December 5, 2021 – 6:11 am

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The story of Burmese independent cinema seems like a tale of happy accidents. Nothing was planned. All the key players just happened to find small doors opening and rushed through them instinctively. In the case of Thaiddhi (Programme Director of Wathann Film Festival), it was attending a cinematography workshop that led to a film scholarship in Europe, that led to meeting his wife (who was in the same scholarship), that led to a shared dream, for an independent film festival, Wathann, that has now lasted 10 years. Philip Cheah hears the tale.

Philip Cheah: The Wathann Film Festival has become a focal point and platform for change. What was the thinking when the festival was set up and with what funding?

Thaiddhi: The beginning of the Wathann Film Festival (WFF) was very simple. We founded a film festival because we wanted to screen our own films to the public. That’s how it started.

Around 2005, I was studying for a multimedia diploma that included cinematography, sound, editing and graphic design. From that point, I became quite sure that I wanted to focus on cinematography. I attended a workshop at the French Institute in Yangon, organised by FAMU (Film/TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Czech Republic).

In 2007, I joined the Yangon Film School Documentary workshop. At that time, there were not many choices to study filmmaking in Myanmar. By 2008, I already began as cinematographer in the first feature length documentary film, Nargis, When Time Stopped Breathing, and then I got the scholarship to study in FAMU.

Thu Thu Shein (co-founder of WFF) also got a scholarship to study in FAMU, and while we were studying in Europe, we realised that we needed a film festival in Myanmar to screen our films and our friends’ films. With support from FAMU, we founded the WFF in 2011.

This was good timing for us because the country was also in the democratic transition and started to open up. We took this as an opportunity and we managed to screen social-political documentaries and critical films that we otherwise would never have a chance to screen in public during the military regime.

We got support from not only young people, students, and artist community but also the general public. Then the festival slowly grew and became one of the main platforms for independent filmmakers.

During the first two years of WFF, we held it in a Buddhist monastery and we got over 500 people attending for five days with only a local short film competition. After the third edition we moved our festival to Waziya Cinema, an old cinema downtown, and we got more attending and the festival started growing really fast.

By 2019, the WFF got over 4,000 people attending in two venues, Waziya Cinema and Goethe Institute. We screened over 90 short films, not only local competition but also focused on South-east Asian short film and international short films. We also included discussions with filmmakers, master class and panels.

All these 10 years, the Czech Republic has been one of our main supporters, plus the Goethe Institut and Japan Foundation are also our strong partners in Myanmar.

It seems that Aung Min and Lamin Oo are significant in this new consciousness. How are they building the local scene? Where do they come from?

Aung Min is a filmmaker and scriptwriter. His background is as a writer and he also writes about performance artists and contemporary artists from Myanmar. He found Ten Men group to produce short films and documentary, his first feature-length script was made into the film, The Monk (2014), and he recently worked on his first feature-length film, Man With The Beard (Opening Film in this GFS programme). He also teaches scriptwriting and filmmaking to young artists and film students in Myanmar.

Lamin Oo is from Tagu film production and they are a group of young independent filmmakers focused on documentary and shorts. Their films have won many awards in the local and international film festivals. They are a very active and young group of filmmakers. They started from documentary and are now also producing short fiction films and preparing for a first feature-length film.

After meeting you several times, what I sense about your position is that you would like to shift away from the foreign-aid cinema that has been associated with Burma since the late ’90s and the advent of digital film. It feels like you want a stronger local representation and control of your own cinematic voice. How true is this?

In Myanmar, we don’t have Arts and Culture Funds from Government or any public funds. Many organisations like us have to depend on international funds and support. Several international funders have their own focus issues and filmmakers; film festival organisers have to compromise to get the funding and I think this is not good for the long term.

For example, documentary filmmakers don’t get any support from Government and TV channels, so many filmmakers depend on making Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO)-type films, which are very often merely direct information pieces without artistic expression. I found out that a lot of documentary filmmakers don’t have a chance to experiment in storytelling and develop their filmmaking skills.

Some filmmakers also randomly put at least one issue inside our stories, such as Human Rights, LGBT, or Feminism. That helps attract international attention to get funding. I also believe all these issues are important and really need to highlight in our society but I want these issues to come up naturally into the story and not artificially inserted into the film to attract funding.

What was your exposure to the Burmese cinema in your youth? Who were the key influences for you?

When I was young I didn’t have much chance to go to the cinema so I had to watch most of the Burmese films on TV. Every Sunday there’s a Burmese Classic film programme on the government TV channel. And my parents love to watch foreign films on VHS tape, mostly Hollywood films but sometimes, Japanese films and Chinese films. Director Maung Wunna and Maung Tin Oo are two of my favourite filmmakers from Myanmar.

From my personal point of view, the way director Maung Tin Oo portrayed the ordinary Burmese life in Central Myanmar is very interesting and authentic. Central Myanmar is known as “Ah Nyar”, a very hot and dry region in the middle part of the country. In this area, the majority are Burmese Buddhists and the way they live their life and how Buddhism connects into their society is very significant to me.

Director Maung Wunna is also another unique filmmaker whose father was also the well-known filmmaker, Thar Du, and his brothers are also well-known writers, singers and actors. Their family is known for the Realistic approach in Myanmar Cinema. Every film he made shows a deep research on characters and their social background.

His films normally included non-actors, his artist friends and ordinary people, plus his own brothers and he did two feature films with each of his sons as the main character in the film. He knows very well Burmese traditional music and theatre and uses them carefully in his films.

Which South-east Asian cinema do you feel close to in terms of being a role model?

As much as I know, Myanmar filmmakers are more influenced by Indian and Japanese Cinema than South-east Asian film. Nowadays, the young generation is more interested in Korean Cinema. Thai horror films are also quite popular in Myanmar mainstream film industry. Even though we are a part of South-east Asia, we don’t have much chance to see South-east Asian independent films. That’s why we try to screen South-east Asian independent short films in Wathann Film Festival.

What do you want to achieve for Burmese independent cinema?

As we all know Myanmar’s independent film scene is still young, but there’s a hope that there will be a few independent films emerging from Myanmar and achieve some recognition from international film festivals, and then more international co-productions could happen for other filmmakers.

There are some interesting filmmakers in Myanmar who can make good short films, but to make feature films will be a big step for them. And, most importantly, the government or public funding for independent films needs to be established in Myanmar.

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Lamin Oo.


After meeting cinematographer Khin Maung Kyaw at the Yamagata Documentary Film Festival in 2015, he quickly introduced me to his Tagu Film partner, Lamin Oo, when I finally reached Yangon in 2019. What was quickly apparent was that these were the young talents who have fired up the Wathann Film Festival for the last 10 years. Since founding Tagu Films in 2013, this group of four friends has been all over the Burmese filmscape from independent to mainstream, from documentary to fiction and video art. Philip Cheah finds out more from Lamin Oo.

Philip Cheah: You have become quite significant in this new Myanmar cinema consciousness. Films from your company have been winning awards at Wathann for many years. Tell us about your early life in the US and your decision to return to Burma. What did you graduate in and what work did you do before going into film? Why choose film?

Lamin Oo: I never thought I would end up being a filmmaker. It was never my dream. As someone who grew up in a very rural part of Myanmar with no access to cinemas, I only saw black and white Myanmar movies that were shown on local TV channels on Sundays.

I don’t think I ever saw a movie in a theatre until I was about 15-16 (I was in Yangon then). I was not a film guy. Growing up, music was my passion. I was in a metal band in high school. I don’t remember any Myanmar films making a big impact on my psyche.

When I went to college in the US, I studied Psychology and Philosophy. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after college but I had a keen interest in human behaviour - why we do what we do and so on. I never knew that this would later help me in my filmmaking career. But it was in college that I first saw films that made a big impression on me.

I watched Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) in my intro to philosophy class and that movie stayed in my head for a long time. It was the ideas embodied by the film rather than the aesthetics of the film that attracted me - the fear of death, the meaning of life, etc.

In another Philosophy class, I watched Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003) and I was totally confused and mesmerised at the same time. Since then, I have re-visited these two films many, many times. Only when I became a filmmaker that I was able to appreciate how beautiful these two films were.

After I graduated, I married my college sweetheart and settled down in Louisville, Kentucky. It was 2011 and the US was suffering from an economic recession: work was really hard to find for a recent graduate like me. I ended up working as an assistant librarian at a college in Louisville. It was not a satisfying job.

My marriage lasted only two years. Rather than staying in the US, in 2013, I decided to come back to Myanmar where I have friends and family. At this point, I’d been away from Myanmar for seven years.

When you actually returned to Burma, was it easy to find fellow filmmakers? Was it easy to set up the company and how did you fund your early films?

Around 2010-11, Myanmar started to slowly transition into a quasi-democracy and opened its doors to the world. With so much interest from the international community, there was a lot of news coverage about Myanmar. During that time, my childhood friends, Lin Sun Oo and Sai Kong Kham, had been working with foreign media as local fixers and gaining experience in documentary production.

In 2013, they decided to found Tagu Films to produce Myanmar documentaries. As soon as they heard that I was coming back to Myanmar, they offered me a job as a producer. I didn’t know what that job entailed but I quickly said “yes” because I would get to travel around the country and meet new people, which I felt was what I needed at the time.

Lamin Oo’s This Land is Our Land (2014).

Our very first project was This Land is Our Land - a documentary about Myanmar farmers and their struggles from an environmental angle. As a producer, I travelled for research and talked to farmers from different regions. On the actual production, I did everything from logistics and interviews to carrying tripods and gear. I learned the basics of documentary filmmaking by being on the job. I learned from my cinematographer, from my sound recordist, from my editor and from my director.

While This Land is Our Land was in post-production (December, 2013), I worked on my first documentary project - Homework (2014) - an observational snapshot of a family gathering where the father who’s working abroad in Thailand talks to his wife and daughter via video chat while the child does her daily homework in front of a computer. Again, as a first time director, I had a lot of help from my producer, my cinematographer and my editor, all of whom had more experience in filmmaking than I did at the time.

The Wathann Film Festival has become a focal point and platform for this change. Which film and what year did your company first won at Wathann? And how has your group of filmmakers grown since then?

In 2014, This Land is Our Land won the prestigious Aung San Suu Kyi Award at International Human Rights and Human Dignity Film Festival and Homework won the Special Mention Award at Wathann Film Festival.

In a way, these two documentaries in the first years of Tagu Films kind of set the tone for how we moved forward as a production house. This Land is Our Land was a commissioned project funded by an environmental agency, which means we made money from this project. And it has a very clear social justice agenda.

Homework is a truly independent project with everyone on the project working for free. It has no obvious social justice agenda. At the time, there were only two film festivals in Myanmar, one is social justice oriented and another is more focused on artistic value. We won awards at both because we understood what each film festival was looking for.

Again in 2015, we won an award at a Human Rights film festival with a social justice documentary called A Peaceful Land that I co-directed with Sai Kong Kham. And we won the Best Documentary Award at Wathann Film Festival with my second documentary The Special One (2015). Our formula was to make money with commissioned projects and invest the profit in independent projects.

I find the independent and documentary film community in Myanmar to be very warm and friendly. Many seniors wanted to help us with our independent projects. Most of them work for free (or for discounted fees) on these projects and put their heart and soul into the job.

We rely on their advice and guidance on the direction of our production and the kind of projects we take up. Since early on, we at Tagu Films decided that we will try to collaborate with as many different people in the independent sector. Being able to work with these talented people who have genuine interest in our projects and our company are the main reasons we are thriving as a production house.

Lamin Oo’s Three Strangers (2021).

For the first two years, we worked mainly in the documentary scene. In 2016, a friend of mine who had been working in Singapore decided to come back to Yangon. He had been working as an editor in a production house in Singapore and he wanted to make a short film.

Since I was his primary contact with local filmmakers, he wanted me to produce for him. We agreed to take up the project and produced our first short film, Across The River Wind (selected in this GFS programme) that won the Best Cinematography award at Wathann 2016.

Since then, we slowly made our way into the short film scene. Our latest shorts, SICK (Best Short Film) and Acceptance (Audience Award, Best Actor Award, also in this GFS programme), also won awards at Wathann Film Festival 2019.

This has given us the momentum to move into producing feature films in the future, both independent films for international audience and commercial films for local audience. I’m currently selected for Locarno Open Doors Lab as a producer for a feature length project with Zaw Bo Bo Hein (the director of SICK).

I’m hoping to learn more about international co-production in workshops like these and, one day, be able to co-produce indie films. In the past year, there is more space for new filmmakers in the commercial film scene as well.

I’m currently editing three commercial films that will be shown in local cinemas here. We have also been collaborating on a few local, mainstream commercial films as well. I see us balancing the two in the future - one to make money and another for artistic satisfaction.

Which South-east Asian cinema do you feel close to in terms of being a role model?

To be honest, I have not studied enough of South-east Asian cinema to think of any one of them as a role model for Myanmar. I’m still learning about how each country promotes their independent film industry. I’m hoping I will have a better answer to this after my Locarno Lab experience and further script development labs down the line.

What do you want to achieve for Burmese independent cinema? What is your plan for Tagu Films?

Very early on in the formation of Tagu Films, we stated our goal very clearly: We want to make films that we ourselves would want to watch. This includes documentaries, short films, features and other video art projects. This also includes both independent/arthouse and commercial projects. We want to continue making films that we ourselves will enjoy and be proud of.

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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