Burning Voices

Documentary, in pre-production
Length: 60 min
Premiere: March 2019
Production: Ilokuva, Naukkarinen & Co
Director: Pirjo Ojala


What is it like to be both visible and invisible at the same time?


Through dance, Burning Voices reflects the experiences of three acid burn victims from different parts of the world in their search for new identity.


Deus, Karli, Mehwish. Their lives are different but they have one thing in common. They have all been victims of acid violence. At that moment, life as they knew it was over.

”Am I dead?” The film opens with the attack, and its arc loosely follows the phases of traumatic crisis: shock phase, reaction phase, processing phase and reorientation phase. It explores the emotions and questions that the different stages of survival raise. From raw pain to seeking understanding, through nightmares to the first look in the mirror, the hiding and bitterness, to learning to accept oneself and taking the first step to rejoining the outside world – and realizing the journey has just begun.

How to become a part of the society when your trauma is for everyone to see? What is the meaning of looks, your own gaze and that of others? Why losing the looks destroys one’s life; don’t people have more value than their outer beauty?


The three personal stories alternate and flow together, between past and present. Burning Voices combines dance, interviews, abstract images and images of everyday life into a multilayered film, exploring and contemplating the complexity of surviving violence and building an identity. The contemplations expand from personal introspection to more universal topics – from building one’s identity within their genders and cultural backgrounds, to how looks and the meaning of beauty can be connected to ending acid violence.

The dance starts with a small movement, with details and a bit insecure motion. We see glimpses, people’s backs, reflections and shadows. As the main characters begin accepting themselves and their looks in the story, and wish to reveal themselves, then too does the viewer see them whole. After circling in sparingly decorated interiors and the occasional short visits to the outer world, Karli, Deus and Mehwish are openly visible in their own environment.

Burning Voices - Karli

Main Characters

Deus, Uganda

”It will be one day.”
Deus, 34 years, was leaving for work one morning in 2010 when his ex-girlfriend threw acid on him. He lost his job as an accountant in an aid organization. It’s not easy to find a new job, especially after he became also a victim of a hit- and-run and lost his leg in 2014. Now Deus plans to build a house for him and his wife and dreams of having a master’s degree.

Karli, USA

”I earned my stripes.”
Karli, 34 years, was attacked in 2006, as an act of revenge on her boyfriend. She had no idea he had been into some illegal street activity. First three men beat her up and tried to kidnap her. Two months later two women threw acid on her. Now Karli has a five-year-old son and works actively against acid violence.

Mehwish, Pakistan

”I have a life to live. If you don’t have any humour in life, you’ll be dead.”
Mehwish, 29 years, was attacked in 2002, because she turned down an admirer. She worked as a wedding dancer and lived with transvestites. One night Mehwish went to bed and woke up in hospital, blind. After hiding for years, she got back to life with the help of music and dance.

Burning Voices - Deus

Style and working method

The filmmaking process includes workshops in blackbox studios, where the dance and film professionals, together with each participant, look for each one’s way of expressing him/herself, especially bodily. They also contemplate how different moments of their lives can be expressed with and without words. The workshop also include interviews and the work shifts between interviews and motional exercises, both about the same theme.

The movement will start with improvisation and finding one’s own way of moving, and based on it the interviewee, choreographer and director develop together choreographies for camera. The blackbox studio symbolises visually more the world ”inside the head” and to counterbalance this the movie will also show the protagonists outside in their living environments, in their everyday life with their closest ones.


Additionally a flash mob kind of scene outside is tentatively planned. All the scenes are somehow thematically connected with the meaning of the look and reflection - how we see ourselves and each other.

The workshops are not therapy, although the process can be healing and empowering. The participants have survived their own hell and are now back to their normal lives. Each of them still processes the past one way or another and like for everyone, also their identities change constantly, slowly. We join them in their journey for a while.

Burning Voices combines the vision and the voices of the director, choreographer and the protagonists into a work of art. We believe the form is suitable to explore such a complex issue as acid violence.

Burning Voices - Mehwish

Director's Note

When my Pakistani friend suggested the topic back in 2009, there was first a moment I didn’t really want to look at it. I think that is the reason I took up the challenge. 

I have always been interested in the misuse of power and how bigger events affect people in their everyday life, especially those who are rarely heard or seen. 

I’m interested in the complexity of acid violence and how it’s connected to the meaning of looks. I want to show the persons behind their scars – they have such perspective on life it would be a real waste of lives to consider them only victims of a horrible crime.

Choreographer’s Note

Burning Voices is a film about the memory of a body and how to build a new identity with a sabotaged body. The topic is very physical – the attack is directed to the victim’s body. Hence it’s insightful and bold to handle the topic through dance and movement.

My job is to create an interview where the body is entitled to speak. My background is in modern dance. Modern dance is a wide concept and its motions can be created from each dancer’s own personal language of movement.

Considering the violent attack to their looks and bodies, it is especially valuable that the interviewees have the trust to seize the moment, to listen to their bodies and start the journey of dance. I encourage, listen to and look for suitable exercises for each interviewee, so their potential channel of expression can be found. The result of my work is not a show on stage but a bodily statement, in the form of a documentary film.