Jalena Keane-Lee and “The Construct”: Women’s Stories in Front and Behind the Camera

Jalena Keane-Lee, a Wellesley senior majoring in Political Science and Cinema & Media Studies, spent this past summer exploring the gender dynamics of female Burmese construction workers in Myanmar through the lens of her camera. As the director and executive producer of the documentary, “The Construct; Female Laborers and the Fight for Equality,” Jalena gives breath to the complex and untouched narratives of these female workers as they physically construct Myanmar away from a shattered past and into contemporary nation.

Start of CMS and “The Construct”

Jalena Keane-Lee came to Wellesley College three years ago and intended to study Political Science and International Relations. However, upon arrival, she was turned off by the many restrictions related to her chosen majors and decided to explore other options. By chance, she went to a Cinema & Media Studies class where the students explored the creation of media. Keane-Lee said of the class, “[we] talked about media and how everything we see is created, and how that can be a great power .” The professor, who taught the class, also constantly linked media to current events. This is when Keane-Lee said she had an 'aha' moment. She said about her newly chosen field, “you know what, I like it a lot, so I will do it.” This lead Keane-Lee to her decision of pursuing cinema arts as not only a new career path but as a platform for her political science background.

 

The fall of her junior year, Keane-Lee studied abroad in Prague where she learned about the technical aspects of making films. In the winter of the same year, she was selected as one of the 40 young men and women awarded an Albright Fellows scholarship. The Albright Fellows Institution is an organization which is meant to help foster the up and coming generations through the interdisciplinary research of a global issue.  In teams, these future leaders embark on an internationally focused internship. Through this program, students can attend speeches from different guest speakers, and work on projects focused on a variety of topics such as sustainability and development.

During her winter session at the Albright Institute, Keane-Lee was surprised when influence of media failed to come up during lectures or breakout sessions. She stated that no one was discussing, “the power of personal story and narrative.” Keane-Lee also said that she believes, “a lot of policy making is based on who can come to the table and say what they need, what they want.” Often times media is the medium acting as an advocacy for people in need who deserve to be heard. With such thoughts in mind, Jalena started a video production company called Blue Peel Productions with Elizabeth Wilkins, a friend she met from her time abroad. Together, the two began to look for women’s stories that they want to tell.

When describing her and Elizabeth’s goal in starting Blue Peel Productions, Keane-Lee said: “We both want to focus on women, and women’s stories and having women both in front and behind the camera.” Their first project, in conjunction with San Yae Aye from  Tagu Film in Myanmar, focuses on the stories of female Burmese construction workers. Keane-Lee explains that, “ because these women are doing the physical work of development in this country that has so long been isolated from the rest of the world, we wanted to see how having a women at the highest decision making power affects women on the ground.”

On-site Shooting and Views of Being Women

Keane-Lee acknowledges that the pair faced a few challenges during on-site shooting such as learning how to take care of equipment in 100% humidity or packing efficiently for intensive travel. However, when Keane-Lee and her team set foot into Myanmar, they realized that their initial vision for a film emphasizing ‘girl power’ had the potential to tell an even more socially important story. Keane-Lee had to bend her planned expectations on a story that unfolded so seamlessly in her head but so complexly different in reality. She went into the project expecting to show that women are fully capable of doing traditional male jobs – namely construction – but instead discovered persisting gender norms that prevent female construction workers from receiving the same wage as their male counterparts doing the same exact job. Struck by the level of gender inequality in Myanmar and stories of the women who continue to defy societal conventions despite the numerous institutional barriers in place, Keane-Lee realized that the heart of her film lied in the narratives of these female Burmese crusaders – not only construction workers but also voices for gender equality.     

Keane-Lee is in the process of editing “The Construct.” She says, “I want to convey the amazing insurmountable strength of women across the world – because these women are doing the physical work while keeping up with the man, and then they come home and do all the work at home as well.” The documentary mainly follows a 20-year-old mother name San Thi Da, who works in the construction sector. Keane-Lee hopes Thi Da’s story will not only apply to Myanmar and South Asia but also speak to women all over the world.

Reflection & Future

Keane-Lee credits her experiences at The Albright Institute and Wellesley in making her documentary possible. Being part of such an intellectual and worldly community has helped her see political issues from various perspectives and challenge the most pressing issues society faces today.

In addition to crowd fundraising, Keane-Lee received seed money from The Albright Institute to make the project possible. She used her Wellesley connections to ease her and her team’s assimilation into Myanmar while shooting. They stayed in a friend’s uncle’s home, which eased the stress of being in a new country. Keane-Lee shares, the Wellesley bubble extends much broader than on campus, it’s not just people you know, the close friends you have here, their family and friends become your connections too.”  

Keane-Lee looks forward to visiting Myanmar again. As a country undergoing rapid changes, Myanmar exemplifies the push for development undertaking South East Asia. And Keane-Lee hopes to capture this evolution – the crossing over from an isolated country into a modern society – with female Burmese constructions at the helm.