Five years ago, if you lived in Myanmar (formerly Burma) and wanted to see a homegrown horror movie or political comedy, you were out of luck. Restrictions on filmmaking were part of a legacy of censorship handed down by the military-run government that had presided over Myanmar for decades.
In 2011, the dissolution of the junta led to a relaxing of the bans, which has ushered in an explosion of creativity in today’s 35th Street filmmaking district in Yangon, a collection of storefronts run by small units of filmmakers who can often be seen hand-labeling their self-manufactured DVDs in an effort to get their films seen. Their ultimate fear: the whims of a shifting government may again halt their productions.
It was January 2014 when Peter Decherney, professor of English and cinema studies, visited Myanmar with a few filmmakers in tow, under the auspices of the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Yangon. The mission of the visit was to explore the cultural legacy of film and how it played into modern politics in the country, so that both U.S.- and Myanmar-based filmmakers and scholars could learn more about the other’s respective industries. It was a unique moment in time that would transform Decherney from a scholar of film to a documentary filmmaker.
“There were a lot of exciting things happening in the three years after the 2011 relaxing of censorship. But there was a real sense that the 2015 election was going to be a litmus test, so people were in a kind of wait-and-see mode,” says Decherney, who sponsored film showings for locals while there, including those of fellow traveler Bill Guttentag, C’79, a Penn alum whose films include Soundtrack of a Revolution, about the U.S. civil rights movement. “Here was this fascinating film industry that I certainly didn’t know much about, and I figured many others didn’t, either. It occurred to me that the best thing to do would be to tell the story, so we went back halfway across the world and started filming.” Thus, Filmmaking for Democracy in Myanmar was born.
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One of Decherney’s first tasks was to recruit a local crew. He hooked up with cinematographer Tin Win Hlaing. In addition to being a talented cameraman who would help capture the natural beauty of the country, Hlaing also served as a sort of guide.
“Some of our best interviews were accidents,” says Decherney. “The last day we were shooting, we went to a village about an hour outside of Yangon. Even though it’s still a functioning village, it’s often used as a kind of live set—almost every day there are films being shot there. A car drove up and an actress got out, and she knew Tin. We talked with her about the industry as she put on her thanaka makeup, a tree bark-based paint the women use, and she appears in the the film.”
In order to tell the inside story of an industry at odds with what many regard as a fascist regime, Decherney needed to network with a variety of local filmmakers. They included Wyne, who made the first horror film in the country to be theatrically released; Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, a human rights filmmaker known for organizing groups of films and filmmakers in order to travel the country and show their work; and Lamin Oo, a young documentary filmmaker who studied in the U.S. and has been cited by President Barack Obama for his talent as a storyteller. A recent recipient of Myanmar’s version of the Academy Award for documentary film, Oo’s movies focus on farmers and rural culture and how they butt up against industrialization or the military. Documentaries like these have been bolstered by the newly-established Human Rights Film Festival, sponsored by one of the country’s most revered figures, Aung San Suu Kyi, chairperson of the National League for Democracy (NLD).
Also featured in the film is talent from across the different generations of the Myanmar film industry, including Grace Swe Zin Htaik, the most popular actress in the country during the 80s and 90s. “She is a really fascinating figure,” Decherney says. “She quit acting because she felt that the propaganda films of the time were turning her into a mouthpiece for the government. So she took a behind-the-scenes role and became a social activist. Many of her friends went to jail, but because of her celebrity, she was able to avoid it.”
Decherney plans to return to Myanmar for follow-up footage, especially important now that the elections have taken place (the NLD won a landslide victory, which made way for a historic meeting between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military general). The results are encouraging for the future of censorship-free filmmaking, but the future remains uncertain until the dust settles. “I’d like to see what people think afterwards. There were many projects in development that I need to follow up on with the filmmakers. There seems to be a lot of excitement in the country, but again, it’s cautious optimism.”
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