Myanmar filmmaker Lamin Oo, 30, films a documentary about the National League for Democracy (NLD) campaign at Bago (AFP Photo/Ye Aung Thu)
Unshackled from decades of censorship by military rulers that choked creativity along with dissent, a new generation of Myanmar filmmakers are turning their cameras on to subjects once deemed taboo.
Once home to one of the most prolific movie industries in Southeast Asia, Myanmar’s film studios atrophied under nearly half a century of junta control.
But in the four years since outright army rule ended, a crop of emerging documentary-makers are telling long-neglected tales of daily life, from homosexual relationships to the marginalisation of refugees.
Freedom of expression, although still imperfect inside a country where authorities retain a repressive reflex, is one of the clearest gains of the reforms so far.
Young filmmakers are hopeful the November 8 elections will be a watershed moment, with Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy opposition tipped to make major gains, raising hopes for greater opportunities to debate the nation’s issues through the arts.
“We have to reveal the true situation of our country. There are many hidden problems and sorrows which people keep to themselves,” said 36-year-old film student Nwaye Zar Che Soe at the nation’s only film school in Yangon.
Her documentary tackles land grabbing, an incendiary issue in Myanmar where the state and its powerful business allies are accused of displacing tens of thousands of people without due process.
Yet boundaries remain and two topics in particular remain too sensitive for the silver screen: the military and religion.
In a country where the army still holds sway over the quasi-civilian government and radical Buddhism is on the rise, free speech has once again been cramped in recent months.
In October an activist was arrested over a satirical Facebook post about the military, while a bar manager from New Zealand languishes in jail over a cheap drinks promotion that used an image of the Buddha wearing headphones.
Repressive military rule and censorship ended Myanmar’s post-independence ‘golden age’ of cinema, which ran from the 1950s through to the mid-1970s.
Now filmmakers are again questioning subjects that would have been unthinkable before 2012, when the government abolished a pre-publication censorship regime that straddled newspapers, song lyrics and even fairy tales.
Breakout magazines and journals are now filling newstands, art galleries are flourishing and new voices are also entering Myanmar’s film landscape.
Technology is guiding the pace of change.
In a Yangon apartment, preparations were in full swing recently for Myanmar’s first-ever mobile phone film festival due to be held later this year in a nation where cellphones were a luxury until recently.
“Many people now have a mobile phone and it is a powerful weapon to tell stories,” said organiser Zaw Zaw Myo Lwin, who also runs a film production company, as he sifted through entries on his computer.
Film is also stirring critical thinking in a nation schooled on rote-learning and army PR.
“We grew up on military government propaganda films… through documentary films we can let people think and discuss,” said Thu Thu Shein, who launched Myanmar’s original film festival four years ago.
A breakthrough moment for documentary came in 2012 when a film about the former regime’s refusal to accept humanitarian aid during the devastating 2008 Cyclone Nargis was finally screened without reprisal.
The film had a troubled history with two of the Yangon Film School students behind it arrested and another pair forced into exile, before censorship was eased.
With foreign journalists rushing in to tell Myanmar’s transition story, the school’s Anglo-Burmese founder is concerned homegrown filmmakers may struggle to gain a foothold.
“I also think it’s important to foster a creative intelligentsia that can play a crucial role in the country’s development,” said Lindsey Merrison.
Yet the question of who these films actually reach is playing high on the minds of some of Myanmar’s most talented new documentary makers.
In the small apartment where he lives and runs a production company with three friends, Lamin Oo is editing a movie for an upcoming LGBT film festival.
The award-winning filmmaker, who was namechecked by Barack Obama during the US President’s 2014 visit to Myanmar, brims with ideas of “untold stories” from his country.
But he seeks a wider audience for documentaries which are largely restricted to the more affluent festival circuit.
“It’s a good time to show the world what we are, who we are and (what) we have been through,” he said, but “we need better platforms.”
Text / AFP