November 28, 2021 – 6:01 am

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For someone who has such sentimental memories of South-east Asian film, Burma remained a mystery to me. After 30 years, I had still not stepped on Burmese land even though I had met Burmese filmmakers at other festivals from Cinemalaya to Yamagata. It was more mysterious considering that the taste of a national cinema is not complete until you have visited the country in person, to taste its food, feel its heat and dust and see how the sun rises and sets on its rooftops. Since I live by signs given by the universe, it was a chance meeting with Thaiddhi, the Wathann Film Festival’s Programme Director in 2018, that prompted me to see his festival the following year. By Philip Cheah.

Since it began in 2011 as Burma’s first film festival, Wathann became a beacon for independent filmmakers to meet and make cinema. The ground-zero aspect of the festival can be seen in Waziya Cinema, the festival’s premier venue that is actually an abandoned cinema that is cleaned and outfitted with projectors and a mobile electricity generator every year, before the festival starts.

The excitement is palpable since the festival cannot afford any frills. No red carpet, no stars, no premiere hotels, no official festival cars. But the audience from all walks of life troop in to fill most screenings rapidly. It’s a nascent film culture. For example, for a South-east Asian nation, the Burmese have no exposure to the cinema of their neighbours. They are culturally more predisposed to Indian cinema as many Burmese have Indian roots. You can see it reflected in the cuisine as well.

In many ways, this lack of exposure is a result of the heavy censorship that people have to live with. One cannot but be grateful just to see another kind of cinema. In this regard, perhaps the Wathann FF has got it right. The ‘other’ kind of cinema must be the independent Burmese film, the movies that speak freely even though they are constantly in danger of being shut down.

Burmese cinema therefore tends to be heavily coded and apparent only to the local eye. Than Kyaw Htay and Thadi Htar’s Silence in Mruak U, an award-winning short in 2018, reveals just that. For this story, the protagonist cannot even get his countrymen to tell him openly what happened to his father during a violent clash with the military.

The yet unseen debut feature by Aung Min, Man With The Beard (2021), has more codes. Twice we see the iconic images of freedom fighter and state counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, during the course of the film but isn’t there just a hint of irony?

There was a simpler time of course. In Maung Wunna’s classic Tender Are the Feet (1972), the traditional world of Burmese dance theatre is juxtaposed against the lure of modern film and pop music. As the male protagonist says: “In this world, we move from one thing to another. But if you want something new, you have to discard the old.”

Considering that this film was just 10 years after General Ne Win’s 1962 coup that brought Myanmar under a military government’s control, the Burma Socialist Programme Party, could this be a coded reference to political disenchantment?

I first met Maung Okkar in 2016 when I showed his father’s film, Tender Are the Feet, in Singapore. Today, Okkar heads Save Myanmar Film, an independent cinema heritage group trying to restore and archive old classics. Two important film collectives - Ten Men Group (headed by Aung Min, whose feature debut is Man With The Beard) and Tagu Films (co-founded by Lamin Oo, whose new feature documentary The Three Strangers is showing now at the 16th Jogja Asian Film Festival) have formed the backbone of interesting new work within the Wathann film programmes.

This burst of activity has consolidated, now that Wathann Film Festival is 10 years old and the country’s cinema celebrates its 100th anniversary last year.

One other aspect must be noted about Burmese cinema, that of Buddhism as seen in such films as The Maw Naing’s The Monk (2014). Scripted by Aung Min who also made Man With The Beard, the films make one think about Zen koans*. For example, A Beardless Foreigner, found in the classic book, The Gateless Gate, has this riddle: “Wakuan complained when he saw a picture of bearded Bodhidharma**: ‘Why hasn’t that fellow a beard?’” It’s a similar question that is akin to asking: “how can Burmese filmmakers dare to express themselves in the face of constant censure?”

Both questions can only be met by a steady gaze…

* Buddhist riddles to stimulate enlightenment
** Indian monk who brought Buddhism to China in the sixth century

# Burma and Myanmar are used interchangeably as is the case when you speak to a Burmese/Myanmese person. There are arguable connotations involved such as Burma indicates an inflection towards British colonial times and Myanmar hints of the military junta.

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The ONE in Ten

Beginning with the Ten Men group in 2013, Aung Min, a medical doctor, has been channelling his healing gift through art and cinema. He is currently one of the guiding lights of the emerging Burmese independent cinema and his new unseen feature, Man With The Beard (2021), is a poignant exposition of the social turmoil that Myanmar has been embroiled in for decades. You can watch the film for its sheer poetic and emotional power. But no amount of subtitles can underscore the director’s vision and deepen your viewing pleasure than the director’s own voice. Aung Min talks and Philip Cheah listens.

What was the turning point for you from medical doctor to cinema professional? (And do you still practice medicine?)

I was a medical practitioner from 1990 to 2019. I started writing even before that, since I was a student. Now I give art therapy to severe mental health patients, make my own films and teach script writing and film analysis, so no more being a general medical practitioner.

I took an interest in filmmaking after a workshop from FAMU (Film and TV School of Academy of Performing Arts) in 2007. I prefer contemplating the ideas and pouncing on events that occur only after arriving at a filming location rather than following a scripted story.

What is the significance of Man With The Beard for you? In one scene, the protagonist talks about the proper way of growing a beard for Rakhine men - is there a cultural purpose for that?

The beginning of Beard was in 2017 when I was making a script set in Rakhine state. Then the war broke out in the area, we abandoned the idea of filming there. Actor Thadi-Htar, a Rakhine himself, one of my teammates from Ten Men, was growing a beard. I got the idea looking at his beard.

Even then we didn’t have a script for Beard, we followed Thadi-Htar to places, filming him doing his things. After several days on end, we got the rough idea of how the story would be. We go out and film when the opportunity presents. We ponder on ideas while not filming. We cooked together, ate together, the crew even moved into my house for the duration of the filming process. We did that for 10 months.

There is a reference to preparing a film to be shot in Mrauk U. What is the significance of that town and what was the film going to be?

Mrauk-U is an important city for Rakhines. Their sovereign kings, temples, the river, all of it were symbols of identity for Rakhines. I got my first-hand experience of Mrauk-U during the making of a short film Mrauk-U Story (2016), and again in Night Journey (2017).

Night Journey is a script based upon Rakhine-Rohingya conflict. It’s about a Rohingya teacher saving and adopting a young Arakan student (Editor’s Note: Arakan is a historic coastal region that now forms the Rakhine state in Myanmar) during a Rohingya raid, his return to Rakhine village upon adulthood to see his biological mother, his struggle to escape another conflict where he is stuck in a cross fire, and his eventual removal of his beard to disguise as a Rakhine, a beard that he kept while growing up as a Rohingya. But we couldn’t turn the Night Journey script into a movie because of the war. We switched our efforts into making Man With The Beard which is set in Yangon.

There are two scenes of processions in the film. One is a procession of Aung San Suu Kyi supporters and another later on looks like a funeral procession. Please comment.

The Aung San Su Kyi rally scene is during the peak of Rakhine-Rohingya conflict and the international criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi and the people in Yangon rallying in support of her. I wanted to put my character, the man with Beard, into that crowd, to contrast him against the crowd. The later procession is a gathering for a Rakhine traditional event and our character Beard is caught in the moment of remembering his native town, culture and people.

Towards the end of the film, the protagonist is lying down on the road in darkness. In front of him seems to be a temple building and on the left is a brightly-lit picture of Aung San Suu Kyi. I felt a deep sense of irony in this misc-en-scene and I hope that you can tell us your feelings about this shot.

That place, Sule Pagoda, is very important for me. I was there on the morning of August 9, 1988. The whole street was empty. The soldiers occupied the townhall and kept watch for any potential threat. The fire trucks were washing the blood off the road, there were still puddles of blood on the street. It was the morning after the massacre on the evening of August 8, 1988. That scene stayed in my memory for years. (Editor’s Note: This is a reference to the famous 8888 People Power Uprising where the students organised a nationwide protest against the military junta in support of Aung San Suu Kyi.)

Aung San Suu Kyi’s portrait was a chance opportunity for me. The people put the portrait in support of her during the Rohingya conflict. Sule pagoda, brightly-lit Aung San Suu Kyi portrait and the dark road combined, was a perfect scene for me.

For my protagonist, this was his darkest hour. I was planning to have him bullied by the cops while he was in his drunken stupor. I thought that was too weak. I thought of the strongest possible outburst from my character. The result is what we see in the film in front of Sule Pagoda. I didn’t prepare Thadi-Htar (actor) on what he would be doing at Sule. It took us three consecutive nights, and finally we got our shot.

Man Ray was famous for his photography but considered himself a painter above all. The artist protagonist in your film is haunted by Man Ray’s book that even follows him to his attempted suicide. Since Man Ray’s photos begin your film, what is the thought that you wish to express?

Man Ray appears in four places; the opening, while sitting on the pipeline, the suicide on the bridge and at the clinic. My character has supressed desires that he doesn’t even know of himself. I was puzzled at how to present it in the film. Then one day I saw our cinematographer and actor reading Man Ray’s book by their bed. I turned off the light and started filming - the Beard, the darkness and the naked woman…

Tell us about some of the crew members in your film. And also about your feelings (optimism/pessimism) about the future of Myanmar independent film.

Our crew consists of five people including myself. We started the group called Ten Men in 2013. I really am grateful for these people. They are men who are obsessed and madly in love with art. I couldn’t pay a single penny to them for the film. All I could offer them was food and to make this film together.

Thadi-Htar is a painter and a performance artist. Nyi Pu, the cinematographer is the most savvy in our group and Aung Khine Myo who records, and does lighting and editing in the film. Than Kyaw Htay is another painter and an actor. The film would not be possible without them. I am now preparing a new film Yangon Midnight with the same crew.

Myanmar independent film is likely to grow in coming years. Myanmar is a country full of conflicts and strife, so we have no shortage of good stories. If the youth, especially the ethnic youth, have a chance to articulate and present their stories, we definitely will have authentic Burmese independent films. And there’s the element of the government. If they took an interest and encourage the independent films, it might grow faster. Or else, it’s going to be a slow crawl if they keep suppressing it.

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Note: Philip Cheah is a film critic and editor of BigO, Singapore’s only independent pop culture publication. He is currently program consultant for the Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival (Indonesia), Hanoi Int’l Film Festival (Vietnam), Jaffna International Film Festival (Sri Lanka), Asiaticamediale (Italy), El-Gouna International Film Festival (Egypt) and Shanghai International Film Festival (China). He is Joint President of NETPAC, the Network for the Promotion of Asia Pacific Cinema. The above essay/interview was first published as Myanmar Showcase: 100 Years of Burmese Film, by Griffith Film School, Australia.

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  1. One Response to “MORE BURMESE DAYS”

  2. How about moderating these shithole comments sections, Phil?

    By DD on Nov 29, 2021

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