Myanmar filmmakers circumventing censorship and negotiating international demands (Part II)

Kimberley Pallenschat discusses Myanmar’s independent cinema and filmmaking.

As part of a research series conducted alongside Yangon’s annual MEMORY! International Heritage Film Festival, Kimberley Pallenschat explores the challenges and opportunities faced by Myanmar’s independent filmmakers. The focus of the festival’s 2018 edition was on Freedom of the Press and Democracy in their representation through cinema, and was supported by a grant from the Global Research Network on Parliaments and People. The research detailed here was conducted between 7-16 November 2018 and hopes to shed light on the current attitudes and debates that surround the question of freedom of expression during the country’s transition. 

The three articles in this series each examine three of the festival’s programmes, which took place simultaneously in Yangon and provide different approaches to the themes of artistic and journalistic freedom in Myanmar: the Journalism and Culture workshop, a journalistic workshop organized in conjunction with the Myanmar Journalism Institute; the Myanmar Script Fund competition and workshop targeting young filmmakers; and a conference gathering various international experts around the topic of Press and Democracy in Myanmar and the Asian continent. In the previous contribution, Marie Puyssegur explored the meaning of freedom of expression for Myanmar’s future journalists. In the forthcoming and final contribution, Theo Stojanov will discuss the proceedings of the Press and Democracy conference. Below, Kimberley Pallenschat considers the impact of state-sponsored censorship on the creative freedoms of independent filmmakers, and challenges and opportunities that emerge as they turn to an international market for funding and support.

On the 9th of November 2018, local and international audiences streamed into the Waziya Cinema in downtown Yangon for the opening night of the MEMORY! Film Festival. For the next 10 days, a selection of heritage films from across the world were screened here. “It started with this very strong spirit of giving (Myanmar audiences) a window to the world with the power of cinema,” explains Séverine Wemaere, who co-organises the festival with Gilles Duval. In addition to screening international film classics, the festival has been committed to the preservation of Myanmar’s film heritage, including Maung Tin Maung’s 1934 film Mya Ga Naing (Emerald Jungle). “We do it with the entry point that you need to know your past or others’ past to understand the future,” Wemaere elaborates. In previous years the festival has therefore focused on specific themes, including “Women” (2015) and “Journeys” (2016). Building on from the topic of “Banned films” in 2017, MEMORY!’s 2018 edition centers on “Press and Democracy on the Silver Screen”. The films thus both represent and address a topic which remains a sore point in a country which only three years ago held its first democratic elections after nearly half a century under authoritarian rule: The right to freedom of expression.

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Image credit of Aient Khwar Nyo, MEMORY! Festival)

For the sixth time, MEMORY! Film Festival, a French non-profit organization, acted as a site where the local and the foreign intersect in Myanmar. In the context of the festival and its concomitant programmes, our small research team, consisting of Marie Puyssegur, Theo Stojanov and myself, sought to shed light on the current attitudes and debates that surround the question of freedom of expression during the country’s democratic transition. In this article, I look at the prevailing practices of state-sponsored censorship in Myanmar, especially exploring its impact on local cinema culture. In the second part of the article, I focus especially on the Myanmar Script Fund competition, which took place alongside the festival and targets aspiring independent filmmakers. Here, I discuss some of the opportunities and challenges faced by local filmmakers seeking to advance in the newly available international film market and foreign audiences.

In the first half of 19th-century Myanmar, then Burma, was seen as one of the most prosperous and progressive countries of the region. Its culture of cinema and filmmaking dating back to the 1920’s, the country was a regional cinematic hub until the military coup of 1962, which marked the beginning of nearly 50 years of repressive rule and isolation. The military regime established strict censorship boards which exercised harsh and often arbitrary judgements, thereby severely restricting artistic freedoms and freedom of expression, controlling practically every field of public communication. For filmmakers, this meant having to submit their film scripts to the responsible censorship board prior to production, in addition to being required to submit the finished films for review before they could be distributed. At the same time, the junta sought to use the arts to shape the country and its cultural heritage according to their ideas. Rachel Mathews, a scriptwriter who has been working with filmmakers in Myanmar for several years, recalls: “back in the ‘bad old days’ (in 2006/2007), they censored a film that was about a blind artist who was dying because he wasn’t receiving adequate treatment for TB. And it was a shocking film, really. But they censored it because the bus looked tatty. [The artist] gets on a bus and they didn’t want the bus to look like it wasn’t as good as busses in other countries. […] So you could never predict what they would go for.”

Although censorship was officially abolished in 2012, the new government has proven reluctant to completely discard these means of controlling the country’s image in public media and arts. Both newly adopted and colonial-era laws continue to pose a threat to critical voices, even after the country’s first democratic election in 2015. Perhaps the most prominent example is the 2018 case against the Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo who were charged with breaching the colonial-era Official Secrets Act after investigating the killing of Rohingya villagers by security forces. Their persecution prompted widespread international condemnations of the government’s actions and was seen as a “clear violation of international standards on the right to freedom of expression”. In addition to journalists, there has been a recent surge of arrests of critics of the army and the government, including political activists and satirical performers: In April 2019, filmmaker and human rights activist, Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi was charged with “insulting and defaming the Army” in a Facebook post. But it is not just the military that occupies a place above public criticism. Current politics, especially with regard to the ongoing refugee crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and the international criticism this has raised, are considered a sensitive subject for people in Myanmar. Thus, criticism of the government’s actions is seldom publicly expressed, and anyone deemed damaging to the military or the country’s image runs the risk of being harshly penalized.

Additionally, filmmakers came under renewed scrutiny in 2014 with the reinstatement of pre-production censorship by a Film Classification Board, addressing official concerns that the quality of the Motion Picture Industry was deteriorating. Until a new film law is adopted, the board continues to operate under the 1996 Motion Picture Law. The objective of this law is “to cause the emergence of Myanmar motion picture films which will contribute towards the unity of the national races and towards keeping alive and keen the sense of patriotism” and “to prohibit decadent motion picture films which will undermine Myanmar culture and Myanmar traditions and customs.” Films are thus not only censored for their incompatibility with Myanmar traditions, but for damaging the unity and patriotism of Myanmar nationals. The Film Classification Board can request that filmmakers from Myanmar alter their script or completely deny them a license for production and distribution of the film. While the Ministry of Information has promised a new film law for years, it is still pending adoption. With the legislation remaining the same, censorship continues to be arbitrary and unpredictable, making it difficult to know what boundaries can be pushed and what topics to steer clear of.

Foreign films imported for screening do not escape the scrutiny of the censorship board either. For the MEMORY! Team, organising a foreign film festival at a time of transition requires careful negotiation of the prevailing bureaucratic structures of state control: The approximately 70 films shown annually at the festival have to be submitted and officially approved by the censor board. However, rather than editing and removing banned sequences from the films themselves, the censoring takes place on site, during the screenings themselves: A censorship officer is responsible for covering the movie projector with a piece of paper during scenes deemed inappropriate for Myanmar audiences, such as kissing, sexual acts or nudity – albeit often with the sound still running. Consequently, the act of censorship in itself sometimes creates rather comically awkward situations and is accompanied by waves of giggles from the audience.

Beyond protecting Myanmar audiences from what is argued to be offensive or inappropriately explicit content, the censorship board continues to fulfill its function as a means to prevent the projection of an unfavourable or critical image of the country: At the 2016 edition of the MEMORY! festival, the 1956 Japanese film The Burmese Harp was censored because it showed beggars on the streets in Myanmar, the explanation being that “there are no beggars on the street in Myanmar”. Also in 2016, the Austrian film Twilight over Burma was banned from being screened at the Human Rights Human Dignity Film International Festival in Yangon as it was perceived as damaging the army’s image and national reconciliation.

For MEMORY! cooperating with the censorship board was a key necessity for being allowed to hold the festival. “We first worked with the Ministry of Information from the former government in 2014 and they welcomed us in Myanmar, likely as a sign of the opening of the country. I think that they also knew the value of cinema in Myanmar, for all [its] good and evil. But they also knew that they needed to show signs of changes,” Séverine Wemaere, recalls. Expectations and international pressure on the government to demonstrate willingness to change has thus created some room for negotiation between the organisers of MEMORY! and the censorship board, allowing them to address politically charged topics such as censorship and freedom of expression. While explicit scenes are still censored, the festival has been able to screen films such as Oswald’s Anders als die Anderen (Different from the Others) in 2017, which is widely considered the world’s first LGBT film. Moreover, as most films featured at the festival tell stories set in the past and in foreign countries, they are perhaps perceived less of an affront on the traditional values that the censorship board seeks to protect.

However, this is not necessarily a privilege granted to the independent filmmaking community in Myanmar: At the locally organised Wathann Film Festival, promoting the independent film scene in Myanmar, the film awarded The Best Documentary Award in 2017 was not actually shown at the festival. The film titled “A Simple Love Story” seeks to challenge norms surrounding love and gender identity by telling the love story between a transgender woman and a transgender man. The director, Hnin Pa Pa Soe, had refused to modify the final line of the film which asked the question “Does love have man, woman, tomboy and shemale?” as requested by the censorship board, and thus chose not to publicly screen the film at all. In addition to the setting and content of the film’s message, what is perceived as an affront on the traditional values the censorship seeks to protect also appears contingent on who the censors are performing their duties to: the Western gaze looking for signs of progress, or critical local filmmakers pushing the boundaries that restrict their artistic freedoms.

One way of circumventing the censorship board’s scrutiny for filmmakers is to self-censor, avoid controversies and carefully negotiate the bounds of the board’s regulations. Some find creative ways of pushing the boundaries of permissibility and getting their messages across: Being unable to screen Hnin Pa Pa Soe’s documentary, Wathann organisers invited a panel to discuss freedom of expression and portrayal of the LGBT community in Myanmar society.

With the opening up of the country, another opportunity presents itself to filmmakers seeking to preserve their creative freedom from government interference: Showcasing their films at international venues and festivals abroad. The students at MEMORY!’s accompanying initiative Myanmar Script Fund (MSF) mainly aim for the latter. However, looking for funding abroad is not without challenges. Pitching projects to foreign funders requires English skills, knowing where to look and how to “play the game”. Additionally, escaping the scrutiny of the censorship board by going international simultaneously requires subjecting yourselves to the demands of the foreign film market. Balancing what they cannot show in Myanmar with what is fundable internationally is not always an easy task for young aspiring filmmakers.

“Could you share with us some of your experiences from working on your first film?” “How did you find a producer?” “How did you deal with censorship in your respective countries?” At the Roundtable on Film Networks in ASEAN, the participants at MSF are listening intently to what their peers from across South-East Asia have to share. For three years now, the MSF competition and workshop has been an integral part of MEMORY!’s programme. Teams of aspiring filmmakers apply a few months in advance and are selected based on their ideas for a film script. For five days, running parallel to the festival in Yangon’s historical “Secretariat” building, the MSF workshop functions as a temporary coaching structure, featuring plenary sessions and one-to-one trainings with international experts on filmmaking. Additionally, participants are given the opportunity to engage and network with regional filmmakers from Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines and South-Korea at special screenings followed by Q&A sessions, Meet & Greets, and the roundtable discussion. Over the course of the workshop, the aspiring filmmakers are guided in developing their projects, from scriptwriting to financial planning. They are also offered guidance on how to promote their work to potential partners and funders. Simultaneously, the teams of scriptwriters, directors and producers prepare for the pitching sessions to the jury of coaches which conclude the workshop. The stakes are high: The winning team of the Jury Award receives 30,000 USD in in-kind post-production support for their film project. A second film project is selected to travel to the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland and participate in the “Open Doors Lab” to further develop their skills and network at an international film festival. This year, 2017 MSF laureate Aung Phyoe was the first Myanmar filmmaker to premiere his film Pyar pyar nyo yaung maing ta-lei-lei  (Cobalt Blue) at the Pardi di domani section at Locarno Film Festival.

“None of these students would identify with the mainstream”, Rachel Mathews, who has been teaching at MSF since its inception, explains. While the mainstream film industry in Myanmar is dominated by films which reinforce rather than challenge social norms, riddled with clichés reinforcing racism, homophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment, MSF’s participants seek to critically engage with topics rendered absent from the cinema screen, as they are deemed too political, critical, sensitive or offensive. Consequently, most filmmakers at MSF aim for an international career and target foreign audiences rather than local ones to evade the restrictions they are facing at home.

While the country’s mainstream film industry has grown significantly in recent years, independent educational resources and networking opportunities remain limited. Decades of isolation, the suppression of creative freedom through censorship and the prevailing lack of support structures has caused a significant gap in terms of skills and knowledge – both when it comes to scriptwriting and production, but also in terms of seeking funding abroad. MSF thus functions as a space for creative critical engagement with both current and historical topics: This year’s student projects addressed LGBTQ+ issues, ongoing ethnic conflicts, the stigma of HIV/AIDS, and the 2007 Saffron Revolution. All students expressed a wish to tackle issues that continue to be removed from cinema screens due to the censorship regime’s efforts to fabricate a favourable and uncritical version of “reality” – especially when it comes to portraying the government and the military. However, the political messages do not take the forefront. Rather, the filmmakers at MSF focus on conveying stories to which audiences can relate. “There are [currently] some films about the Saffron revolution, but mainly documentaries, not feature films,” explain Myat Minn Khant and Saw Yu Nwe, two of the participants at MSF working together with producer Khin Warso on their feature film project. At awards ceremony later that week, Khin Warso was rewarded the Open Doors Award and went on to attend the Open Doors Lab at Locarno Film Festival 2019. While their story, based on real events during the revolution, would certainly resonate with Myanmar audiences, they doubt that it would be approved by the censorship board. “But the revolution is just the base, the real theme that we want to show is the humanity and the suffering”, says Saw Yu Nwe. Hoping to one day show their film at festivals abroad, she is confident that international audiences would also be able to relate to their story.

In addition to providing training and a space for creativity free from the state’s censorship, participation at the MSF workshop means the opportunity to network with peers and experts from Asia and Europe. Building networks and contacts abroad is a crucial step for these aspiring filmmakers to succeed in the international film industry. However, while the opening of the country to the global community creates new opportunities for aspiring filmmakers, new challenges arise as they try to negotiate the demands and politics of the international film market. “Myanmar is very popular [to foreigners] and we can get much support,” one young filmmaker attending the festival tells me. “But at the same time we have much more pressure. Like, the outside world comes here looking for filmmakers with an agenda.” While Myanmar’s democratic transition attracted much foreign attention and investments, what projects are supported hinges on which politics and approaches are deemed relevant to the foreign eye. At the same time, funders’ willingness to invest is strongly determined by the country’s internal situation, especially the ongoing conflict in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. A filmmaker attending the festival who was initially promised funding from a foreign investor explains how the support for her film project was dropped after the crisis escalated in 2017. “It’s weird because [our] project has nothing to do with the crisis,” she says. “I don’t know what other people they support, but they don’t want to support us anymore”. In general, funders may prefer to withdraw support due to a sanction-like reluctance to support projects from Myanmar, or look for projects addressing the crisis that are deemed more “relevant”/profitable investments. Mathews reiterates this: “The Rakhine crisis seems quite attractive at the moment for outside funders”. Thus, local independent filmmakers find themselves caught trying to balance their own interests, domestic perspectives and the increasing demand of the international market for local engagement with the Rakhine-crisis – a crisis which is inherently enmeshed in what has become a highly sensitive and polarising political debate on both the international and local level.

Myanmar’s opening to the outside world has allowed for new encounters between the local and the foreign. At the same time, filmmakers are confronted with the demands of an international market in a world where everything is connected, and few issues remain merely national concerns. Thus, filmmakers seeking to carve a space for themselves in a globalised world must negotiate the intertwining possibilities and challenges that emerge at the intersection with the local and the foreign. MSF and MEMORY! function as spaces where ideas are challenged, boundaries pushed, and where filmmakers can explore their newfound freedoms – and the necessary compromises that these freedoms demand.

(All images courtesy of Aient Khwar Nyo, MEMORY! Festival)

Kimberley Pallenschat is a recent graduate of the University of Exeter’s Flexible Combined Honours Bachelor programme in Anthropology with International Relations. In 2017/2018 she spent a year living in Yangon, where she completed internships at the Goethe-Institut and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.