During 2007’s Saffron Revolution, Buddhist monks and civilians were arrested, beaten, and killed. Courageous young reporters and citizen journalists with handheld cameras captured these shocking events.
December 1974: I am ten years old. Rangoon’s roads and streets are almost empty of cars and pedestrians, but the chants of protestors sound in the distance. Eventually, rows of angry students appear, led by a young man in a white shirt, white long pants, and white canvas shoes. He holds a long, thin cane in his hand and yells a chorus for the rest to repeat. Before long, tanks and troops can be heard approaching to confront them, and their shouting builds to fill the street. Years later, I would search vintage newsreel footage fruitlessly for any record of this event.
In Rangoon, Burma, the practice of moviegoing began around 1906. At that time, a dearth of fully equipped cinemas meant that films were shown on large cotton sheets hung from scaffolding in the streets. I was born in 1964, and first watched a movie in this setting at the age of seven. Other kids played on a mat in front of the screen while a mother, smoke curling from the cheroot that dangled from her lips, lay on her side to nurse her baby. The street was illuminated by food vendors’ flickering kerosene lamps, and at the back of the audience, two sweat-soaked men tinkered obsessively with an old projector. Before the main feature, a series of short newsreels showed laborers looking happy, strong, and well-fed—images that contrasted starkly with the sullen, worn-out, and hungry reality. As the screening went on, the kids in the audience kept playing, while their mothers lay back and dozed off.
Documentary filmmaking in Myanmar began in 1920 with a short about the funeral of U Tun Shein, a leader of the independence movement. The director was Art U Ohn Maung. After the country won its independence in 1948, documentaries were made not only under the direct auspices of the British administration, but also by for-profit film companies such as British Burma and A1. The best known of these shorts, which recorded the funerals of student leader Bo Aung Kyaw and General Aung San respectively, were well received locally. A film about the Karen Conflict, Myanmar’s long-running civil war, was popular too.
When General Ne Win seized power in 1962, Myanmar was sealed off from the outside world, effectively blocking access to advanced technology developed elsewhere. Genres such as Direct Cinema then flourishing in America and Europe simply never arrived. All documentaries were propaganda vehicles for Ne Win’s Socialist doctrine; for more than 20 years, real people and real events hardly got a look in. In 1988, national revolt against the dictatorship was followed by the military junta’s brutal suppression of opponents to its rule. Later, the same controlling force instituted so-called economic reform, putting the country in touch with the outside world once more. Led by its youth, Myanmar began to catch up, though a lingering fear of military crackdown ensured that any progress was gradual. At the beginning of this period, documentaries often took the form of newsreels and travelogues.
Since 2003, a new scene rooted in Myanmar’s documentary tradition has begun to spring up. That year saw Bangkok-based curator Kaeko Sei lead a discussion about international art house classics such as Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) at Café Blue in downtown Yangon, and Lindsey Merrison start classes in documentary film at the Yangon Film School. In 2006, Michal Bregant and Vit Janecek from the Film and Television School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU) led filmmaking and documentary workshops in Alliance Francois, Yangon. And in the years since, FAMU head Pavel Jech has organized similar projects of his own. These and other initiatives have helped plant the seeds of a new art form in Myanmar’s fertile cultural soil.
Two important documentaries, Burma VJ and Nargis, emerged from this creative renaissance. During 2007’s Saffron Revolution, Buddhist monks and civilians were arrested, beaten, and killed by the security forces while protesting peacefully against the regime. Courageous young reporters and citizen journalists with handheld cameras captured these shocking events, and Danish director Anders Østergaard used their raw, uncensored footage in his documentary Burma VJ. Then, in May 2008, cyclone Nargis hit the Myanmar delta, causing massive devastation and over 140,000 deaths. Despite the then current threat of imprisonment for possessing a movie camera, a young group from Yangon Film School made Nargis, which employs dynamic editing to vividly depict the survivors’ plight.
With the release of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010, the age of fear in Myanmar appeared to be drawing to a close. Today, the country’s documentary filmmakers need no longer worry about using camcorders to film in the streets. What will they choose to focus on now? What realities will they reveal? How will they explore a deeper reality than has heretofore been permitted? In confronting these and other challenging questions, Myanmar’s documentary film movement cannot help but take further steps forward.
Aung Min is a writer and filmmaker based in Myanmar.