ShortList 2023: ‘More Than I Want to Remember’ Director Says Her Animated Refugee Doc ‘Could Not Have Been Told Another Way’

Amy Bench’s short documentary centers on Congolese refugee Mugeni Ornella, who also narrates the film


As a means of making a harrowing story more palpable and an uplifting story even sweeter, Amy Bench’s short film “More Than I Want to Remember” uses an unlikely mode of documentary storytelling: animation.

“This story could not have been told another way,” Bench said, speaking with TheWrap as a finalist in this year’s ShortList Film Festival. “Additionally, it offers an intimacy and freedom of expression not available to other forms. It allows you to get into the head and heart space of the protagonist, to go beyond the actual events and explore emotional, interior states, creating a unique level of intimacy.”

The protagonist in question is Mugeni Ornella, who also narrates the film. Ornella fled her home in the southeastern Congo after a violent raid on her village. Ostensibly alone, she went on a journey that you wouldn’t believe unless, of course, it was absolutely true. In telling her story, “More Than I Want to Remember” is both heartbreaking and heartwarming, a tale of the community we have and the one we have to sometimes make.

TheWrap spoke to Bench about where the idea for animation came from and the first time she heard Ornella’s story in an interview you can read below.

“More Than I Want to Remember” was selected as a finalist in this year’s ShortList Film Festival, presented by TheWrap. You can watch the films and vote for your favorite here.

Where did you first hear Mugeni’s story? And when did you know it would become a short film?
I first heard Mugeni’s story in 2019, via Nate Bult, who worked for an organization that paired unaccompanied refugee minor children with foster families. I had reached out to him as I was researching for my next film, an animated short based on the journey of a young immigrant woman. I had the concept, but not the protagonist. Nate was immediately intrigued after watching a previous animated documentary film I did, “A Line Birds Cannot See,” and was keen to help. He had recently been speaking with Mugeni about sharing her story and thought she might be interested in doing a film. When he shared a bit of her story, I was drawn in right away. I think Mugeni was intrigued by the film idea, and we had a call soon after.  Once I heard her voice, I knew her story would become the next film. Mugeni has an infectious energy and her story was so urgent and underreported, with few outside of her region knowing about the persecution of the Banyamulenge people — so it would be an important film to make with her.

Mugeni’s story in particular has so many profound moments and lessons that resonate strongly beyond her own experiences. Her language is very visual and visceral. One of my favorite lines of hers is, “My heart was speechless, my tears were stuck inside of me.” Hearing the poetry in her voice during our interviews was really affecting — her words communicate so much about her experience and, most important, her state of mind in those moments.

Why did you choose animation to tell the story? Was this always the intention?
The simplest answer is that this story could not have been told another way. Additionally, it offers an intimacy and freedom of expression not available to other forms. It allows you to get into the head and heart space of the protagonist, to go beyond the actual events and explore emotional, interior states, creating a unique level of intimacy. It was important to me to not just chronicle Mugeni’s story, but to bring the audience along as much as possible, to make people internalize her words.

In terms of process, I also find audio recordings a more personal way of working in film. The absence of a bunch of gear and crew allowed Mugeni to speak more freely and comfortably, and I think adds a layer of emotional safety for her. I was very sensitive to the fact that she’d be revisiting a lot of traumatic stuff, so we set up the interview to support that. It was just she and I in the booth with her foster mom, her counselor and her foster dad nearby. 

What are the benefits of animation? What did you want to emphasize?
I have found animation to be a very freeing and exciting medium in which to work. For Mugeni’s story, it was a way to be with her emotionally as she navigated the events following the horrific and tragic separation from her family — and to explore memory through the lens of a young person.

To me it was important to emphasize the fact that Mugeni was just 14 in the film, and the surreal aspects of suddenly finding herself alone, a migrant — and the fear, confusion and ultimately strength she exhibited in the face of the attack on her people, her family.

Can you talk about the design of the animation and what your influences were?
I have been lucky to collaborate on this film with Maya Edelman, an animator whose work I’d long admired. I knew her striking imagery would make a great pairing with Mugeni’s voice. We used some of Maya’s previous work as a starting point to talk about style. Some of the first scenes designed were the most emotionally devastating: Mugeni’s village being attacked, finding herself alone in the forest, the nightmares she experienced over the ensuing years. Most of these scenes were designed in the summer of 2020, when our own lives felt perilous, precarious.

Maya was raised in Kyiv and grew up on Russian animation and fairytales, and it’s quite clear that those influence remain strong in her work.

Animation and documentaries seem particularly complementary. If they’re not fully animated like “Waltz With Bashir,” then many documentaries utilize animation. Were you inspired by any specific projects that have a similar flavor?
To be honest, I hadn’t really seen anything like this film before we set out to make it. Maybe a seed was planted when I saw “Persepolis” years ago and was blown away that such a personal story could be so impactful through animation. But it wasn’t a conscious reference. I hadn’t really seen anything with a similar flavor to what we wanted to do in “More Than I Want to Remember.”

Would you be interested in making a feature length doc that married animation and traditional documentary styles?
This is always in the back of my head, yes. I think you have to be very careful about when and how animation works when combined with other media. The transitions between live action and animation can be very tricky. It’s not a feature, but “Love Song for Latasha” is a documentary that I think does this incredibly well and works at the subconscious level. Her use of mixed media is flawless. I have a feature in development about a Deaf father and activist, and if it makes sense to utilize animation in some sequences I will, but it has to work formally and emotionally and feel that it’s meant to be there.

The 2023 ShortList Film Festival runs online from June 28 – July 12, honoring the top award-winning short films that have premiered at major festivals in the past year. Watch the finalists and vote for your favorite here.