‘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.

The Challenges of Getting and Staying ‘In the Game’

Sport documentaries are one of the oldest and most popular genres of the form. Some of the earliest films recorded boxing matches, as the sport’s confined area and bright lighting paired well with camera capabilities at the time. Later documentaries highlighted the spectacles of athletes and their abilities. Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938) and Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad (1965) offer stunning footage in this regard. Competition and its narrative arc provide an almost natural structure for an exciting documentary about the game.

Many documentaries about sport chronicle individual athletes and their achievements. Consider the long list of documentaries about Muhammad Ali — When We Were Kings (1996), The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013), and I Am Ali (2014), among many others. Athletes’ struggles beyond competing recur thematically as well, such as in The Heart of the Game (2005) and, of course, Hoop Dreams (1994). Fewer documentaries address entire teams, and even when they do, they focus on a key player or two at most.

Women’s and girls’ sports remain underrepresented in sport documentaries. Many of these documentaries concentrate on individual athletes, and only a handful are about teams. Dare to Dream: The Story of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team (2005) is one of the most popular. It features player bios with the competition the team faced while trying to win games, fans, and financial support. Kick Like a Girl (2008) is also about a soccer team, but this time a girls’ team that competes in the boys’ division.

With this background in mind, I was excited to check out In the Game, directed by Maria Finitzo. In the Game (2015) follows players and supporters of the girls’ soccer team at Thomas Kelly High School in the Brighton Park neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side. Finitzo documented their stories for several years, checking in on players’ lives both during and after high school.

The team faces challenges both on and off the field. One of the biggest? No field for practice or play. The girls drill in the hallway and in the gym — cramped spaces compared to the expansive soccer field. A well shot and edited match against Curie Metropolitan High School shows the team’s abilities. More so, it demonstrates the strong bond among the players and their coach. It is this bond, not the competition or the win, that drives In the Game.

Coach Stan Mietus approaches soccer as a uniting force, not a dividing one. While some coaches develop their strongest players and cut the less skilled ones, Mietus refuses to cut anyone and allows everyone a chance to play. Instead of the girls competing for top roster spots, they support and encourage each other throughout practices and games. “Each girl, she should feel so important. Without her, the team cannot go on,” Mietus said.

The girls at Thomas Kelly High School — where 83 percent of students identify as Hispanic — face challenges off the field as well. The high school endures budget cuts. About 86 percent of the students come from poverty, and the girls try to balance their education and soccer with work and family expectations. They hope to attend college. Not all of them even have familial support for playing soccer.

But the team and their coach help the girls stay focused and motivated. Team captain Elizabeth credits them for changing her work ethic, while another captain, Maria, credits the team for her staying in school. For Alicia, playing soccer puts her in the zone — “Once I start playing, everything just kind of fades away.”

Getting an education is a theme that runs throughout In the Game. Encouraged by her mother, Elizabeth sees college as an opportunity for better employment and a better life. Maria wins a prize for her house design, and dreams of owning her own architectural firm someday. Alicia dreams of a career in sports medicine. But so many obstacles block their way, and not just financial ones. All three find their way to college, but struggle to remain there in the face of pressures from home, money, and even their immigration statuses.

These girls take the team’s ethos with them and use it as a touchstone in life after high school graduation. Now young women, they want to give back to their team and their coach. Members attend the wake when their coach’s child is stillborn. They throw a surprise birthday party for him. Elizabeth even dreams of sponsoring the team in the future.

The editing of In the Game allows these highs and lows to flow without forcing an unnatural climax to the film. It brings together individual stories while leaving room for institutional critique — a delicate balance to find and maintain, and it is done well here.

In the Game does end on one high note, however, with the breaking ground of the new Kelly Park, which will have soccer and football fields and offer amenities for other community activities.

Overall, In the Game is a great contribution to the documentaries about girls’ team sports. It shows the importance a team can have in girls’ lives and it shows the foundation a good team and coach can provide, but at the same it does so with a realistic eye toward how hard it can be for some to get, grow from, and build on this positive experience.

‘Buffalo Girls’ Follows Two Thai Girl Boxers

Todd Kellstein’s Buffalo Girls (2012) offers moments of hope but they do not overcome what otherwise seems a sad situation.

Buffalo Girls follows two of the 30,000 child boxers in Thailand. Stam and Pet are just under 10 years old, and both girls fight to help their families. For Stam she hopes to help her family with building their new house. Though she has a heart problem, Pet, too, fights to bring money home for her family.

Throughout this documentary we see the girls training, engaging in fights, and interacting with their families. The translator frequently asks them questions off-camera about what they like to do and how much money they make. These questions and their answers remind us just how young these girls really are.

While the boxing winnings bring some potential hope to these families, it is still sad to see such young children fighting and to see such exploitation of them. An interview with a referee raises questions about their safety, for he has seen many broken bones and other injuries. The girls also fight without headgear to protect them. What’s interesting is that the family members believe the girls’ fighting skills will prevent them from being injured.

The other part of the sadness here comes from the amount of money that changes hands. An interview with a bookie appears early in the documentary, and he reveals the system in place and claims he likes doing it for the money involved. The climax of this documentary is a bout between Pet and Stam that has a six-figure prize riding on it. The bookies will take home more money than the girls do.

This documentary does attempt some stylization in the fighting by reducing the noise during the bouts and then letting the noise explode between rounds, possibly to build the excitement. Fortunately, no commentary appears over the fight, but the heavy music segments, particularly early in the piece, felt a little out of place.

‘The Boxing Girls of Kabul’ Show Courage in and out of the Ring

The Boxing Girls of Kabul (Ariel Nasr, 2011) begins with grainy shots of a stadium where women in chadris receive lashes and another has a gun pointed to the back of her head. Fortunately, the documentary cuts before the trigger is pulled.

The startling footage sets the background for the dangers lurking for the girls participating in boxing training in Kabul. Under Taliban rule in Afghanistan, women and girls were prohibited from participating in sports, going to school, and even leaving their homes.

The situation remains highly unstable, but the first girls boxing team was established in February 2007 with the hope of showing the value of girls winning. The girls train under coach Sabir Sharifi, who was selected to participate in the 1984 Olympics, but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan prevented him from attending. Through interviews and observational footage, we learn about their situation.

The girls on the team face enormous obstacles. They train in a gymnasium that has no ring and little other equipment. They face pressures from family and society about the appropriateness of girls participating in sports. The pressures turn physical, such as acid attacks, lashes, and hangings in another province.

At the same time, they also receive support. Their coach encourages them every step of the way. Each fighter has a family member – mother or father, in particular – who offers unending support.

These young boxers are motivated to represent their country to show the world what Afghan girls can do. They participate in two out-of-country competitions during the documentary, and it quickly becomes clear just how much their lack of equipment and appropriate training hinders them.

As they appear in competitions, their names and their accomplishments appear in the local media, and people begin to recognize them. The threats become more palpable: Their coach is confronted on the street, and the girls face threats of kidnapping. Their families are judged as well. Some girls stop participating, while others continue despite the risks.

The Boxing Girls of Kabul shares themes with Afghan Star, which is about the Afghan version of the Idol franchise and the roles women play within it. There, too, the female competitors receive some private support, but they also experience public detractions and even threats to their lives. Either way, you have to admire their courage under such tenuous conditions.

‘Off and Running’ Explores Identity and Belonging

Questions of family, identity, and belonging run through Nicole Opper’s 2009 documentary Off and Running, which follows Avery Klein-Cloud’s attempts to find her own answers to them. Opper’s documentary brings us into Avery’s world through observational footage and voiceover, while interviews with friends and family expand on Avery’s life and observations.

“Our family nickname is the United Nations,” Avery jokes about her adoptive family. She grew up Jewish with two white mothers, Travis and Tova, and two siblings of different ethic backgrounds, Rafi and Zay-Zay. At the documentary’s opening, she is writing a letter to her birth mother in order to learn more about her biological family and, hopefully, herself. She receives one letter back about three months later, but after that nothing more arrives, sending her into a downward spiral that becomes an underlying theme throughout the film.

Identity outside the family is another question for her. In the voiceover Avery explains, “I’m very new to black culture, and I don’t understand it.” She learns about African-American culture through her friends and her boyfriend Prince, but she consistently feels out of place among them.

Even Avery’s success as a runner offers no cohesive identity, though she holds national titles and numerous awards with great potential for a college scholarship.

As the time since the only letter from her birth mother gets longer, Avery becomes more distant from school, running, and her family. She moves out the house, but she finds some comfort with Prince. Her mothers want to help her, but they recognize that their daughter needs some space. While the mothers’ relationship and insights could have been an interesting angle to develop further, Opper focuses on Avery.

After more than a year since the letter, Avery begins to regroup, get her GED and a running scholarship, and reunite with her adoptive family.

Opper’s documentary is intimate in its camera framing and access. DBR’s string-based score offers the right touch throughout. But despite Avery’s turnarounds, Opper’s documentary leaves many questions open and underdeveloped, which may be a reflection of the issues’ complexities.

The Unpretty Side of the Modeling Industry in ‘Girl Model’

Girl Model shows the modeling industry as anything but beautiful. In fact, the whole industry appears pretty screwed up through the lens of this raw documentary.

The insight into this industry comes from two perspectives: a model scout and a beginning model.

Ashley is the model scout. She modeled for several years before moving to scouting, which allows her to travel and offers her a sizable income. She scans the world for models suitable for the Japan market, which seeks very young and very thin girls.

Nadya is the new model. She is just 13 and from Siberia. Ashley chooses her to go to Japan under contract, which supposedly guarantees two jobs and $8,000.

Life in Tokyo for Nadya is lonely and depressing. She lives in a tiny room and sees no money from the shoots she does. She speaks no Japanese, and few people help her along the way. The agency calls this time an “opportunity” for the girls to find themselves and their strengths. Isolated, Nadya instead longs for home.

The arrival of Madlen, another model, eases her loneliness and destitution somewhat as Madlen comes with her own phone and credit card. The two friends explore Tokyo and learn more about their expectations under the agency’s contract.

The contracts favor the agency and give the agency almost complete control over the girls’ lives. Any increase in size by more than a centimeter results in termination. No tanning, no swimming, no traveling. Not meeting other obligations results in charges against the girl. Many of the girls come from poor homes, and any debt is beyond their means.

Life for Ashley is much different, but no less depressing. Ashley is a former model who left the industry bitter, angry, and frustrated. Scouting brought her income and more freedom on her terms, but her unexamined self-hatred continues and skews her perspective. For example, she claims, “It’s just normal to be a prostitute. For them [poor girls], you know? Maybe it’s easier than being a model. I don’t know.”

The most telling scene in this documentary comes when Ashley visits Nadya and Madlen in Tokyo. The encounter is cold. Ashley explores their dismal apartment, while Nadya and Madlen just want her to leave. Ashley offers them no help, no encouragement. After all, in her mind, her job in recruiting the two is done.

We should be horrified, and the minimal style of this documentary helps bring this forward. The warmest moments of the documentary occur with Nadya at home with her family. Otherwise, locations are stark and gray urbanscapes. No narration makes the documentary feel eerie at times, bringing forward the horror of what we are seeing; titles offer explanation instead. Well-timed questions to and statements from industry and agency execs make that horror even more real in the callousness of their comments. None of them see the recruiting of younger and younger girls as models, of locking them into one-sided contracts, and of letting the girls fend for themselves for so little money as a problem.