Nearly half of India’s girls marry before they turn 18. Thanks to a micro-agricultural group that fosters financial independence for some 40,000 girls in West Bengal, 16-year-old Monika is able to sell gourds from her garden at a local market and put off an early marriage. Directed by Academy Award-winner Megan Mylan, After My Garden Grows was one of the films selected for the Sundance Institute’s Short Film Challenge. I spoke to Megan about the project and her film.
How did you come to make this film?
This project came to me as a commission from the Sundance Institute, which had received a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with the goal of attracting filmmakers to tell stories about overcoming poverty and hunger. It’s rare as an independent filmmaker that you have someone offering the funding but giving you the creative freedom and editorial control to tell the story as you see it. Their focus on effective strategies was a good fit for me. Like many documentary filmmakers, I’m drawn to social justice issues, but I also look for stories that help us understand where progress is happening. Not simplified stories that make everything seem rosy, but ones that help us understand the depth of the problems and where we should concentrate our energies for change.
Why did you choose to focus on child marriage and financial independence for women in this part of the world?
Right away I knew I wanted to do something looking at adolescent girls. As anyone who works on these issues knows, every resource you invest in girls, especially in their teenage years, has outsize benefits for them, their future children, their families, communities, and economies. It’s really powerful. I also knew I wanted to make another film in India. I had had an incredible outpouring of public interest for my previous film, Smile Pinki, when we released it in India. We were able to translate the excitement of the Oscar [award for best documentary short subject] into measurable public awareness, and I wanted to do something similar with my next film.
As I started talking with girls’ rights advocates in India, it became clear what a key determinant early marriage is. Nearly half of all of India’s girls marry before their 18th birthday, even though the legal age is 18. Girls who marry young are more likely to drop out of school, lose their children in childbirth, live in poverty, and be the victims of gender violence—all of the evils of poverty and gender bias that come crushing down on girls in their teenage years. But strategies like the partnership of the Indian Government and the land rights NGO Landesa you see in the film, are changing things.
What drew you to Monika’s story in particular?
What I loved about this story is that on one level, it’s an incredibly simple and somewhat magical tale: A girl grows a vegetable garden on her family’s rooftop and takes her prized gourd to market and changes her future. But of course, she’s growing bottle gourds, not silver bullets, on her roof, and behind that story are all of these layers going on: Her family is incredibly poor, she is out of school, her father is actively looking for a husband for her, the family is talking about how much they will need for her dowry. And we have the backdrop of her older sister, who married at 16, dropped out of school, had a baby right away, and had a very difficult childbirth that left her health fragile.
It seems daunting, but through these deceptively simple organic gardening workshops, Monika and another 40,000 girls are eating better, staying in school, and marrying later. They know they have the right to inherit land and that it is illegal for them to be forced to marry before 18. Their own expectations for their futures have changed, and they are starting to change the expectations their families and communities have for them. It’s basically about valuing girls’ lives as much as boys and letting them decide how long they will study and when and if they will become wives and mothers.
How long was the production process for After My Garden Grows?
It was about six months from preproduction to the Sundance Festival premiere.
Were there any challenges getting the girls to open up on camera in the group scenes?
The girls group meeting did start out a little stilted. The girls were self-conscious, but it was a three hour meeting, so after a while the conversation got intense and the crew was no longer the most interesting thing in the room. I’ve been making films for nearly 20 years, and it still amazes me how willing people are to invite you into their lives when you’re honest with them about your motivation for sharing their stories. I spend a lot of time building trust with the people I’m filming and also choosing characters who are comfortable enough in their own skin that to some degree they can forget or just be themselves in front of the camera. I’m constantly saying, “Pretend I’m not here,” of course knowing that’s sort of impossible and that I’m never going to disappear, especially as a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language. But I let the people in my film know that they are in charge, if they want me to stop shooting, I do. I’m there to direct my crew, not the characters in the film. It seems to work.
What are you working on next?
I’m executive producing a series of shorts from South Asian filmmakers looking at gender and also in preproduction directing a feature doc on practicing philosophy with small children around the world.
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