The 2018 documentary film Child of the Revolution opens with a shot of the rolling green mountains in Myanmar’s eastern Kayin State. A Karen woman begins her story—that of a family torn apart by decades of conflict but committed to improving access to education in the community.
“I wanted to make a film about Karen people and explore their side of the story,” says Aye Nilar Kyaw, a 25-year-old Karen filmmaker born and raised in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and film production centre.
The film, which is in the Karen language with English subtitles, is “about a teacher’s life and how everybody around her was traumatised by the war,” the director explains.
Myanmar once claimed one of the world’s longest-running civil wars between the Myanmar Armed Forces (Tatmadaw) and the Karen National Union (KNU). The armed conflict took place from 1949 until the two signed a ceasefire agreement in 2012 yet, eight years later, lasting peace remains elusive.
Documenting Myanmar’s myriad conflicts raging in the borderlands—home to several of its ethnic minority groups and their armed factions—still presents a challenge to filmmakers and journalists. These areas remain sensitive subjects to the government in Nay Pyi Taw, the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed organisations trying to keep inquisitive eyes away from what is happening on the ground in these minority communities.
If that strategy fails, then the Motion Picture Censor Board at the Ministry of Information reviews all films—including Aye Nilar Kyaw’s—to ensure they do not violate any religious, ethnic, political or moral codes, a set of directives which can seem quite arbitrary.
In fiction filmmaking this means submitting the script to the censor board before filming takes place. In documentary filmmaking—which is oftentimes unscripted—censorship could lead to cutting out entire scenes which may leave a film feeling incomplete.
Grace Swe Zin Htaik, 67, is a Myanmar Academy Award-winning actress and steering committee member of the government Motion Picture Censor Board and Film Development Department.
“I joined the censor board with the intention to review and revise the censor policy. Since 2015 we’ve relaxed some restrictions,” she claims, although she did not specify which ones when asked.
Aye Nilar Kyaw’s Child of the Revolution was to be screened at a 2019 film festival in Yangon but faced censorship because of references made by the film’s protagonist about Tatmadaw soldiers being the source of the trauma experienced by the Karen community.
“I submitted it [to the censor board]. And they wrote me a letter stating that I can’t show my film,” the director tells New Naratif. “I had to make edits and re-submit the film. This means I had to make two versions, the original version and one censored version to screen in Myanmar.”
After cutting a 30-second scene that attributed Karen trauma to Myanmar soldiers, Aye Nilar Kyaw says she was allowed to screen the film at local festivals. But, she adds, she had to censor the truth.
The Ministry of Information’s pre-publication censorship board for the print media was dismantled in 2012 during the nation’s transition from military dictatorship to quasi-democratic government. This led to a flourishing of opinions and critical news coverage in newspapers and magazines. Radio and television airwaves are still controlled by the state broadcaster Myanmar Radio and Television, which has its own censorship guidelines pertaining to TV news and documentary deemed politically sensitive by the Ministry of Information.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Myanmar film, or the nation’s “cinema centenary.” Myanmar Movie Day is celebrated annually on 13 October, since it marks the date the very first feature film, Love and Liquor, was screened in Myanmar in 1920. But, as many would attest, documentary film doesn’t receive the same kind of historical acknowledgement, or support, that fiction films do in the country.
In 3-ACT, a magazine dedicated to Myanmar’s cinema history and film theory, journalist Tin Htet Paing writes: “The documentary film on the funeral of the national leader U Tun Shein was known to be the very first Myanmar film.”
A notice at the beginning of this 1920 short documentary, then known as a newsreel, reads: “Please accept our apologies for the poor quality of the film.” It documents the life of politician U Tun Shein who once travelled to London to campaign for Burma’s independence from the United Kingdom.
“There are no resources on Burmese cinema. Almost everything is oral history,” says Aung Phyoe, co-founder of 3-ACT, who plans to write a book documenting the history of cinema in Myanmar.
Developing a Film Culture
From 1920 to 1960, Myanmar cinema flourished alongside educational newsreels—from silent to sound, and from black and white to colour film. The Burma Film Academy Awards were started in 1952 to celebrate the best in filmmaking. After the 1962 coup by General Ne Win, film and newsreels became a propaganda tool for his socialist regime. Censorship restrictions, which began under the British colonial government, became much more strict, with art made to serve the purposes of the military junta rather than the artist.
This was around the time when the documentary genre in Europe and North America took shape to become the filmmaking style we know it as today. Camera equipment became lighter to carry and cheaper to buy. Expensive film gave way to videocassettes. But in Myanmar—still under strict military rule—it was left up to the international media to cover the 1988 democracy uprising that shone a spotlight on the country.
Fast forward to 2005, and Yangon Film School (YFS) was born out of filmmaking workshops hosted by Anglo-Burmese director Lindsey Merrison. Not only is 2020 Myanmar’s cinema centenary, but it is also the 15th anniversary of the founding of YFS, known as the main purveyor of Myanmar documentary film.
This is where the majority of the country’s documentary filmmakers studied, learned the craft and honed their skills. Some 200 students have graduated from the school since it opened, including Aye Nilar Kyaw in 2018.
“We’ve noticed there’s been a generational shift. The students in 2005 were incredibly quiet. This was because of the oppressive atmosphere under the military government,” Merrison says. “But we do invite these older filmmakers to come back and talk about their films and to tutor the students. It’s all to generate a film culture and appreciation.”
The 2019 documentary Kachin Reporter tells the story of a journalist from Yangon who moves to Myitikina, the capital of Myanmar’s northern Kachin State, where a ceasefire between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) broke down in 2011 and led to a renewed conflict that displaced over 100,000 people. The film’s protagonist, a journalist, interviews those displaced by the war, and as a result raises the ire of local officials.
“I had to hide my camera whenever we came to a [military] checkpoint,” says Seint Yamone Htoo, the 29-year-old director of Kachin Reporter, who spent four years working as a journalist before making the film. In fact, her protagonist is a former colleague who helped her realise that uncovering the truth is the essence of documentary.
But Seint Yamone Htoo knew that Kachin Reporter would never be allowed to screen at local film festivals, or air on local television, because of its scenes portraying life in a conflict zone. So, she never had to censor it.
“Even if I can’t screen it publicly [in Myanmar], I wanted to do a film that makes people feel something,” she tells New Naratif.
Child of the Revolution and Kachin Reporter come from a long line of YFS documentary shorts that tell the story of a country in transformation. But as for feature documentaries, the list of films is much shorter.
“I can count on my hand how many there are [in total]. When you research Myanmar documentary films online, the majority made are by international filmmakers, not local ones,” says Lay Thida, a 37-year-old film producer in Yangon.
The 2008 Oscar-nominated documentary Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country was filmed clandestinely by a team of camera operators working for the Burmese exile broadcast media group Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB). In it, they caught the world’s attention with footage of the first mass protests in the country seen since 1988, now known as the 2007 Saffron Revolution.
Leaked footage of the protests to international media led to an explosion of interest in stories from Myanmar. But this time independent local filmmakers were experienced and ready, thanks to training by YFS and DVB.
“Dangerous to Film”
Myanmar’s very first feature length documentary was the 2010 film Nargis – When Time Stopped Breathing. This celebrated documentary examines the government’s weak response to the 2008 Cyclone Nargis, which killed 140,000 people. The film was screened at 43 festivals and won four awards, according to Tin Win Naing, 46, a member of the Nargis film crew.
In one scene, villagers are shown picking up the pieces of their family homes, which were destroyed by a storm surge. Corpses float by passing boats in the Ayeyarwady delta. Fearing retribution from the authorities, the filmmakers chose to remain anonymous until 2012, when they revealed themselves publicly at Yangon’s annual Wathann Film Festival, where the film was screened to a tearful audience.
“It was dangerous to film at the time. We always hid the camera in fear of being caught and arrested,” says Tin Win Naing, who also directed the 2016 award-winning In Exile.
“I haven’t faced censorship here because I’ve only screened my films at international festivals,” since the Nargis screening, he explains, adding that it is much easier to shoot documentaries in Myanmar today. Yet, Tin Win Naing says he is developing a new documentary idea to pitch for funding, but the film festival will not allow him to discuss it with media. “It’s a politically sensitive topic,” he says.
Other than Tin Win Naing, several local filmmakers in Yangon have feature documentary films in various stages of production. But, with little to no funding available inside Myanmar, they are still forced to take their films to international film festivals to seek investment.
“In Myanmar we don’t have any cultural support or funding. All of the filmmakers are using their own money to make films,” says Thu Thu Shein, the director of the Wathann Film Festival.
She says most filmmakers want to show their documentaries at local festivals like Wathann before trying the international festival circuit. But with censorship restrictions on film in Myanmar there is little chance to challenge the status quo.
Both Aye Nilar Kyaw and Seint Yamone Htoo are developing documentary feature film ideas. But they admit that censorship stifles creativity. When asked about this, they are optimistic that change in the film industry will happen once documentary is officially recognized alongside Myanmar’s commercial film industry. They even suggest adding categories for best documentary short and feature at the Myanmar Motion Picture Academy Awards, as is done at the Oscars.
Grace Swe Zin Htaik, the government censor and former actress, now focuses her efforts on transforming the censorship system from one that orders content removed to a film classification rating system—such as PG (Parental Guidance) or R (Restricted)—to protect children from seeing things the government thinks they should not.
At the end of Child of the Revolution the Karen teacher ponders the fate of her community. Now that war has ended in Kayin State, education is key to a new future for its children, according to the teacher. “And I totally understand what they’re going through,” the protagonist concludes as the film fades to black with her pen and notebook in the foreground.
Although Aye Nilar Kyaw does not name her film’s protagonist, she gives special thanks to her and her family in the credits.
“She told me ‘I never thought in my whole life that someone would come and hear my story and make it into a film.’ Then she cried,” Aye Nilar Kyaw recalls.
“Her father cried too and told me that he didn’t know that his daughter and family struggled so much.”