September 30, 2023

A new generation of filmmakers remains committed to resisting the regime’s efforts to control their creative vision

Myanmar Now

Tina SoeSeptember 30, 2023

A behind the scene shot of Myanmar director Na Gyi’s short film “Our Turn” (Photo Courtesy of Artists’ Shelter)

Na Gyi, one of Myanmar’s most celebrated contemporary filmmakers, knew exactly where he stood when the country’s military seized power in February 2021.

“I can’t work with murderers,” said the 42-year-old director, whose full name is Nyarna Tin Oo, referring to the junta that unleashed lethal violence on protesters soon after the coup.

Now, two and a half years later—and after more than 4,000 civilians have died at the hands of the regime—he continues to stick to his policy of “no participation, no involvement” with the military and its associates.

In an interview with Myanmar Now in August, he called the military council a “murder gang” and said he could never see himself seeking its permission to make new films.

While the regime’s efforts to crush armed resistance to its rule has made daily headlines since the coup, its attempts to dominate the country’s broader social and cultural landscape has received far less attention. By reinstating draconian restrictions lifted during Myanmar’s decade-long era of relative freedom, the junta has moved to either silence filmmakers or force them to help it shape the narrative.

Unwilling to accept either fate, Na Gyi has taken a third option—life in exile. Currently living in a Thai border town, he has completed three projects that would have been impossible to undertake in his own country.

As someone who came of age under military rule, Na Gyi could easily foresee how the coup would impact his creative freedom. But he still regrets that he didn’t see it coming.

“I was surprised at first, and then told myself that I was stupid to have believed that another coup couldn’t happen,” he said, recalling his reaction to the military takeover.

But once he got over his initial shock, Na Gyi quickly realised what was at stake for him and other artists committed to remaining true to their own visions.

“As long as we operate under their rules, our artistic endeavours can no longer authentically represent our voices,” he said.

Crushed hopes

Na Gyi came to prominence in the late 2010s as part of a new generation of filmmakers that had emerged after decades of stagnation under successive military regimes. While still not entirely free of the constraints of the past—the military remained a major political force even after the transition to quasi-civilian rule in 2011—he and his peers were able to offer a fresh perspective that had long been lacking from Myanmar’s cinema.

As long as we operate under their rules, our artistic endeavours can no longer authentically represent our voicesMyanmar film director Na Gyi

Best known for his 2018 feature-length film Mi, an adaptation of the famous novel of the same name by Kyi Aye, one of the country’s most admired writers, Na Gyi is among a handful of Myanmar filmmakers to achieve international recognition.

Myanmar director Na Gyi (centre) is seen at a film set during the making of Mi (Mi Facebook Page)

Before the coup, he was also a leading figure in the crusade against censorship, which persisted due to the presence of former military officials within the administrative apparatus.

In 2020, he launched the “Rating System Now” campaign, which advocated for the replacement of censorship with a rating system similar to that of other countries. Traditionally, Myanmar filmmakers have been barred not only from touching on sensitive political issues, but also from depicting sex—something that Na Gyi felt had to change.

“It takes such a low view of society to think that it would go out of control in the absence of censorship. It really looks down on one’s own society,” he said.

“If we can’t even embrace our basic emotions without shame, how can we engage in open discussions about higher-level ideologies?”

Supported by a majority of artists in the film industry, the “Rating System Now” campaign was just preparing to submit a petition to the information ministry, which oversees the censorship board, when the coup suddenly upturned its plans.

“All our hard efforts were wiped out in one fell swoop,” said an industry insider who took part in the campaign.

But it wasn’t just the anti-censorship campaign that came to a crashing halt with the coup. All the hopes of the preceding decade were also crushed overnight.

“We knew right away, given the ultra-conservative views of the military and its stooges, that it was all over,” said the industry insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity for safety reasons.

It takes such a low view of society to think that it would go out of control in the absence of censorship. It really looks down on one’s own societyMyanmar film director Na Gyi

Protest and exile

For many filmmakers, the immediate response was to boycott any production company directly associated with the newly installed regime. That included one owned by Khin Thiri Thet Mon, the daughter of junta chief Min Aung Hlaing.

“We understood that this was about more than just the film industry, so we focused on boycott campaigns targeting military-affiliated production companies and military sympathisers [within the industry],” said the insider.

Others, including Na Gyi and his wife—the renowned actress Paing Phyo Thu—also took to the streets. As public figures at the forefront of anti-coup protests, they were soon marked as targets. But it wasn’t until late 2021, a few months after junta soldiers raided Na Gyi’s production studio, that they finally fled the country.

Na Gyi, centre, sits next to his wife, the actress Paing Phyo Thu, at an anti-coup protest in Yangon on February 14, 2021 (Paing Phyo Thu / Facebook)

It was clear by this time that they had little choice: Soon after the raid, the regime claimed that Na Gyi had been storing weapons at his studio, implying that he was involved in the urban guerrilla attacks that were then gripping Yangon. If he had been caught, he would have been charged not just with incitement, but with terrorism.

As an exile, Na Gyi says he is now free of the “arbitrary rules” imposed by “individuals who know nothing about movie making”—rules that have all but killed Myanmar’s film industry.

But it isn’t just Myanmar filmmakers who have come up against the junta’s censoriousness. In August, the regime arrestedSwiss national Didier Nusbaumer for allegedly insulting Buddhism in his film “Don’t Expect Anything,” about a young girl who was a spiritual master in a past life. The charge of offending the sensibilities of Buddhists—which is a serious crime in Myanmar—is based on dialogue that has the girl criticising monks who don’t follow their precepts.

Thirteen Myanmar nationals, including the 12-year-old girl who played the leading role, were also detained as part of this effort by the regime to project an image of itself as the defender of the faith of the majority of Myanmar citizens. (Interestingly, clips from Nusbaumer’s 75-minute film, which originally appeared on Youtube in late July, started going viral at around the time that Min Aung Hlaing was unveiling a massive Buddha statue in Naypyitaw.)

Triple censorship

At a cabinet meeting held on August 30, Min Aung Hlaing made it clear that he intends to continue tightening his grip over cultural production in the country.

According to the regime-controlled Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper, the senior general instructed his ministers to act “systematically” to prevent “any movements from literature, music, motion pictures and social networks harming the national character and national solidarity.”

This process was already well underway when Min Aung Hlaing made his pronouncement. In late July, the junta-allied Myanmar Motion Picture Organisation issued a statement announcing that with effect from August 1, production companies and broadcasters would be “required to submit brief scripts of their movie series to the [information] ministry’s film and video censorship board during the pre-production stage to seek permission for filming.”

This move has added a whole new level of censorship to film production in Myanmar. Filmmakers have long had to worry about more than just the official censors: Their financial backers and distributors also carefully scrutinise their work to ensure that it doesn’t fall afoul of the 1996 Motion Picture Law. But now that pre-approval by the regime’s arbiters of what is culturally and politically acceptable is needed before production can even begin, the process has become even more onerous.

“We can say that there are three layers of censorship now,” said a director who made a TV series that was aired earlier this year.

The upshot of all this, he said, is that producers, scriptwriters, and directors will be even more prone to self-censorship than they were in the past.

“We may want to make movies that touch on social issues, but we can be sure that the [censorship board] won’t like such sensitive content,” said the director.

He noted that he and other directors he knows have been forced to remove any mention of subjects like corruption and drugs from their dialogue. Coarse language—and words like “state” and “government”—have also had to be cut out to satisfy the censors.

“I’m sure that we won’t see any stories that really reflect our society coming out anymore. Under these circumstances, I can only see our industry going further backwards,” he said, adding that he personally has no interest in making another series in the current environment.

‘Toxic’ content

In April, the junta’s information minister, Maung Maung Ohn, met with members of the film and video censorship board to remind them of their mission: to protect Myanmar audiences from content that the regime deems too “toxic” for their consumption.

The board’s members “need to properly review and evaluate [creative content] in order to present the videos and films to the public in a non-toxic way,” he said.

According to Maung Maung Ohn, the Motion Picture Law is specifically concerned with six areas that must be handled with care: politics, religion, ethnic friendship, traditional customs, acts of brutality, and sexual incitement.

What the law does not provide, however, is legal definitions related to these categories of concern. This gives the board enormous discretionary power to decide what meets its standards and what doesn’t. For example, it has banned scenes featuring women drinking or smoking; images of overturned police vehicles; and the words “25 percent,” which could be taken as an oblique reference to the percentage of seats in parliament reserved for the military.

A still from Mi, featuring actress Paing Phyo Thu (Mi Facebook Page)

Even at the height of Myanmar’s transition to quasi-democratic rule, the censors could be heavy-handed in their approach to perceived threats. Public screenings of the 2015 Austrian film “Twilight Over Burma,” for instance, were banned in the country over fears that they might jeopardise “national reconciliation.”

Such knee-jerk reactions were largely a legacy of decades of ultraconservative military rule. Under Myanmar’s first dictator, Ne Win, who ruled from 1962 to 1988, scenes with male actors sporting long hair or bell-bottom jeans had to be cut because such fashions imported from the degenerate West were regarded as being “against Burmese culture.” Couples touching cheek-to-cheek on camera were likewise seen as an affront to Burmese sensibilities.

But even as such innocent images were treated as major offences against the military’s sense of decency, there was no prohibition against portraying violence. In the absence of a rating system, even young children were routinely exposed to violent content.

I’m sure that we won’t see any stories that really reflect our society coming out anymore. Under these circumstances, I can only see our industry going further backwardsA Myanmar director who remains in the country after the 2021 military coup

Reaching audiences

The divide between filmmakers working inside Myanmar and those who have gone into exile has never been wider than it is today. But even Na Gyi, who has taken a firm line on the current political situation, is not quick to condemn those who have decided to stay behind.

“I understand that one must be afraid of those with guns,” he said of his colleagues still inside the country. “As long as they don’t cooperate, work, or shake hands with [the regime], I have no problem with them.”

Indeed, Myanmar’s film industry was struggling even before the coup. The closure of theatres due to the Covid-19 pandemic had forced many production companies to put their projects on hold. The coup and its subsequent social and economic upheaval—including the arrest or exile of many prominent artists—have taken an even greater toll.

A man walks past a closed cinema in Yangon on March 16, 2020 amid the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic (Lynn Bo Bo / EPA)

But this hasn’t stopped production companies affiliated with the military from trying to revive their own fortunes, if not those of the industry as a whole. Relying on new talent or stars obligated to complete contracts signed before the coup, these companies—often operating under new names to obscure their origins—are well-placed to achieve at least some semblance of success.

“What are their goals? Maybe to drive everyone else out of business. Or maybe to keep propagating their nationalistic, ultraconservative messages. Or maybe just to create an illusion of normalcy and to keep the people distracted. We will have to wait and see,” said the industry insider.

But where does this leave filmmakers who want to continue to create within Myanmar, but without collaborating with the regime? For some, the way forward is to find new channels through which to reach their audiences.

However, despite an abundance of online platforms, there are few suitable substitutes for cinemas and festivals as venues for showing new films, according to film critic Kyaw Lynn Aung, writing in a recently released issue of 3-ACT Cinema Magazine, a Myanmar publication.

“One of the greatest challenges now facing filmmaking is the near absolute absence of quality platforms to bridge creators with their audiences,” he wrote.

A shelter in exile

An independent filmmaker who spoke to Kyaw Lynn Aung for the magazine noted that the current political climate has also had a huge impact on the economic side of the film industry.

“[W]atching films is a luxury, and we need money and people to make films and it’s more expensive to make a film now than it ever has been in history,” he said, adding that he didn’t expect the industry to recover until stability is restored.

Launched in 2011 and on hold since the 2021 coup, the Wathann Film Festival was the pioneering platform for Myanmar independent films (Wathann Film Festival/ Facebook)

Despite these challenges, Myanmar’s independent film scene continues to display innovation, creativity, and resilience, producing films that address issues such as political oppression, human rights, and social justice. Many of these films have been circulated through international film festivals, underground channels, and online platforms.

For exiles like Na Gyi, the challenges are real, but not insurmountable. By reaching out to international audiences, they have managed to raise funds for their projects and contribute to the revolution inside their country.

However, there is also a hidden cost that Myanmar filmmakers must pay to remain independent: the need to conceal one’s identity. To protect themselves and their families inside the country, even exiles must assume new names if they want to make films that tackle difficult subjects.

“This is one of the challenges we face under the dictatorship. It might seem like a small thing, but it prevents us from working on what we love under our own names,” said Na Gyi.

The official poster of “My Lost Nation,”
Na Gyi’s first short film since the 2021 coup

To encourage both established artists and others who have started making films since the coup, Na Gyi has created a safe space for those who want to explore the possibilities of their medium from the unique standpoint of a life in exile, not limited to filmmaking.

Simply called the Artists’ Shelter, the organisation currently has a network of around 100 artists signed up; it aims to provide creative support to its members in the future, Na Gyi said during his interview with Myanmar Now in August.

“This will serve as a platform for artists here to continue creating art, find inspiration, and access services for their work. We have long-term goals,” explained Na Gyi.

He added that the artists he supports are not necessarily involved in the resistance. And it also isn’t necessary for them to be committed to remaining on the border. Indeed, separation is an inevitable part of a life in exile, and already some of the people he has worked with have moved on. At some point, Na Gyi expects that he will also have to go elsewhere for a time to establish some legal status as a Myanmar national who can no longer return to his home country, at least for as long as the military holds power.

But even if that happens, he says he plans to return when he can to continue making films that are closely tied to his homeland.

“I want to make Myanmar movies, so I need to be as close to the country as possible.”

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