Myanmar Documentaries that Document History

Myanmar film industry began with a documentary of the funeral of U Tun Shein, a famous politician, with a title in the beginning saying "Our apologies for shaky and blurry images." Since 1906, there had been travelling cinema operators, who were foreigners, who went around the country for public screening. In 1910, cinemas were established that screened foreign films and documentaries, making Myanmar people familiar with films. London Art U Ohn Maung founded Burma Film production in 1918 and attempted to make the first Myanmar fiction film titled Love and Liquor. While making the film, U Tun Shein, a well-known politician who struggled for independence, passed away so U Ohn Maung documented the funeral. That documentary was screened in August, 1920, at Cinema de Paris in Yangon, together with an American film and was well-received by Myanmar audience. They could see for the first time the movement and activities of their compatriots in various forms and manners and how trams and rickshaws were running. There had been full houses since the first day of screening. Consequently, U Ohn Maung became the father of Myanmar film industry. In October 1920, Love and Liquor, the first Myanmar fiction film, was screened in cinema. More and more fiction films were produced since then. Although few documentaries were produced, film productions would document any remarkable events, ceremonies and disasters whenever they had a chance to and screened them together with the fiction films they produced. One of such documentaries was about Saya San, a farmer leader of the 1930 peasants' rebellion, who was finally arrested by the British Government. In order to honor him, Myanmar Aswe, which had bought Burma Film of U Ohn Maung and later became A1 Film, requested the British government to allow documenting the trial. It was permitted because the British government assumed it would be filmed in their favor, and that it would serve as a warning to Myanmar people. But the patriotic production suppressed their original aim of honoring Saya San and his followers and focused instead on the whole trial process until the death sentence was passed, documenting in detail how he reacted fearlessly and went up the gallows. When it was screened in September, 1931, Myanmar audience were overwhelmed and became very unhappy with the British government.

A1 Film and the British Burma Film Production produced not only fiction films but also documentary films (it was known as news reels in those days). The news reels were screened in cinemas together with the fiction films they produced. These included the Year 1300 Myanmar Era Revolution, the trial of Saya San, the funeral of student leader Bo Aung Kyaw, independence struggle of General Aung San, and the funeral ceremony of General Aung San and Martyrs. All these news reels except the those about General Aung San were lost when the private archive of A1 Film was on fire around 1950.

The British government formed Burma State Cinema Service in 1940 and screened their war propaganda around the country. After the Second World War, an organization called Public Relation Film Service was established to screen propaganda and educational films of the British government. There were few Myanmar documentary films at that time partly because of the war and partly because of the lack of equipment and difficulty to buy them abroad. After independence, Myanmar government formed Film and Theater Department. On the independence day of January 4, 1948, flag raising ceremony and the departure of the Governor from Myanmar was shot, produced and screened on the same day in the residential areas and it was much appreciated. The documentaries that followed focused mainly on civil war due to civil unrest across the country. When the socialist government came to power after a military takeover in 1962 by General Ne Win, the government Film and Theater Department was renamed as Central Film Division under the ministry of information and produced the activities of the government in a thousand feet of film per week. In each film of a thousand feet, various topics such as politics, social, economics, health, education and transport were presented in the forms of news, documentary, education and entertainment. But they were mostly the propaganda of the government. Between 1962 and 1980, the documentary news reels produced by the Central Film Division were screened all over the country. They served primarily as the media bridging between the government and the people. After the introduction of television in 1980, the Central Film Division stopped producing news reels and Myanmar Radio and Television continued producing propaganda documentaries. Even after the introduction of television, there were only propaganda documentaries produced by the government and very few others. Filmmakers and producers focused more on fiction films than documentaries.

As a turning point in the history of Myanmar documentary, U Win Tin Win established AV Media in 1989 and started producing documentary films. The films he produced were distributed in VHS tapes either in retail shops or home delivery on a motorbike. The documentaries were somewhat like travelogue in multiple languages such as Myanmar, English and Japanese. Most of the customers were foreigners. Between 1994 and 1997 was the heyday of the AV Media although it could attract only foreigners and rarely Myanmar audience. In 1995 or 1996, his team went around the country to record various aspects of the society, various locations and local customs and practices meant for the Myanmar audience but did not have much success. In 2000, AV Media ceased production of documentary films.

The most recent turning point of Myanmar documentary was when Keiko Sei, media art curator, came to Myanmar in 2003 and held a filmmaking workshop in cooperation with local writers, artists, and filmmakers. The participants produced a documentary in the workshop. Afterwards, Keiko Sei occasionally came to Myanmar to screen films and have discussions and workshops. There was no proper production of documentary films until 2005, when Lindsey Merrison and her Yangon Film School team organized a workshop called "The Art of Documentary Filmmaking" and trained 12 Myanmar youths on documentary filmmaking. Since 2005, they started to produce short documentary films. Keiko Sei along with Vit Janecek and Michal Bregant of FAMU (Film and Television School of the Performing Arts in Prague) of the Czech Republic organized more filmmaking workshops in Alliance Francis in 2006. At that time, there was neither a film school nor a place to learn filmmaking in Myanmar for young filmmakers. In 2007, National University of Arts and Culture opened a Film and Drama Department that provides training on filmmaking. However, due to lack of qualified tutors and filmmaking equipments, the training offered proved to be ineffective. That made the workshops organized by international professionals and institutions more reliable centers of learning. But it was during the time of the military regime so these workshops could not be conducted freely and openly. Because some workshops were organized by foreign embassies in Yangon, they were closely monitored by the military government. At the same time, nobody enjoyed the freedom to shoot films on the streets. Even the filmmakers from the mainstream film industry had to submit the content of their films to censorship before the actual production and they could start filming only when permitted. Before distribution, the producer had to submit the finished film to the censorship board. The concept of truth and reality was quite sensitive for the military government. Since documentary films are based on reality, they would, in one way or another, be in conflict with the censorship policy of the military government. That is why, documentary filmmakers never submitted their content to censorship and made the films clandestinely. Since 2005, there emerged documentary films made by Myanmar youth, of which, Again and Again won Special Mention in 4th Zebra Poetry Film Festival while A Sketch of Wathone won the Best Short Award in All Roads Film Festival National Geographic. Moreover, Beyond the Light was screened at Sydney International Film Festival, Like Father, Like Son at DocPoint Helsinki International Documentary Film Festival, A Million Threads at Vision du Reel, and An Untitled Life at International Documentary Festival EBS among others. However, these films were never officially distributed in Myanmar but only among the small networks of filmmakers.

Documentary filmmakers working under the strict rules and regulations of the military regime were faced with a number of difficulties. Especially during and after the Saffron Revolution in 2007, the government became suspicious of anyone holding a camera and shooting films. Burma VJ was a successful documentary about the saffron Revolution of 2007 made by foreign filmmakers. A Danish director Anders Ostergaard made that film out of footages shot with much difficulty by local undercover reporters and journalists. The media has undergone the strictest control after 2007. Anyone filming, no matter what they filmed, may be regarded as the one sending local news to foreign countries.

When Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in May, 2008, documentary filmmakers tried their best to document the catastrophe. State-run dailies carried announcements everyday that filming in the affected areas was an act of criminal offence. Nevertheless, a group of filmmakers visited the affected areas clandestinely to document life there. Nargis – When Time Stopped Breathing was the first feature- length documentary made by Myanmar filmmakers, and won awards at international film festivals. But the real names of the filmmakers were not revealed in the credits because it was made and produced secretly. Only after some political liberalization and reforms, the real names of the filmmakers were revealed for the first time at the Second Edition of the Wathann Film Festival in Myanmar in September, 20012. Wathann Film Festival was held for the first time in September, 2011, organized by a group of independent filmmakers. It was the first independent film festival in Myanmar, held with the aim of encouraging more filmmakers, creating independent cinema and providing space for screening documentaries and shorts. Before that festival, there was no place for local filmmakers to screen the films they made. Some independent filmmakers tried to have their documentary films broadcast on local TV channels but there were difficulties because those TV channels had strict censorship rules to follow. After that came the Art of Freedom Film Festival headed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and organized by comedian and former political prisoner Zarganar on January 4, 2012. That provides another space where local documentary films and shorts can be screened. As there emerge more and more film festivals in Myanmar, so do documentary films and filmmakers.

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