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.
got banned, we actually got a break between APK and the filmfest, which the tech guys spent doing setup. A much-needed pause for my concentration, and a period for a few more audience members to trickle in from outside. We slumped ourselves on the beanbags and let the Festival Directors do the talking.
Thu Thu: We always have a problem to shoot in the country. Whenever we shoot in the street or someone’s house, we need the permission to shoot.
Thaiddhi: When we speak of documentary and truth, the government is quite worried.
Thu Thu: When the government opened the film school in 2007, we immediately joined the school so we could get the student card, so we could shoot in the street. So that is how we sustained ourselves.
Thaiddhi: But since Burma VJ came out, the government is looking for anyone with a camera. Everybody with a camera is a danger to them.
And even after the films were shot, there was the problem of getting them past the censors. Much too hairy a process, everyone thought, so they passed their films from friend to friend through underground networks, only getting glory at international film festivals.
Not an ideal situation. They decided to go for broke in 2011 and hold the first Wathann Film Festival in a Buddhist centre. Fortunately, the censors were pretty confused and didn't take action - after applying two months in advance as instructed, the organisers only got their approval letter an hour before their closing ceremony! Ah well, legal is legal.
No problems this year, 'cos the censorship board's been dissolved. Audiences grew from 500 to 4,000. (You see, Singapore? So much could happen if you only got rid of our censors!)
The actual lineup of movies overlapped almost completely with what we saw in Mandalay: stuff I reviewed here
. The first and the last films were different, though, so I couldn't rush home and finally get my beauty rest.
Social Game, dir Seng Mai
Yeah. As I said, I was tired, and I was cranky, and I couldn't see the flippin' point of this movie. It's filmed among in a Kachin minority settlement, which is cool, but the content makes very little sense. Two threads intercutting one another: Q&As with a class of schoolchildren, where they answer, "What is the most important thing for your country?" They give the textbook answers: money, education, politics, health, each of which open up a new section of the film. Unfortunately the action is utterly prosaic and bears very little relation to the supposed headers. Ten minutes of my life I'll never get back.
Nargis - where time stopped breathing, dir The Maw Naing and Pe Maung San
Now, this documentary deserves a post of its own...
And now five films from the Festival Board! (Thaiddhi isn’t represented as a director, but he co-wrote the script for the last two.)
5 Beats Before Death, dir Thu Thu Sein and Katrine Philip
We ended up talking a lot about this film. It’s a tender documentary shot in Mingun Nursing Home (we passed by yesterday!), where the old attempt to let go of their attachments, Buddhist-style, before they die. But the truth is, there’s tons of humour and irony in the lives of the residents of the women’s wing, how their nurse is both fierce and tender, how they cling mischievously to their cheroots and Burmese medicine in spite of medical advice, how they mock the one among them who keeps weeping over her coming death, foretelling that she’ll be reborn as a ghost…
This piece was co-directed by Thu Thu with a Danish filmmaker as part of a Copenhagen initiative, pairing up Scandinavian directors with non-Scandinavians.
Thu Thu: When I was studying overseas, I noticed not a lot of people liked to discuss death. And since these people were more willing to talk about it, I decided to present it from a Buddhist viewpoint. my grandfather was also one of the people who openly discusses death with me and we had long conversations with this and part of the influence comes from him.
Kaffe: I just want to say that as a European the fact that you work with old people and ask how you prepare for death… In Europe it would always be about how are you enjoying your life now? The focus would always be about your life now. So your focus really is Buddhist perspective.
Me: How did the Scandinavian audience react?
Thu Thu: It’s a bit of a sad story. I wasn’t involved in the editing process because I couldn’t afford to travel to Copenhagen. I had to communicate via e-mail. I wasn’t able to make it to the premiere either. And I only received the DVD one week ago. This is the first time I’m seeing the final cut.
Kaffe: Are you happy with it?
Thu Thu: Yes, but I don’t really like the music. But the story is good.
Into the Ring, dir. Aung Ko Ko
A documentary profile of a young boxer trying to fight his way out of poverty – traditional Burmese boxing seems pretty much like Muay Thai.
Aung Ko Ko: I made this film because I personally don’t like sports. I don’t like football, I don’t like wrestling and basically I’m trying to discover why people enjoy watching other people wrestle. I was basically trying to answer these questions: why do people like it, is this the cause of wars. But these did not make it into the film.
Also in 2006, when we were not yet as open, we had a lot of issues [we could not discuss, such] as poverty. So I tried to reveal that as one of the sub-layers within the film. So I tried to show it as one of the wrestlers who was trying to overcome poverty.
Thaiddhi: In 2006 when this film was made, we were not as open. We had a lot of trouble working as documentary filmmakers, and also because it was hard to film on the streets, because we could get in trouble.
We were trying to tell the stories of ordinary people in the streets. Although it may look like we’re skimming the surface, we really tried to show the social issues that affect people in the country.
Behind the word documentary are the two words “truth” and “evidence”, which are two words that the government is very scared of. So we tried to introduce documentary in this country, and get people to understand what is close to them, what they can relate to.
Beyond the Light, dir Myo Min Khin
Another documentary profile, this time of a blind guitarist. Personally, I think this territory is a little stale, but some interesting moments: his irritation with songs about colours, the scene where he imprints a piece of paper at lightning speed with a Braille stencil, then reads a Buddhist scripture back to us. He uses the same technique for musical notation.
Myo Min Khin: This was my first film as a director. I knew the character very well: I used to sit with him at a teashop and we were very good friends. I wanted to make a film because the way he thought about the world was very unique. And this is someone who is very unsatisfied with his life even though he can play the guitar in a way that not a lot of people could. Also I could film it the way I wanted.
Forest, dir Thu Thu Sein
The River, dir Thu Thu Sein
And back to video art again: two brief sequences of women getting swallowed up by reams of red cloth, seduced by another woman wearing too much eye makeup. What’s this really about? China, apparently – the way Chinese businesses are wrapping their tendrils into every recess of emergent Myanmar.
These were school project films, made while in Prague, under certain conditions: the filmmakers could only shoot with 35mm film, had just 3 rolls, and couldn’t use dialogue. To complete their allegory, they actually searched out a location that looked like the banks of the dam-threatened Ayerawady/Irawaddy – a disused mining site.
Weirdly heavy-handed and propagandistic, IMHO. But I couldn’t give my feedback – tomorrow’s our last day in Myanmar, and I was rushing off with some artists to visit the Teak Bridge.
Sorry, Wathann Film Festival. Circus people gotta go fly trapezes. Have a good second day of the fest!
We’re watching about sixteen films today, so I’m going to give split-second summaries and reflections for most of these films.
New Life, dir M.F.C.
A five-minute documentary: we meet Maung, a man who moved into the city to become a novice monk, but dropped out because he couldn’t pass the scripture-memorising exams. Now he works as a video editor. (No delight at having realized his true dreams; more matter-of-face first-person reportage.)
Scrap, dir Maung Maung Thya Mint
The only fiction film in this installment. A guy dying of hunger, thirst, and lack of cigarettes, lies on an apartment floor, waiting for a phone call from a guy who’s promised him money. Nice change of pace: bluesy, mysterious.
Butchery Day – damn, didn’t get the director’s name here.
Experimental collage of scenes and sounds from a butcher shop. I think this was supposed to impress us with the brutality of human existence, but those ribs looked yummy. Transcendent intentions marred a little by the postscript in English: “You can’t be more horrable than life itself! We are running through the butchery social sphere.”
Cat Lady, dir Jenny Zhang
Awww. An old woman who feeds stray cats and dogs – even though she’s clearly poor herself, living barefoot in the street, using her bare hands to splatter fistfuls of mixed beans and rice on the pavement for her furry friends.
uninterruptedness, dir Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi
More video art than narrative film – the director’s just angling and twirling his/her camera in front of a computer screen full of poetic sentences in Burmese about death. TT said he liked it. Hmph.
The Dream, dir Khin Myanmar
Interesting stuff: a profile of a Kachin man (or Kayin? or Karen?) who runs a Christian orphanage. Strict disciplinarian, married his wife because “she works like a horse”, has trouble with minority tribe Kachin kids because of their cultural differences i.e. they don’t look you in the eye when they speak to you… a real sweetheart.
Sweetie-Pie, dir. Sai Kong Kham
This one won the top documentary prize in 2011, and it mos def deserved to! A simple portrait of a crotchety old man who baby grandson is climbing all over him – he calls him motherfucker and sonofabitch (those were the surtitles, but they’ve assured me the Burmese terms he used are just as rude) but just plainly, plainly loves the kid. Heartwarming and gutbustingly funny.
Thaiddhi later explained something in a Q&A session that unified a lot of these films thematically. It’s still sensitive to talk about poverty in Myanmar: these films therefore use it as a backdrop for human stories, rather than focusing on the theme of poverty itself.
One of our initiatives for FCP is funding Myanmar’s first film festival to travel regionally. For the first time, there’ll be a two-day set of screenings at MCAM. A few word from the festival director:
Thu Thu Shein: We started this Wathann Film Festival in 2011. We started with four people, including myself, Thaiddhi, Aung Ko Ko and Myo Min Khim,
With film screenings it was difficult to find places to screen them. With paintings we could show them in a gallery, but with films it was more difficult. We have now found a space for independent filmmakers to screen their films.
We now have the Wathann Film Festival twice: in 2011 and 2012. We call this film festival (“Wathann” because it means “Monsoon Season”, which is when the festival takes place.)
We feel that having a film festival in Yangon is not enough, because Mandalay is a very big city with very great artists. We would like to invite all of them to participate in our film festival in the coming years.
First I would like to thank Mandalay Contemporary Art Centre for allowing us the space to screen the films. Next I would like to welcome Flying Circus Project and TheatreWorks and all the participating artists for joining us. We would also like to thank all the audience members in Mandalay who are joining us today. Thank you.
(Pictured: the filmmakers and film festival board. Thu Thu Sein is in lavender, second from the right.)
What we’ll be seeing are mostly award-winners from the 2011 and 2012 festivals in Yangon. Usually there’s a discussion after every film, but translation would be so time-consuming that we’ve opted for a more compact program: at 10:30, 1pm and 3:30 they’ll be screening one hour-blocks of short films, following by Q&As.
FCP artists are free to wander in the meantime. We’re also given full licence to skip the 1pm slot, so we can visit the Mahabumi Paya or something similarly touristy. Me, I’m staying put for the long haul.