Myanmar. Its soldiers, pirates, posters and theaters

Myo Myint, “Burma Soldier” protagonist, in Umpiem Mai refugee camp in Thailand, June 2008. Photo : Nic Dunlop/Panos Pictures

“We could all be perpetrators,” says Irish writer and photographer Nic Dunlop (Facebook profile), who has made reporting trips to Myanmar (former Burma) since the early 1990s. “It’s not just the urge to destroy that motivates people to do this. It’s about conditioning, context, and the [innate] human ability to carry out evil acts.” (See My North Korean film classes in humanity and creativity)

But people can also change their actions and refuse to participate. That’s the message Burma Soldier (Dunlop’s recent documentary) aims to bring to audiences inside Myanmar, where the military junta prohibits access to any books, movies, or music that might undermine their authority.

Brendan Brady, who reports on diplomacy, human rights, religion and culture in Asia, discusses the film for The Newsweek. In Burma Soldier, Dunlop and his fellow directors examine the question of what drives an otherwise ordinary person to join up with a brutal institution—and what gives him the courage to risk his life and change course.

Burma Soldier follows the life of Myo Myint, who signed up with the Army (known as the Tatmadaw and recognized as the most brutal and repressive army in Southeast Asia) to serve in Kachin and Karen states as a teenager. Born into a society where privilege belongs almost exclusively to the Army brass and their loyal allies, Myo Myint saw a military career as the only way to escape a future of grinding poverty. Plus, as a boy he had seen his neighbors in Rangoon (now Yangon) greet soldiers with seeming admiration. He was still too young, he says, to understand the difference between true respect and thinly veiled fear.

A movie theater gate, featuring a pattern of A’s and 1’s repeated over and over. It represents the A-1 Film Company, one of Myanmar’s most prolific movie studios of yesteryear. This family-owned and operated company produced many of Burma’s most beloved films of decades passed, helping to grow the Burmese film industry into one of the most advanced in Southeast Asia. But like almost everything which was once first-rate in the country, years of hardship under an oppressive ruling regime has forced the A-1 studio out of business and led to one of the most negligible national film industries anywhere (photo courtesy of The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project)

The Burmese haven’t always been so wary of their military. Nationalist fighters who ousted the British colonial administrators after World War II—and who went on to establish the modern Army—became cultural heroes. But before long, the Army had become embroiled in battles with various ethnic minority groups who thought that their right to self-governance naturally followed the end of British rule.

The conflict eroded the new civilian government’s control, giving a clique of hardline generals an opportunity to justify a coup. Repressive law and order became central to the junta’s rule, and generals used the ever-growing military apparatus to silence dissenting voices.

A pivotal shift in the Burmese majority’s view of the Army came in 1988, when a popular nonviolent uprising was quelled with gunfire.

The generals told the soldiers “the ethnic armies and the democracy protestors are enemies of the state [and] killing them is your duty,” Myo Myint told Newsweek by phone from Fort Wayne, Ind., where he sought asylum in 2008. “Some soldiers, in private, oppose the actions they are told to do. But they don’t dare say this.”

Myo Myint’s time in the Army ended abruptly, after mortar fire left him near dead and missing an arm and a leg. To battle depression during his convalescence, he immersed himself in banned texts on religion, history, and politics. His studies convinced him that he needed to speak out about the abuses of his former commanders. In 1988, as nationwide protests broke out against the dictatorship, Myo Myint delivered an impromptu speech that rallied other soldiers to join demonstrators in the streets. As punishment, authorities threw him in jail for 15 years. Upon his release, Myo Myint fled to a refugee camp in Thailand, where he met Dunlop and sparked the Burma Soldier project.

To thwart the ban on opposition media in Myanmar, the producers of Burma Soldier have made a Burmese-language version of the film and encouraged its copyright theft inside Burma. Within one week, since a Burmese language version of the film was made available on the Vimeo site on 24 March 2011, online viewings have jumped from a handful to a daily total of several thousands.

Dunlop describes the effort to reach a wide audience in Burma with the film as ‘reverse pirating’—a process of smuggling a film into Myanmar instead of out of the country. The most famous example of a film made with material smuggled out of the country was the award-winning documentary Burma VJ, the story of the 2007 monk-led ‘Saffron Revolution’, which was mostly the work of so-called amateur ‘video-journalists’ working inside Myanmar.

Nonagenarian U Tin Yu is not really a video-journalist but he is a no-less important figure in the Myanmar’s movie industry. Mr. Yu can be said to have been born along with it, in fact. The first feature film produced in Burma was Myitta Hnint Thura (Love and Liquor) and premiered on October 13, 1920. U Tin Yu was born three days later. He shares:

Film director U Tin Yu  was born along with the movie industry in Myanmar. Photo by Hein Latt Aung

“My uncles directed and acted in Myitta Hnint Thura. Ours is a movie-making family,” he said, adding that the pioneering Myanmar Aswe Film Studio, founded in 1923, was owned by his grandfather U Ba Nyunt and grandmother Daw Nyein Shin.

“At one point my uncles planned to move to England, but later gave up the idea and started producing one movie after another. Then Myanmar Aswe Film Studio was established, which later became A1 Film Company [in 1933].”

U Tin Yu explained that his mother was Daw Mya Khin, the eldest daughter in the family that founded A1 Film Company [in Mayangone township, Yangon]. His uncles U Tin Maung U Nyi Pu and U Tin Nwe were actors and directors, and his auntie Daw Khin Khin worked as a cinematographer.

He has directed more than 60 movies, and in 1960 his film Myitta Shwe Yi (Gold Water of Love) won a Myanmar Academy Award for cinematography.

He recollects, “In historical movies, male actors had to wear long hair. I don’t like wigs, so my actors, Nyunt Maung and Aye Kyu, were not allowed to accept other movie roles while acting in mine, to let their hair grow long enough. Directors at the time used toy swords made of wood and painted silver, but I used iron swords. I also used race horses instead of cart horses. And while foreign films were shot at 24 frames per second, Burmese films were shot at 16 frames, making the movements jerky. I tried to shoot at 18 frames per second to smooth the movements.”

A scene from the “Burmese Harp” film

Over the years, U Tin Yu has taught classes sponsored by the Myanmar Motion Picture Organisation. He helped train technical staff for Myawady Television (a free TV channel in Myanmar) and has produced short films for the station.

He also worked with Kon Ichikawa (some critics class him with Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu as one of the masters of Japanese cinema) on The Burmese Harp (1956).

Not all of Mr. Yu’s colleagues have freedom to become as prolific in their creative expressions. A documentary This Prison Where I Live tells the story of Zarganar, Myanmar’s top comedian, director and movie star, who was sent to languish in jail under a 59-year sentence. He was freed on 11 October 2011 in a mass amnesty of political prisoners.

Due to heightened competition from foreign films and other entertainment media as well as escalating costs of production, the number of feature-length Burmese films has gone from nearly 100 films per year in the 1970s to barely more than ten today. Another issue plaguing the Burmese cinema is a steep decline in the number of theaters in which to screen the films. According to a December 2011 survey, the number of theaters nationwide had declined to just 71 from their peak of 244. The survey also found that most were several-decade-old aging theaters, and that only six “mini-theaters” had been built in 2009–2011. Moreover, the vast majority of the theaters were located in Yangon and Mandalay alone.

The dormant Art Deco Yuzana Cinema (back right) stands in the background of the Purcell Tower, a legacy of colonial-era cosmopolitan symbolism – Pyin Oo Lwin, Mandalay Division (photo courtesy of The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project)

One example of the less-lucky movie theaters is The Yuzana Cinema in Pyin Oo Lwin, Mandalay Division. It was built in 1956, or ’57 – one of numerous movie theaters to go up during the democratic interlude. It’s been closed since the turn of the 21st century.

Related links:

Copyright in Myanmar Since 1914 by U Khin Maung Wi

The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project 

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