Burning Voices

Documentary, in production
Length: 60 min
Premiere: November 2020
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. A man, a woman, a transgender. Uganda, The United States, Pakistan. 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.

The film explores the emotions and questions that the different stages of survival raise. From raw pain to seeking answers and 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 returning to independent life.

How to become a part of the society when your trauma is for everyone to see? When you are just starting to accept the face in the mirror as yours but at the same time you are blamed for what's happened to you? When you don’t get justice, or you don’t get a job because of your looks? When you are left outside? You can finally touch your skin without pain but can someone else love you, too?


What is the meaning of looks, your own gaze and that of others? Why so many think that 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 and motion, poetry and music, 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. ”I’d love people seeing me the way I am."

Burning Voices - Karli

Main Characters

Deus, Uganda

”It will be one day.”
Deus, 35 years, was leaving for work one morning in 2010 when his ex-girlfriend threw acid on him. The reason is believed to be jealousy. Deus 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. Deus writes poems and has found love and inner peace. He has started reaching the same dreams he had before the attack. Deus plans to build a house with his wife, with the money he’s been promised for compensation for the attack.

Karli, USA

”I earned my stripes.”
Karli, 36 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. Analytical Karli works as a social service provider and a public speaker. She has found her inner strength and she does her best to change things. Now Karli has a 7-year-old son and she has played a key role in the passing of Illinois House Bill 2193 - a bill that requires anyone buying commercial-grade hydrochloric or sulfuric acid to show photo identification and have their data entered into a state database.

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 as a teenager in 2002, after she had turned down a married man’s approaches. 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. She found her zest for life and wanted to express herself again.

Burning Voices - Deus

Style and working method

The filmmaking process include interviews and dance/movement 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. The motion starts with improvisation exercises, where each participant’s own way of expressing themselves is supported. The work shifts between interviews and motional exercises, both about the same theme connected with surviving violence, such as depression or recovery.

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. 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 terrible violence 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.

We believe the form is suitable to explore such a complex issue as acid violence, showing the protagonists’ experiences through their own expression. Like Karli said: ”I am hoping that we will make beautiful art with a powerful message of resilience and hope.”

Burning Voices - Mehwish

Director's Note

When I met Karli, Mehwish and Deus, I soon forgot their visible scars. When you get to know their thoughts and sense of humour, you simply cannot define them only as victims. They have a severe trauma but they are more than their trauma.

We all know how hard it is to love ourselves and accept our looks, and what’s it like to overcome different traumas. The trauma of acid burn survivors is just there for everyone to see. That makes them mirrors to their environment. They raise a difficult question: do I dare to see? I’m interested in the complexity of acid violence and how it’s connected to the meaning of looks.

When the looks are lost, the victims often become invisible in the society. The body can become a new face. Motion can surpass the language barrier and intellectual processes and go straight into emotions, making people visible.

When we see people as more than just victims whose lives are destroyed because their looks have changed, we take the power away from the perpetrators and maybe one day acid violence will end.

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. 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.

I work as ”a motional encourager” to the interviewees. I listen to and look for suitable motional exercises for each, in order to find their own potential bodily way of expression. The result of my work is not a show on stage but a bodily statement, in the form of a documentary film.

Burning Voices is a trailblazer, showing that dance can have a place in documentary films. Also people who don’t have any previous dance experience can find a strong expressional outlet through dance and motion. It’s important that the choreography and dance instruction is done by a dance professional, who can give the right tools to the interviewees who might be first-timers or feel insecure about dance.

The motion workshop in Uganda in August 2018 was an eye-opening experience to Deus. He was surprised about how well he could throw himself into the motional exercises. Before he lost his leg, he used to go to dance in clubs but after the accident he got a little afraid of moving around, let alone dancing. During the workshop he became braver about moving and in the end of the workshop he said to me: ”Thank you Anna, you have taught me to dance again."