Myanmar Filmmakers Test Censors, Audience

Burmese dissident San Zaw Htway, the subject of "Survival in Prison" by director Yee Nan Theik, winner of the Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival's top prize.
Burmese dissident San Zaw Htway, the subject of "Survival in Prison" by director Yee Nan Theik, winner of the Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival's top prize.
 

Burmese-language newspapers and social media have been whirring with scandal about the latest film to push the boundaries of Myanmar’s film censorship system.

Thiha Tin Than’s Mar Yar Myar Tae Alin Kar (Scheme) was briefly screened in the country before uproar among audiences over a bedroom scene caused it to be pulled from cinemas and sent back to the national censorship board for further review.

Scheme is a domestic drama about a man who kidnaps his own wife, and the scene in question is tame by most international standards. The couple chat on a satin-sheeted bed, they kiss, they remain fully clothed and then, with a soundtrack of dramatic music, oral sex is suggested off-camera through shots of intertwined hands and clenched toes with gold sparkling nail polish. The implication was apparently too much for audiences in this traditional, majority-Buddhist country as a flood of complaints over the “scandalous content” followed the film’s premiere in late June.

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Thiha Tin Than, 45, has been testing the limits of Myanmar’s strict censors since he began making films at age 24. The stepson of a former political prisoner, he says defiance is in his roots. He left Myanmar briefly to study in Singapore but didn’t want to be a part of the “brain drain” of the educated classes fleeing the country’s repressive climate of the time, so he returned to his homeland to help develop the movie industry.

“I asked a long time ago, what I can and can’t do,” he says. “But still nobody has seen the law book.” Rumor among those working in the industry is that there is a secret, red-striped book in Naypyitaw, Myanmar’s administrative capital city, that delineates the country’s censorship guidelines. Others doubt such a text exists.

“They keep it to themselves,” Thiha Tin Than says, adding that he wishes he knew what the exact rules and regulations were, “but they just let you know when they don’t like something.”

When he tried to make a film about a prostitute a few years ago, before Myanmar’s political reforms, he got a phone call telling him that there were no sex workers in Myanmar, so he should change the movie’s theme. He was then told that he was forbidden from producing movies for six months.

“Everybody is testing like that, and we wish and pray to god that movies go through,” he says. Although he has become braver, he says he still would not dare to shoot a film about his stepmother or other former political prisoners.

As the country opens up after five decades of military dictatorship and isolation, mainstream filmmakers have received criticism from activists for not portraying more sensitive subject matter. But the heated reaction to Scheme’s love scene raises the question of whether the local audience is ready for on-screen scintillation or provocation.

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“It was simply a bed scene, not even sexual,” says Lu Min, an actor and chairman of the Myanmar Motion Picture Association, who stared in an earlier film version of the same story without the bedroom scene ten years ago.

“But the less educated audience still cannot accept that,” he adds.

The rules have relaxed significantly in the industry since the country began its democratic reform process almost three years ago. In the past, censors were notorious for chopping scenes that included anything negative about the military regime or that tarnished Myanmar’s very traditional way of life. However, limitations still exist.

One of the Burmese film authorities’ more peculiar rules stipulates that films must be released outside of the country’s largest city, Yangon, for one month before they are allowed general release there. It was this stipulation that caught Thiha Tin Than out with his latest feature, despite its being originally permitted by the censors. Audiences outside the city tend to be much more traditional and less accustomed to the contemporary tenor of international media, or even that of the Burmese urban middle class.

“There is still a big gap between the filmmakers and the audience,” says Lu Min.

After the controversy, the film was sent back to the board for an emergency re-rating, and for it to be shown in Yangon, the love scene had to be cut.

“Directors are just waiting and watching [to tackle more sensitive subjects],” says Yee Nan Theik, an amateur filmmaker who took first prize at Myanmar’s inaugural Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival in June for his documentary Survival in Prison, about a former political prisoner.

“The situation is changing, but not that much,” says the young director, who was able to sidestep the censorship system because all films in the festival were shown for free (only films shown for commercial gain must apply for censorship approval in Myanmar).  

Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi herself presented Yee Nan Theik with HRHDIFF’s top prize at an award’s ceremony in Yangon. The fact that a film about a political prisoner was shown publicly and was openly celebrated is an undeniable achievement for a country that just three years ago was ruled by a military regime and cut off from the rest of the world. But despite this success, Yee Nan Theik says he still wouldn’t dare film openly on the city’s streets.

A trained doctor, Yee Nan Theik turned his hand to filmmaking just two years ago and shot Survival in Prison, a series of interviews with former political prisoner San Zaw Htway, on a Canon SLR borrowed from a friend. But he filmed entirely indoors to avoid any trouble with authorities.

“That may just be our paranoia,” he says. “But until 2015 [when the democratic elections will be held], we cannot say,”

Next, the 29-year-old would like to make a film about the working conditions of factory workers. But getting access to the enclosed spaces where people still work in severe conditions with no overtime pay or days off is close to impossible.

But he remains hopeful. “Overall, we couldn’t show these kind of films before,” he says. “It’s an improvement, and we can’t deny that.”
 

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