I was actually furious at the thought of having to sit around waiting for this film to start. I'd planned to leave by 2pm and finally get some rest. Now, because of some stupid 90-minute documentary added to the Wathann Film Festival, I had to stay back till 7. I was tired and sick (and Singaporeans don't get per diems when we get back to Singapore, btw.) So I crawled into the screening room thoroughly determined to hate the movie.

But it sucks you in, you know. All this trauma, all these extremely specific tales drawn from the survivors: farmers, craftsmen, healers, monks, fathers, mothers, orphaned children. 

These are their testimonies: dead bodies floating like thousands of ducks, villages drunk on liquor for days because there's no drinkable water left, a woman who had to strip naked in the flood because everyone sinking was clutching to her clothing and pulling her under, a child pulled along in a current, caught by the branches of a tree, waking in the morning to realise he'd been sleeping on a dead pig.
Although the film's officially directed by The Maw Naing and Pe Saung Same, it actually involved a huge crew of film students, including Thu Thu and Thaiddhi. They managed to reach the disaster-stricken area 7 days after the cyclone and went on shooting for three months, spending 7-10 days in the area, going back to Yangon for 1 or 2 days, over and over again.

The media, it seemed, showed plenty of dead bodies. They restrained themselves: what concerned them wasn't so much the dead but the living, who were trying to rebuild, trying to find the bodies of their loved ones, trying to survive on the government's aid rations of 1 cup of rice per person every 12 days. Plenty else to blame the government for: they predicted the cyclone to be 70-80 mph (real strength was 120mph) and just said "take care" - no instructions.

Thu Thu started out as a camerawoman, but her hands kept shaking as she heard the stories - she ended up doing production management instead. Two directors, two cameras, two sound people at all times, 70-80 hours of footage. Interviews carried out with extreme sensitivity: coming without cameras into the community first, building their trust, ensuring their sense of safety at all time, listening to their stories and thus giving some closure to their pain. They didn't have money to give, Thu Thu said, so this was the best gift they could offer.

This was risky business, remember - it was back in 2008, just after the Saffron Revolution. The government had declared that it would arrest anyone shooting film there. Once, they encountered officials and just lied and claimed they were from some NGO group. The officials were confused enough to let them go on shooting right out in the street.

The crew kept diaries of their reflections, thus creating a narrative voice that was more poetic than journalistic: quoting the five forms of great disasters in Buddhist scriptures. Does the water remember? Or the trees?

Because of censorship they couldn't screen this in Myanmar for years: they did post-production in Hamburg, and released it at an international film festival in 2009. But then, two crew members got arrested so they decided to withdraw the film, replace all the names in the credits with pseudonyms.

The second Wathann Film Festival in September 2012 was the first time the film was shown back home. Over 500 people attended the premiere, and the original names of creators were reinstated in the credits. It would've been cowardice, Thu Thu said, for them to hide themselves, when the survivors ran just as great a risk by putting their faces on screen, sharing the truth to the world.
 


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