According to KS, the very reason we’re doing FCP in Myanmar is because of Keiko Sei
. He met her and told her about the project, and asked where he should hold it next. “Myanmar,” she told him. “It’s ready for it.”
Born in Japan and based in Bangkok, Keiko’s been doing film projects in Myanmar since Jan 2003. FCP thus marks a tenth year-anniversary for her. Before that, however, she was working in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, navigating the Soviet-influenced systems of censorship – and mark you well how I didn’t say “system”, I said “system”.
Keiko: Each country had a different circumstance. The way they practiced censorship was different, the information was different, the availability of information was different.
In some countries, you couldn’t buy a simple roll of ASA-100 – the film that everyone was using for tourist photos. And in some countries even the simple AC cable was not available. So I had to list everything that was available in a country so I could transport it from one country to another.
So my activities were transporting information in a way, because as a cross-border person, I was crossing so many borders in those times: between countries, from the West to inside the country. And it was very important for me to work alone to be more flexible. When local people needed something, needed more information, because there was no Internet, so I would pack a video cassette into the luggage, take an overnight train, put the video cassette into the player and play it.
I was working with local people who wanted to create their own medium. Because those countries, they really couldn’t trust mass media, they really couldn’t trust the news, so they were creating their own news. So it was really physical, the transport of information in that time.
Also developing relationships with people was very important, because I didn’t trust authority. Sometimes I found people on the street. For example, that was the case in Czechoslovakia: a group of filmmakers were filming something – they were moving a little bit of this and filming, and moving a little bit of this and filming. And I knew they were doing independent animation. And then I started to talk to them. So I found out they were a group of young surrealists. So in this way I developed little by little and expanded the network.
She also ran workshops in different countries and different cultures, adapting to her environment each time. Some places don’t really understand irony, she noted. Then in the early 2000s she met some Burmese artists at an international festival, and she knew where her destiny lay.
Keiko: I arrived in Burma, I started to research what I could do, how I could help. And I realized that this totalitarian system here was very very different from totalitarian systems elsewhere. Because information was available. They were selling videos on the street, VCDs, DVDs. It wasn’t always like this – sometimes generals would say you can’t have this – but most of the time it was available.
After further research, I learned what was lacking here was not information but education, guidance and the opportunity for discussion on the information itself. was what the authorities didn’t provide.
So in the end, people were swamped by the junk, the noise. But they were completely floating on the information junk, and nobody was guiding them. They really had to somehow figure out on their own about information. So that’s how I decided, well if this is something they don’t provide, this is something I can do. So I started to try to offer opportunities for guidance and expression, and also opportunities for discussion.
Only most stupid dictator completely limits information, for example, Ceausescu. For example, when Ceausescu was arrested, they asked him, "Why did you limit broadcasting time to only 2 hours a day?" Then they killed him.
But the more clever ones, they provide people with more entertainment, Roman-style. Like Korean soap operas, completely poisonous pop music. So people don’t think about politics, and they’re happy.
Keiko: So I had to somehow work in this situation. I started workshops, film education, and later I started the documentary film we created in 2003. But otherwise what I started was the screening of good films – just good quality films – and opportunities for discussion.
Because this discussion part… Screenings had probably happened before, but the discussion part was missing. So first there is a screening, and then people discuss, and afterwards it was better if you moved to a tea-shop. Tea-shops are places for discussion here; it’s like a European café culture. People are more relaxed there.
And afterwards we started what I called “mushroom hunting”. I pictured this big city, Yangon, as a wild forest, and how do you survive? You have to know what you can use; what kind of mushroom you can pick to eat. You have to know which mushroom is nutritious for you and which mushroom is poisonous for you.
So we started downtown and started to hunt for DVDs, VCDs of film. Because all this information is available on the street. People started to pick many interesting things. There was one shop in Chinatown, they would buy DVDs, VCDs in bulk. It was a complete mixture of everything, from gore, stupid films; but sometimes you’d find treasures: Iranian films, Taste of Cherry, whoa. And then we’d look at it, and search again.
For more beginner types, we used to go to a certain video shop, 47th Street, because the owner of the shop, he selects the good films. He really has a sense of responsibility to introduce good films to this country. So this is kind of easy course. People who are not so much used to film. Better rounded ones had to go to Chinatown.
So I told them, until the next time I visit here, please pick more deep films and tell me what you’ve seen. And people started to pick more and more unbelievable films. And I asked, “What did you find?” “Dogme!” Yes, Dogme 95!
I started with classic French Film, Children of Paradise, which is seen as the best, best film by Japanese critics. Because it shows the individual’s power to change society. For the Myanmar people, if you haven’t seen it, see it, because then you will realize why the revolution happened in France. It’s really about the power of the individual.
But the discussion of the individual at the very very beginning of the workshop was that there’s an older lady, she’s the main character, and she’s a very bad woman because she seduced a married man. And by the discussion I also understood how people were reading this, what is important in this culture. So for me it’s very important as a learning process as well.
From that discussion to Dogme 95, that was a big jump. And people started to write in local journals, film criticism. It happened very quickly.
Keiko: We didn’t have a fixed venue, and it was really very good that we didn’t have a fixed venue. We were like Gypsies: we had to move to different places. If we did everything underground, always in a private apartment, the authorities would suspect us more. So we had to come out sometimes to do the screenings in a semi-public place, such as a café. And I had to negotiate with the owners of these semi-public spaces. And they took a risk to rent us these places, but they really believed such an education was necessary for people.
I was very careful with the films that we screened. I didn’t show anything explicitly political, anything specifically sexual. I was very careful with the choice of films, but it was illegal assembly. Any gathering with more than 5 people was prohibited. City Square, Museum Art Space, we could use those spaces. And I really think the people who rented us these spaces were very brave, and very conscious of education.
And also I really didn’t do anything if the local people said don’t do it, don’t cross this border. I would never have done it, even despite the fact that I really thought that this was possible. I had to respect local advice.
And the people who came to these screenings, they were also very brave, because they were taking a risk to come to these screenings. For me as an organizer, it was big responsibility, the choice of the film. It became very big topic for me: for which film can people risk 15 years of imprisonment? Which film is worth 15 year of imprisonment? As an artist, you have to ask, is my art worth 15 years of imprisonment?
We were very very careful, but there was always, always some [possibility of a] big problem. Finally, we had the big problem. I don’t want to talk a lot about it – the authorities came to the screening, and they [the audience] just ran away – very very fast, like babies of spiders. So I thought, “They will never come again.” But I had to begin all over again.
That was in 2004. Keiko’s second wave was anchored more in foreign institutes, which would be able to lend a level of diplomatic immunity to her screenings. She also roped in her friends from the former Czechoslovakia, where they’d thrown out all the old Marxist apparatchik professors in the film schools and replaced them with young revolutionaries.
Keiko: I wanted to involve people from Eastern Europe because they had also gone through this totalitarian system. I didn’t have to explain anything. So I invited them for this film workshop, and they stayed on. And also they started to provide the scholarship to Myanmar students. They bring students to Prague and educate them there.
And two years ago, 2011, some of the students who did their Masters there said they wanted to start a film festival. Never happened before. Film festival: maybe this is too risky, no? And they said, “No, we can do it, we can do it.” And we tried first, and it really went well. So now we are doing this. Now it will be third year for the Wathann Film Festival.
The good thing about this film festival is they have started a discussion group using the social network. From video cassettes to social network! And there are about 300 members, and they really discuss every day about the films.
Kaffe: How did you engage the locals?
Keiko: For each country, the core scene is very small. Also the dissident scene is very small. I worked with Vaclav Havel’s group, and their group is very small. The majority of people are in the grey area.
I also noticed, writers participate in almost every event. I not only organised art workshops, but also workshops on the border, because it’s important to involve Burmese exiles. And every workshop, the writers participated, the poets participated. Ju is here today: people like her.
They are the core of the country, because they write. They can disseminate to the people because they are writing. Maybe the information they provide is in text form, in poetry form. So they disseminate information in a different form. I don’t expect every person who attends the workshop to respond in a film form. It can be in a completely different form as well.
Sonal: I’m very interested in how all these movies are pirated. In Manipur, pirated Korean DVDs are extremely popular as well! But they have subtitles. Do the Korean movies have subtitles?
Keiko: Most of the DVDs are not translated. Since two three years, it’s been translated. So people are used to watching films in English.
Me: You talked about the new generation of filmmakers. Could you tell us about the old generation of Burmese films, and if there’s any connection between the classics and the new generation?
Keiko: The young filmmakers who run the film festival: voluntarily, they picked up the old films, the classic films, and made an effort to subtitle them in English, and showed it to the young generation of filmmakers, because those fold films are in a very bad condition. Now the young generation of filmmakers are making an effort to subtitle it, to restore it, not just for young people but also for an international audience. I didn’t do anything, but they did.
Rachael: (whispering to me) That’s a nice advertisement for tonight’s screening.