Exclusive Interview by Brad Balfour
The story behind the making of this year's winner of the Oscar for Best Documentary Short-- Smile Pinki --is something of a fairy tale equal to the story within the film. Pinki is a five-year-old girl with a cleft lip/palate from a tiny village in the Mirzapur District, India. It's a desperately poor place where no one even realizes a simple operation can repair her disfigurement. Then, a worker from the Smile Train organization, who travels throughout India finding kids in need of this operation, gets Pinki to the hospital in Varanasi where she has the free surgery and discovers her smile.
A decade ago, former Computer Associates CEO Charles Wang and former Schell/Mullaney Advertising CEO Brian Mullaney created Smile Train, the world's largest cleft lip and palate repair organization, which became a new model for the way that clefts are treated on a global scale. After they had director Megan Mylan create a 40-minute short documenting Pinki's story, the film itself surprised everyone with its Academy Award win.
Said Mullaney, "Of the 1,200+ hospitals in 76 of the world's poorest countries that Smile Train works in, this [one in the film] is the busiest! They do more than 3,300 surgeries a year and is run by a saint of a surgeon. We knew that with this volume we would have a great chance of casting a couple of great kids--and it worked."
So, with the Best Feature Oscar going to Slumdog Millionaire this short enjoyed the resonate effect of being part of a very South Asian, very international year for filmmaking in the public mind. Now that HBO has started broadcasting the short--and making it available through its many distribution channels--Smile Pinki continues to make people believe in this fairy tale, and, hopefully others as well.
Q: How did you come together with the Smile Train people?
MM: They came to me.
Q: How did they see your movies?
MM: I think Brian Mullaney and the other founders thought they had a great story they thought would make a great documentary, so they went looking for someone, “who do we want to tell the story?” and they really loved [my previous film] Lost Boys of Sudan. So my first reaction, honestly, was “thanks, but no thanks, I come up with my own story ideas,” and I just thought, “well I don't do PSAs.” But then they were a little persistent, and I think part of your job is to be open, as is yours, right? You've got to be open to what people are trying to tell you.
Q: I had a friend who had a cleft palate as a kid.
MM: That's one of the things; clefts weren't on my radar, besides ads you see in the Sunday paper. I thought of it as something cosmetic. But once they sent me some stuff and I started realizing how common it is, how devastating it is beyond its speech and ability to eat, and the tremendous social ostracism. And then, how totally curable it is.
Q: That's what's great about the organization, is that they've found something where they could have a huge impact, with something that had a clear and unmistakable goal and resolution.
Q: So rather than try to cure all the world's ills with some kind of large organization, they figured this out.
MM: Oh I can explain it. The other key piece for me about their strategy is that they support local doctors. It's wonderful when Americans choose to go abroad, and we should all give our time, but that's not the way you solve problems. You've got to empower the local people. If all of that had not been in place, I probably still would have done it, but the organization intrigued me.
Q: And it was a chance to go to India.
MM: Exactly. I thought it was a good story. It has the natural structure to it, so as a storyteller I thought, “this is a good story.” And they had the funding in place, which seriously, that's the worst part of my job. If I never did that ever again, great.
To some degree having to convince people your idea is a good idea is a good filter for people not going off and making every story under the sun, but it's thankless. That's probably the piece the Oscar helped with the most; not convincing people to fund me, but when I open rejection letters or I get a rejection email, I can say to myself, “Okay there was a moment where people said yes.” Because it's constant, it's constant.
Q: And you've been making films before this.
MM: I've been making independent documentaries for about 15 years and this is my third or fourth that I've directed, depending on how you count my first film which didn't get much of an audience. This is actually the first short I've done and it's a 40-minute one. The other two were features and one is still in production. But Lost Boys of Sudan... Jon Shenk and I co-directed that.
Q: I loved that movie.
MM: Oh good; I did too. It was such a life experience. Jon actually was one of my DPs on this film, who I had co-directed with.
Q: How do doc directors separate yourself from the subjects you cover? With Lost Boys... you built relationships that you don't suddenly turn off. And with Smile Pinki, how do you divorce yourself from these little kids?
MM: I don't try to separate myself. It is an odd relationship you have because in some ways it's very much a friendship, especially with the kinds of films I make. If I have a strategy, it's [shooting] vérité so it's finding people who are going through these life-transforming moments.
Q: And you're dealing with younger people.
MM: Exactly. So you're with these people at these transformative moments in their lives and I'm just very clear that I'm a human being first and a filmmaker second. I don't think that those [two things] have to be in conflict. I don't need to film every single moment and I try and be really clear with my subject that if they say stop, I stop.
If you give people that [control] and they actually believe you, they can test you out once or twice and if you really don't film, then it just becomes where they trust you and you're along for the ride and part of the experience.
We always felt with Lost Boys..., those guys were going through such an intense experience, and part of it was having these two filmmakers along for the ride. They didn't know any different that you could come to a new country and not have a filmmaker as part of that experience. And I think, to some degree with Pinki, that might have been [the case] too.
Q: And these kids like Pinki are younger too.
MM: Yeah, she's much younger. Actually, in a lot of ways, even though [the Lost Boys] were Sudanese refugees who spent their whole childhood in a refugee camp, those guys were much more savvy about the ways of the world. Though they had gone through such hardship and experienced genocide as six year olds, they had BBC radio and knew what airplanes were and all of that.
Pinki's village is really the most isolated thing I've ever been in touch with. neither she nor her father had ever been to town. She had never left that village and he had never been to that city, which, by car was only two hours away, and by their transport, only a few hours away, and here he is, a 27 year old man. And with her mother, one of the really challenging things was communication with them. The language level was tricky.
Q: What dialect did they speak?
MM: They speak Bhojpuri, which is a dialect of Hindi. So my field producer, who's from Delhi didn't even speak it, so we had to work through these layers. She would talk to the social worker--there are very few people who speak both English and Bhojpuri; there are a lot of people who speak Hindi and Bhojpuri, or Hindi and English, but not the whole chain, so you had to go through this.
Actually Dr. Subodh, the surgeon, is one of the few; he grew up in Banaras, but was sort of busy. Yet, often, he'd be translating for us at the same time he was doing the surgery and everything.
Q: It's a good thing that the surgery is relatively basic.
MM: And he does it all the time. So the communication with her family--to try and get that level of trust and explain to them what my mission as a filmmaker was, what my motivation in telling their story was--they had no concept even of what a movie was. Her mother could not wrap her head around the idea that I was a foreigner.
She said to my field producer--who can sort of understand Hindi, “there are people who speak Hindi and that's not what I speak, but I understand,” and then she pointed at me and was like, “why is she talking like that?”
We finally realized that she didn't have the concept of a foreigner, that there's a world out there. So how do you find common ground with that? That was a big challenge.
Q: How did people there deal with someone with a cleft palate? How many people in that village had a cleft palate? Was she the only one?
MM: She was the only one. Her village is probably only 75 people; it is quite small. I think that especially with the film, it seems like every other child has a cleft, but it is very common in India because there's so much malnutrition and poverty; the poorer the country the higher the incidence.
Q: Do they have any idea what causes it?
MM: They don't know exactly; Brian [Mullaney] can tell you more, but they know that it's linked with to prenatal nutrition and health of the mother. The less wealthy the mother, the higher the incidence. It's sort of woven in there, and there's a genetic component too.
There's estimated to be a million children in India with clefts, but there are over a billion people in India, so it's still a bit of a needle in a haystack to find these kids. The poorer the mother the more likely and they are very isolated. That's one of the things I like the best, is when there's that big coming-together registration day and these kids are like-- and you can just see in their eyes--“I'm not the only one.”
They had never seen anyone who looked like them. All around the world, I've come to learn, there are different superstitions about this [condition] and very much so in India. It's the eclipse or that the mother was cutting vegetables and you're not supposed to do that and the gods have punished you. So this child is born as a punishment to their family and village. That's how they're seen.
Q: Is there anywhere that thinks highly of them?
MM: Not that I've seen. Wouldn't that be great?
Q: Well I've read, that with one group certain cleft children are viewed as a pariah and with other communities they are viewed as a blessing--there were different kinds of cultural responses to this particular condition.
MM: One of the things I hope comes through in the film, and I feel like you see really clearly, is that Pinki's family really prized her. She was very much a loved child even though she had to deal with this ostracism and ridicule from the village and the other kids.
Q: Even though it's a 40-minute long film, how long did you work? How deep in can you get when making a 40 minute movie of a specific organization and act; it must arouse your curiosity so much that you want to cover all of India.
MM: There are endless stories in India, of course. That town where we were filming in, Banaras, is one of the holiest cities in the Hindu religion, so I went into it very similarly as to other things. With Smile Pinki as I did with Lost Boys--as I have with all films I've worked on for other people--it's sort of a gut, organic feeling for what's the story, who's the person going through this intense thing; it's character-driven, I get as close to them as possible for the big moments.
With Smile Pinki the length and the structure was very natural; the journey story. Lost... was a journey story too, but it was about life here and at what point do you say, "Okay... enough." The hard thing with Lost Boys, was to know when to stop, because their lives are still going on, we could have just kept going and going and going.
Q: You had to find a moment.
MM: That we could feel there was a point where they plateaued is sort of a negative, but the transitions and the big steps forward got smaller and smaller [as we went along].
Q: Was Pinki easier in that way; dd you decide on Pinki because she had the perfect name for it?
MM: Isn't it a great name? The funny thing is Pinki doesn't mean “pink” in Hindi, you know.
Q: Did you give her pink clothes after the film?
MM: Well Sheila [Nevins--president of HBO's documentary division] gave her a bunch of pink clothes when she came to visit; all sorts of adorable pink stuff and I brought her back clothes and stuff.
Q: They were here in New York?
MM: Yeah, they were, it was great. They came for the Oscars.
Q: Did they go to the Oscars--Pinki and her family?
MM: Yeah, it was pretty crazy, I can show you some pictures.
Q: Did you videotape all of that? Come on, you must have documented it.
Q: Are you nuts?
MM: I know. We photographed a lot, but we didn't videotape. I wanted to go through the experience. I know, I know, I'm not a real documentary filmmaker.
Q: The DVD extras!
MM: We have a little bit, and they got a hero's welcome when they went back home. They met with the Prime Minister and all that stuff. It was pretty crazy.
Q: Isn't it weird to have it happen in the same year as Slumdog Millionaire?
MM: Oh, it was very much India's year and I think we benefited a great deal. The film's a huge deal in India, which is bizarre for a short documentary to be like this--every time they would mention Slumdog they'd mention Smile Pinki too. And the day after the Prime Minister congratulated the filmmakers of Slumdog Millionaire they did so with Smile Pinki like in the same breath.
Q: Did you meet the Indian Prime Minister?
MM: Well I haven't gone back , but they did. Pinki, her father and Dr. Subodh--who all came to the Oscars--all met the prime minister and the president. And Pinki, there's these mega Bollywood stars who have signed on now to be part of Smile Train. There's a scholarship for her.
Q: You heard about the Slumdog kids.
MM: Yeah, and she's had just the opposite experience. From what I've read, and I don't know anything first-hand, it sounds like Danny Boyle and those folks tried to do the right thing too. Like we [Americans] can't wrap our head around honor killing or anything like that so you have to try to get into that reality. Not that any poor family wants sell their child, that's a horrible thing, but you have to see it in their reality, not ours, right?
Q: [Having filmmakers come there] must be like having aliens from another planet drop into the middle of their society.
MM: I know, I know. And those kids [from Slumdog] were for sure more savvy than Pinki. Her coming here was just... First I thought, “Oh this is sort of icky. America's weird enough, and you're going to bring her for the Oscars?”
Q: She has no idea! She's never seen a movie. But by now she's seen movies...
MM: Well, no, still, they've only seen the movie that they're in.
Q: Did you guys take them out to some of the parties?
MM: Oh yeah, we actually went to a Slumdog Millionaire party the night before because they were staying at the same Four Seasons.
Q: They must have appreciated the level of stars they were meeting.
MM: Well no, see that's the thing, which is great. I got a translator just for Pinki and her dad, because Dr. Sabodh can speak English and everything, so the translator told me that they met the guy who was the host of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?--Anil Kapoor. He's a huge huge deal, right?
Q: He's like a Robert DeNiro or something.
MM: Right, and so then right after they met, [the translator] turned to Pinki's dad and said, “Did you know who that is?” and he said, “No, but I know that I'm meeting very many important people in America.” He had no clue who the guy was.
Q: Do they have electricity?
MM: No, but some nice concrete things have happened for them. The district government has made Pinki's village a model village, and so new housing's gone in with corrugated roofs that can withstand the monsoon, and electrified water pumps, and the roads have been reworked.
So here's this child who was this ostracized scar on the village and now there's a lot of talk about her being blessed and bringing all this good fortune to the village, and it's great. There's been a ton of press coverage in India about her and the whole Oscar thing, and I saw this interview with her mom, the same mom who couldn't wrap her head around me being a foreigner, she said “We've already got our gift, it's not about the prize and America. All of these people who are now celebrating my daughter's success are the same ones who were ridiculing us.” And I was like, "You're a good mom!"