A gentle push
Censorship is loosening in Myanmar but its filmmakers are still treading carefully on political and other sensitive issues
Myanmese filmmaker Zay Par is doing what would have been unthinkable two years ago: putting the finishing touches to a film that harks back to a 1988 student uprising brutally put down by military rulers.
Hunched in front of a computer in a room in Yangon, the 35-year-old director is testing the boundaries of a newfound artistic freedom that has blossomed since the junta handed power to a hand-picked civilian government in 2011 - carefully. "We will show our edit to the censorship board and they will decide whether to allow it or not," he says.
The protagonist of the as yet untitled film is an activist jailed during the student uprising. Now a freed political prisoner, he is looked up to by villagers who have sought his help in a dispute with a Chinese mining company. As he shares his experience with them, there are flashbacks to 1988.
The movie would have been banned just a couple of years ago, when the military junta ran the country, and the producer and director would have been in hot water. Even today a quasi-civilian government's reforms go only so far and filmmakers remain reluctant to touch on sensitive subjects.
After 49 years of military rule, President Thein Sein, a former army general, is leading sweeping changes that include lifting restrictions on freedom of speech. There has been an explosion of news media, but movies are still light on politics and heavy on action or comedy.
Zay Par's film will be the first to depict scenes of the 1988 uprising, when authorities killed at least 3,000 people and arrested thousands more, holding some for years as political prisoners. But he isn't showing soldiers gunning down unarmed protesters. In the scene he's editing, students march and chant slogans while the camera pans slowly across, showing only the back of a soldier facing the crowd.
Zay Par says it's not just government censors he's worried about: he doesn't think the general public is ready for graphic scenes of political violence either. Myanmar's transformation has yet to bring stability. Ethnic militias still face off against government troops in the hinterlands while clashes between Buddhists and Muslims have killed more than 200 people over the past year. "In the present situation I decided not to use soldiers shooting students," says Zay Par. "I will show only what I should show."
It wasn't always this complicated. Myanmar used to have a vibrant film industry, with a movie-mad population and 244 cinemas in the late 1950s, according to the Myanmar Motion Picture Organisation. "We produced about 80 to 100 pictures every year. That was the golden age," recalls San Shwe Maung, a 78-year-old actor-director who is a member of the organisation. In contrast, the country now makes only 17 to 20 films a year, he says.
These days, movies are shot in a couple of weeks or less. In the past it might have taken three years, San Shwe Maung says. In addition, most cinemas have ageing projectors so new movies have to be converted from digital to film. But people prefer to pay US$1 to US$5 to watch Hollywood and Bollywood films. Thai and South Korean movies are also popular.
Speaking in a colonial-era house that serves as a museum of Myanmar cinema, San Shwe Maung talks about the number of cinemas having dwindled to perhaps 100 around the country, with about 20 in Yangon, down from 40 in the 1970s.
Of those that remain, Yangon has two cinemas that show mainly Western action films in 3-D, but most are older places, paint peeling on the outside. Inside, the seats are dilapidated and there is no air conditioning. As if to underscore the decline of a once-thriving industry, two more cinemas are being demolished in central Yangon.
The industry's fall began almost five decades ago when a 1962 coup by military officers turned the country into a police state largely cut off from the outside world. Wary of any criticism that could stir up the masses, the junta imposed strict censorship. Politics and corruption were off-limits and censors would also chop anything approaching a sex scene, says San Shwe Maung. In 1968, the government nationalised the film industry. It became difficult to fund productions or even buy film to shoot on. "After that there were no more good pictures, up to nowadays," he laments.
San Shwe Maung did manage to make a film depicting the conflict between the army and ethnic Karen rebels. He played a Karen fighter who falls in love with a nurse treating government soldiers. His character switches to the government side to be with her and is eventually killed for it by his fellow rebels, a plot twist that satisfied the censors. "We could do it, because at the end I was punished," he says with a laugh. He won the best supporting actor award for that role in the country's own academy awards in 1974.
Winners were chosen by the Ministry of Information until last year, when the Motion Picture Organisation convinced the ministry to let it choose half the awards.
Zay Par's movie about the 1988 uprising is another sign the government is loosening up, with the censorship rules easing considerably. But breaking out of the creative confines of the past is still a challenge, according to the film's producer, Phyo Yadana Thwe.
"I've lived in a box for 25 years. Now the government gives us freedom, but it's hard because we are afraid," she says. "We have no idea of free thinking."