been three weeks since the announcement, how do you anticipate this nomination will impact your career as a filmmaker?

MM: When I found out about the nomination, I was exactly where I usually am in the morning--at home in front of my computer with a cup of coffee, hoping the day ahead would be an interesting one. It was!  

Honestly, I don't imagine this changing things all that much. I already feel very lucky to make a living doing something I absolutely love. Of course the nomination is a wonderful bonus, and I'm thrilled that this recognition will mean a lot more people will see Pinki's story.  

IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

MM: One of the best things about being a documentary filmmaker is all of the incredible people I get to work with or call my peers. The folks below inspire me with their sense of pride in our craft and their ability to make films with emotional honesty, complexity, humor and impact: Spencer Nakasako, Jon Else, Debbie Hoffmann, Frances Reid, Les Blank, Heddy Honigmann.

Smile Pinki will be screening Saturday, February 21 at 11:45 a.m. at the Writers Guild of America Theater in Beverly Hills, as part of DocuDay LA, and Sunday, February 22, at 12:15 p.m. at the Paley Center for Media in New York City as part of DocuDay NY.

For more information on DocuDay LA, click here.

For more information on DocuDay NY, click here.