My Life I Don’t Want Tells Story through Girls’ Eyes

My favorite film from last month’s Speechless Film Festival is My Life I Don’t Want, created by Nyan Kyal Say. The appeal of My Life I Don’t Want lies in its simplicity in story and style, though that simplicity also belies much complexity about girls’ experiences in Myanmar and elsewhere.

Title image for My Life I Don't Want
Title image for My Life I Don’t Want

My Life I Don’t Want is a 12-minute animated documentary that represents the collective experiences of girls’ lives in Myanmar through the childhood of a single female child. Her growing up appears as a series of scenes. The series starts with her joyful welcoming into the world and her growing curiosity about school, but it quickly reveals her secondary status.

This status follows a heartbreaking cycle that begins at home and affects her in school and beyond. When the girl and her brother study in one scene, the girl experiences constant interruptions with household chores such as doing laundry and cleaning floors. She is exhausted and unable to concentrate after all of the interruptions, and her school marks suffer. Her brother studies without interruptions and excels in school. Instead of understanding her struggles, her parents express deep disappointment.

The obstacles grow bigger and more dangerous as she ages. She gets kicked out of homes, boys exploit her for sex, and one man even tries to traffic her. In one scene, she attempts to escape the threats, but they all loom menacingly over her as she runs. She ends up pregnant, standing at an edge with the rain pouring down.

Still from My Life I Don't Want
This still from My Life I Don’t Want shows the visual simplicity of the short.

A moment of reckoning, to be sure, but in that, grace appears and offers a hand. For the first time since almost the start of the short, the girl smiles.

The audio and visual styles complement the seemingly straightforward story. In line with the festival’s strong emphasis on visual storytelling, this short uses no specific dialogue. No words are needed.

The animation style also complements the simplicity of the story. Creator Say maintains spare settings with stark backgrounds, such as two desks for the children studying or a bench and tree for the girl meeting a boy. Other elements only appear when necessary to advance the story, such as the girl bringing out a clothes line or a mop and pail during cleaning.

Still from My Life I Don't Want
Another still from My Life I Don’t Want showing the girl in line for starting school.

Recent live-action documentaries show girls’ circumstances around the world. While some films celebrate girls’ cultures and their successes, many films focus on their plights and the challenges they face just to survive. They struggle for education, health care, and economic opportunities, while they fight against forced marriage, childbearing, and prostitution.

These documentaries can prove quite traumatic to view. Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky visits six countries around the world, showing young girls who have been raped, prostituted, molested, and otherwise exploited. In one segment a girl accuses an uncle of rape only later to lose her home because of her family’s shame. That same segment mentions a 3-year-old being raped as well.

It’s a Girl examines gendercide, or the systematic killing of girls simply because they are girls. This documentary visits India with its practice of selective abortions and visits China with its one (now two) child rule. Both of these countries prefer male children, and the documentary shows these preferences’ effects. Girls end up aborted, abandoned, and murdered.

An opening interview in It’s a Girl spikes this point home. An Indian woman speaks matter-of-factly about killing her newborn daughter. She offers no apologies or remorse. And, chillingly, the recent killing is not her first one.

Both It’s a Girl and Half the Sky make for difficult viewing, and they focus on the cultural implications through multiple interviews and stories. My Life I Don’t Want speaks to these broader themes as well.

But what I really like about My Life I Don’t Want is its focus on a single girl’s story told through her point of view. We identify with her, and the story, animation, and the soundscape all point to that identification. The story is still harrowing, but ultimately, it is her story.

Speechless Film Festival Offers Marathon Viewing with 52 Films in 24 hours

Serving as an audience jury member for a film festival makes for quite a different experience from playing octopus at the information booth. I watched 52 films in less than 24 hours during the Speechless Film Festival in Mankato, Minnesota, in mid-March.

A banner with a quote from Alfred Hitchcock
A banner at the Speechless Film Festival reads, “We should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise.” The quote is from Alfred Hitchcock.
Celebrating its fifth year, the Speechless Film Festival focuses on the art of visual storytelling to connect cultures and transcend genres. A banner quoting Alfred Hitchcock conveys this philosophy: “We should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise.” Many programmed films relied primarily on the visual to convey their messages with little to no spoken words.

The festival maintains strong educational connections with the local liberal arts college, Bethany Lutheran College. Professors from there, Minnesota State University – Mankato, and South Central College served as organizers and judges. Regional arts and media organizations also were represented among the judges and organizers.

The audience jury was a new feature that the festival organizers wanted to try this year. The idea seems a strategic way to gain more participation from the greater community. I was happy to volunteer and help decide the audience award winners.

Though the program included four feature-length films, short films running between one and 20 minutes dominated the schedule. Films came from countries all around the world: Azerbaijan, Brazil, Canada, France, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Switzerland. A couple documentaries snuck in there, but almost all films were fictional narrative.

The programmers grouped films thematically into 17 categories. Some themes followed generic lines such as experimental, animation, and fantasy, while other themes consisted of a key idea such as “journey” or “short and sweet.”

My badge and audience jury button from the Speechless Film Festival.
My badge and audience jury button from the Speechless Film Festival.
Serving as an audience jury member required that I attend eight sessions. I chose fantasy, animation, experimental, journey, Minnesota loud, Minnesota quiet, animation (family), and art. My favorites were both animation sessions and the journey one.

Animation, both adult and kids, featured strong storytelling, sometimes stronger than some of the live-action pieces. Some narratives, such as Alto El Juego (Walter Tournier) and Hope (Michael Scherrer), offered both harrowing views and, well, hope even within a short runtimes. Some stories appeared simple, such as meeting a girl in Lion Dance (Tim Pattinson and Zheng Kang) or chasing a seashell and the ocean in Au revoir Balthazar (Rafael Sommerhalder).

In the journey category, RM10 (Emir Ezwan) stood out for its focus on a piece of currency’s trip throughout an evening. The currency travels from vendors to sex workers to children to indebted parents to loan collectors to wealthy debt holders, coming full circle in a surprising way at the end.

The festival recognized films with Minnesota connections in the program book, the awards, and the thematic groupings. The program book labeled regional and local films with an “M” within a blue circle to mark “Made in Minnesota.” This category carried two awards of “Best of Show” and “Honorable Mention.”

According to the program, the “Minnesota Loud” category featured “extreme situations, strong aesthetics, or boisterous characters.” The group I watched this category with enjoyed The Car Pool, a short film by Mike Sorenson. Four people car pool to their jobs at a bank, with the usual annoyances of personality quirks, inane chatter, and indecisive coffee ordering. One twist lies in their jobs at the bank: To rob it. The other twist lies in who survives to take the carpool home.

I also appreciated Bobby’s Run Off, directed by John J. Kaiser. Its central plot involves an abused wife accidentally murdering her husband, though the premise suggests that the husband has disappeared. The film handles this delicate subject in an even way, avoiding the salacious spectacle that sometimes results in representing these stories.

The “Minnesota Quiet” category gathered more “contemplative and highly personal stories.” In their collective subtleness, most of these films failed to stand out for me. I suspect their grouping had something to do with that. Directed by Joe Kessler, Half Smile perhaps stood out the most. Forced to clean out a storage unit, a man confronts his past and his losses.

Interestingly enough, none of these films featured strong Minnesota geographical connections within the films themselves, such as particular cities or regions, or strong Minnesota-based plots or people. The connections to the state occurred with the filmmakers and their production locations instead.

In all, the Speechless Film Festival was quite a different experience from the Frozen River Film Festival, and not just in my minor roles in them. The overall festival was much smaller, confined to one venue, and in general its audience skewed younger. Frozen River involved greater swaths of the community than Speechless did. While Frozen River featured multiple titles about Minnesota, Speechless featured films made in –but not necessarily about — Minnesota. Still, though, serving as an audience jury member for Speechless made for an overall cool experience.

Frozen River Film Festival Maintains Strong Commitment to Regional Identity and Documentary

Picture of a volunteer pass from the Frozen River Film Festival
A volunteer badge from the Frozen River Film Festival in Winona, Minnesota.
My first time volunteering for a film festival introduced me to rural festival culture and helped me perfect my octopus impersonation.

In February 2017, I volunteered for the information desk at the Frozen River Film Festival in Winona, Minnesota. Winona nestles among the bluffs along the Mississippi River. Sugar Loaf, a unique bluff on the National Register of Historic Places, contributes to a mountain town feeling. This rural community of about 27,000 hosts multiple other festivals throughout the year, including the Great River Shakespeare Festival and the Minnesota Beethoven Festival.

Celebrating its 12th year, FRFF programs only documentaries in order to bring global issues to local audiences. The Hunting Ground, Do Not Resist, Life, Animated, and In the Game topped this year’s feature-length documentary offerings. The programmers balance these international documentaries with strong commitments to supporting regional identity and community.

The program cover for the Frozen River Film Festival in Winona, Minnesota
The program cover for the Frozen River Film Festival in Winona, Minnesota
FRFF involves multiple venues throughout the city, including Winona State University, the historical society, the public library, and local businesses. I staffed an information table located in the university’s science building, which also housed two theaters, an open performance space, and food vendors.

That location — not to mention the festival itself — proved a hub of activity. Saturday featured a volunteer fair for area organizations and programs, and local musicians performed both days. Volunteers I sat with named all of the familiar faces they knew from attending the other area festivals.

FRFF recognized both state and local identities with its programming. Five documentaries appeared in the “Minnesota Made” category. For examples, The Seventh Fire examines gang cultures on a Minnesota reservation, while Iraqi Voices breaks down stereotypes through stories of Iraqi people living in the Twin Cities.

Local identities also received attention. One special session included works about two prominent historical figures. Directed by Mary Farrell, The John Latsch Documentary explored the life of this Winona businessman and philanthropist who donated sizable tracts of land for preservation and parks, including one that now bears his name.

The other work-in-progress screening in that session honored Minnesota politician and poet Gene McCarthy. Along with clips, the session included a question-and-answer session with director Bill Kersey, Kelle Green, and Mary Beth Yarrow.

A picture of Sugar Loaf Bluff with a frozen lake in the foreground. An ice fisherman walks to his shelter in the foreground.
A view of Sugar Loaf Bluff in Winona, Minnesota. Despite 50-degree temps, people still fished on the frozen lake as others in shorts jogged around it.
The line for that event started to form about two hours before the doors even opened. Many people brought individual tickets just for that event. The room reached capacity quickly, and ushers turned many people away. Individual ticket-holders turned away received refunds, fortunately.

Working the information booth provides much opportunity to observe happenings such as these. It also involves a lot of pointing as part of answering questions about where to find venues, food, bathrooms, audience voting, and festival personnel. All that pointing in all of those directions makes you feel like an octopus after a while. In all, it was a great experience.

And despite the 50-degree weather that weekend, people still fished on the frozen lake while others jogged around it in shorts. Aside from FRFF, I don’t think you can get much more Minnesota than that.