Myanmar The first Myanmar Film Festival was a low-key affair. There were no award galas, no industry panels and no red carpets at its opening in Bangkok two weeks ago. Just five films by one director were screened during the course of three days at a local shopping- mall cineplex. But for a national cinema with a beleaguered past and an uncertain future, the festival is already a small miracle in itself. Clad in a grey shirt and dark trousers, with a computer bag slung over his shoulder, Kyi Soe Tun - the festival's featured director - looks more like a college professor than a veteran filmmaker with 34 movies to his name. After 25 years as writer, director and producer of films ranging from historical epics to contemporary household dramas, Tun is now the president of the Myanmar Motion Picture Organisation (MMPO), which helps to produce and promote films in his country. After a smaller set of screenings in Singapore last year, the MMPO organised the Bangkok festival as part of an optimistic plan to push Myanmar's movies into the Asian cinema mainstream. Like Thailand, Myanmar has a long cinematic history. Film pioneer U Ohn Maung began making documentaries in 1914, and the first silent feature, Myitta Nit Thuyar (Love and Liquor), was released six years later. The 1950s and early 60s were a brief golden age, when almost 80 high-quality Myanmar films were produced a year, and seen by an adoring public at home and around Southeast Asia. But from the beginning, the relationship between cinema and state has been difficult. The British colonial government prohibited films with anti-imperialist themes; the Japanese put film production on hold during the occupation; and, with the Revolutionary Council's takeover in 1962, all media were co-opted for propaganda purposes. Since 1988, all films have been subject to government censorship, which rejects outright any political themes, love scenes and other seemingly arbitrary elements (certain hair-styles have been banned). Many of those imprisoned for their political views during the past two decades have been film industry figures, including comedian Zargana, and directors Tin Soe and U Aung Lwin. Understandably, Kyi Soe Tun and the other festival creators are reluctant to discuss these restrictions, and are cautious when describing the Myanmar film scene and their roles within it. 'You can say we are a semi-NGO,' he says when asked to characterise the connection between the MMPO and the Myanmar government. Grace Swe Zin Htaik, the chairwoman of the MMPO's International Relations Committee, would rather talk about the numerous other challenges facing Myanmar filmmakers today. The former actress, who starred in more than 200 films during a 20-year career, says the rise of cheaper video productions, as well as makeshift rural theatres that show VCDs, and a lack of investment have all hurt the 35mm-film industry. Local audiences have also lost interest in domestic films, turning instead to films from the US, Bollywood and South Korea for what they consider to be superior quality and originality. There are no film schools in Myanmar, which affects the level of technical knowledge and professionalism for local films. Even Kyi Soe Tun, one of the most prominent directors in his country, faces such limitations. For instance, his 1997 film Never Shall We Be Enslaved, a sprawling story of the events leading up to the British takeover of Burma in 1885, called for hundreds of period costumes. Because there are no costume designers in Myanmar, the director and his assistants had to create them, based on historical research, but hampered by limited resources (some of the queen's attendants, for example, are seen wearing flip-flops). An impressive river battle scene is pulled off with commuter ferries standing in for British warships. Although Kyi Soe Tun and the MMPO are ambitiously promoting Myanmar films abroad, and trying to upgrade film technique and education at home, they say they don't want to lose the definitively Myanmar character of their stories. Even this year's Hexagon, the most contemporary and perhaps contentious of the festival's films, has a fiercely local focus and style. Based on a novel by popular female writer Ma Sandar, Hexagon revolves around six pregnant women from different walks of life, whose stories gradually intertwine. Hexagon is about 'the biggest social issues in Myanmar today', says Kyi Soe Tun, and touches on a range of issues including teen pregnancy, extra-marital affairs, class difference, birth control, death during childbirth and Aids. The last two subjects were until recently taboo on film, but are dealt with candidly in Hexagon after some relaxation in censorship rules. Swe Sin Htaik sees this as another mission of Myanmar cinema: to openly discuss public health issues and improve the quality of life for Myanmar's people. More generally, Kyi Soe Tun speaks of Hexagon as a film about the future. The pregnancy metaphor and concern for the next generation seems apt at this moment in Myanmar's history. With Kyi Soe Tun considering producing his son Chan Tha Kyi Soe's directorial debut (another Ma Sandar adaptation, The Dream of Life, The Dream of Flowers), the veterans are doing what they can to pass on their passion for making films in Myanmar. Although the Bangkok film festival was modest, and attendance limited to a handful of curious Thais, farangs and Myanmar migrant workers, it's just one phase in a long process. The next will be the Mumbai Film Festival next month, where there will be a seven-film showcase of Myanmar cinema, and a mini-conference of Indian and Myanmar filmmakers. Could a collaboration between Bollywood and Yangon be on the horizon? Kyi Toe Sun hopes so. In time, 2006 may be seen as the year when Myanmar's culture at last stepped out into the world.