How did you decide to make this film?
You know I get pitched by just about everybody in my life, thinking they have a good story. [LAUGHS] I sign on body, mind, and spirit to a project, so I set the bar high. But this story caught me on a few levels. First, I loved Smile Train's strategy of local empowerment. They recognized this problem - one of the most common birth defects in the developing world - that really devastates a young life. And they recognized how curable it is, and came up with a model that is so efficient, smart and respectful by working through local doctors. I really believe that's how we solve the world's problems. Then, as a storyteller, it pulled me in. I love to work in a verit�, observational style, finding somebody who's a compelling, interesting individual, but who's also going through a life-transforming moment. Finally, I'm drawn to international stories and stories of social change, and I love it when there's a chance to tell a story about someone making a positive impact in the world that is still a layered and complex story. Dr. Subodh and his team and the work of the Smile Train definitely has that.
How did you find Pinki?
I knew I wanted to focus on the children going through this life transformation. But the other piece that I was really clear about is that I wanted to be there, cameras rolling, the moment the families first find out this isn't a punishment from God, this isn't something the children need to live with for the rest of their lives, it's curable, and the surgery can be done quickly and for free. So the real challenge was: How do I find my characters and be with them at that moment?
I couldn't afford to have the meter running on my crew as we journeyed through the countryside with the social workers, trying to find the right child. So I had to do a lot of pre-production strategizing, and I ended up working with a great field producer named Nandini Rajwade. I sent her and one of the social workers, Ravi Anand (who you actually only see in the hospital in the film) out into the field under the guise of being generic health researchers. They went village to village, asking about some of the health problems that children had including - but not exclusively - clefts. They didn't really talk about the surgery, but they met the families. Then Nandini sent me a list of about a dozen children with a bit of a character sketch about them, their age, their family relationships, and a photograph. Pinki just jumped off the page for me.
Did her family understand what you were doing?
Normally I never meet people with my camera rolling. I like to meet people without any equipment around and sit down and explain what my motivation is in telling their story, and really trying to establish that trust. But for this, the family met us for the first moment with headphones and boom pole overhead. But as soon as that first group conversation with the social worker, Pankaj, and the extended family was over, then we stopped and explained and asked permission. And asked for their involvement.
In the film it seems like it's a big challenge to get the families to understand just this service that's being offered.
Exactly. I've filmed in refugee camps and other international locations -- the hills of Chiapas, Mexico, and places where people do not have any sense of a documentary film in a theater, but this was the biggest communications challenge I've had. Language-wise, the families speak Bhojpuri, which is a dialect of Hindi, and there aren't that many Bhojpuri to English speakers. So everything had to go from Bhojpuri to Hindi, and then from Hindi to English. Then there's the cultural gap: there's no running water or electricity, there's no television in the villages, they've never been to the movies. So trying to explain what these cameras are doing and that we're going to edit a condensed version of the days of your lives we spend with you and then share it with people who live far away - I explained it simply as we are going to tell the story of the hardship your family has faced so that fewer children have to suffer like your daughter suffered. And they got that. They do get storytelling. Nandini, my field producer said: They're not going to feel like they have the right to say no. But I wanted them to say yes.
Did you have any surprises in the making of the film or in reactions to it?
I was surprised at how little the film feels like a medical film to me. On the plot level, of course, it's about clefts and I hope people watch it and come away understanding the impact of a cleft on a young life and how simple it is to cure it. But I think the things that resonate with me from my time spent in the hospital and with the families are much more sort of universal things about parenthood. I love the relationship between Pinki and her father. Good daddies aren't about the financial resources you have, it's really about that love and support. And my time spent in the hospital in Varanasi felt so different from the time I've spent in hospitals in this country, where you never know when the doctor's going to stop by or one foot's out the door the whole time they're talking. I so appreciated the rhythm of that hospital.
And I think folks with small children have been really connecting with the burden the parents felt of not being able to help their child. I really genuinely believe we all have so much more in common than we are different.
Has Pinki and her family seen the film?
Pinki and her father and Dr. Subodh came to Los Angeles for the Oscars. They all sat in a theater and watched it with me. But prior to that I brought a rough cut back to the hospital when I went back to shoot the epilogue, and screened it with the hospital staff. And after we finished the film, Dr. Subodh and the team from the hospital took generators and a screen and I think they just put a sheet up on the side of one of the stucco houses in Pinki's village and projected the movie there. It was amazing. They let word out: "There's going to be a movie shown at sundown," and her village is about seventy-five people, but about nine hundred people showed up to watch it.
Had many of those people even seen a movie before?
No. And Pinki and her father had never seen a movie. To this day, the only movie they've seen is the one they're in.