Aung San Suu Kyi

Dignity through a lens

Festival of human rights films is another step in Myanmar's transformation, writes Rosie Gogan-Keogh

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 July, 2013, 1:24pm

Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi has battled Yangon's ever-increasing traffic to meet me at his office in an apartment block north of the city's Inya Lake. The Myanmese independent filmmaker arrives late and apologises, then sits back in a director's chair. Behind him hang a poster of one of his award-winning documentaries and a large framed still from a work still in progress about the life of Aung San Suu Kyi.

"It will take a long time to finish that one," says the director who persuaded the democracy icon to take part in the documentary about her personal life by giving her a DVD of a film he made about the use of pesticides in farming. "She [Suu Kyi] is busy, but she is committed to finishing the documentary with me," he says firmly.

The Myanmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate's commitment to the movie shows the stature that the filmmaker has achieved in Myanmar since his early filmmaking efforts.

Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi returned home from a career in engineering in Singapore, where he came by some filmmaking training, to assist in a family matter in 2003. Once back in the country (formerly known as Burma), though, he struggled to make a living.

His filmmaking career started in 2004 with a spoof movie, Maung Yar Zar Nay Win (aka Clone), about the clone of a famous actor. It wasn't a particularly stellar debut. "I turned it into a love story and used his name to try and make money", he says of that unashamedly commercial effort.

One year later, Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi visited Namb Swe village in northern Thailand, where Padaung refugees from Myanmar live. There, the "long-necked" women - whose custom of wearing neck rings in the form of brass coils cause their necks to appear to have been lengthened - were alleged to be prevented from obtaining refugee status in more developed countries by Thai authorities who wanted to keep them as a lucrative tourist attraction.

"I had never seen them in person, only pictures," he recalls, "and when I saw them in person, I just had to try and tell their story."

The resulting short film Human Zoo (2005) was banned from being shown in Myanmar because of its negative depiction of those who had fled the regime, but it led him to the film that first brought him international recognition.

Floating Tomatoes (2010) happened by chance when Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi was travelling to scope out a location for a feature length film about the Padaung people.

"I was passing by Inle Lake and saw the use of pesticides by farmers there," he says. The devastation that was occurring in the stunning natural environment in central Myanmar caused him to immediately change his mind about the subject of his next movie.

And it was while travelling to film festivals around the world, and in particular neighbouring Laos, with that documentary that he began to think a similar event might be possible to present in Myanmar. "The Laos festival surprised me so much," he says. "I thought of Burma as much richer and more developed, so if they could do it, why couldn't we?"

The resulting Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival, the first event of its kind in Myanmar, took place on June 15-19 in Yangon. Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi dedicated it to his inspiration, Aung San Suu Kyi, for her part in the country's ceaseless struggle for human rights.

Most of the films are still technically very poor ... But as a filmmaker, I want to create some democratic space
Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi

"We faced so many challenging things organising this film festival, but the most challenging thing is to get permission to do this in Burma," the festival's founder explains. Myanmar's censors have relaxed their harsh stance, since the days when Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi had to pretend to be a sightseeing tourist while filming at Inle Lake.

Still, the subject matter and scope of the national films that were submitted to the event shows how much braver Myanmar filmmakers are becoming.

Many of the local films featured focus on the plight of political prisoners, such as Yee Nan Theik's top award winner, Survival in Prison, about a man's 12 years in prison for student activism. While reformist President Thein Sein has released many of those persecuted under the former military regime, hundreds remain imprisoned for acts as small as fighting for freedom of speech.

Other Myanmese offerings include: Thet Oo Maung's A Simple Wish, which focuses on a disabled girl's fight for the right for an education; Kaung Sint's short film, A Biscuit Story, which deals with government bribery; and Maung Aye Chan's Go Home, which examines Myanmar refugees' plight in Thailand. In addition, Singapore-based Moses Marks' Aung Lay tackles the issue of a Myanmese teacher's inappropriate relationship with his male student - a sensitive subject in a country where homosexuals are still widely discriminated against.

These are all subjects that would have been taboo and have led to severe consequences for the filmmakers just a few short years ago. But as the country emerges from half a century of military dictatorship, Myanmar's filmmakers still face challenges, such as lack of funding, training and equipment.

"Most of the films are still technically very poor," admits Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi. "This is just the situation we have to accept in Burma. But as a filmmaker, I want to create some democratic space."

With funding from the British Council in Myanmar, entry to the film festival's screenings was free to all and provided a platform for many local filmmakers to get their films shown, as well as giving a forum for debate on filmmaking and the controversial topics that were covered.

As part of the recent festival a group of aspiring documentary filmmakers attended a workshop and were granted funding to help produce their own short films. Next, the festival will tour the 13 state capitals until December.

Next year, the organisers hope to expand the tour component of the festival to bring films to even smaller and more remote villages and towns across the country. In so doing, the films and their subject matter will be shown to audiences in this emerging but still impoverished nation who might never otherwise had had the chance to view them.