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Once isolated, now rapidly opening to the West, the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar is set to debut a new international film festival dedicated to an issue essential to its ongoing efforts at democratization and reform: human rights.
The inaugural “Human Rights Human Dignity Film Festival” — featuring documentaries, animations and shorts dedicated to messages of tolerance, mutual understanding, and resistance in the face of tyranny — will take place at cinemas in the capital city of Yangon on June 15-19.
“The concept of ‘human rights’ is a new one for many people here,” says festival founder and independent Burmese filmmaker Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi (best known for his 2010 documentary The Floating Tomatoes). “Through the power of cinema, we hope to show what this is, why it is important and show our audience that similar struggles against human rights abuses have been fought in other countries around the world.”
Min Htin says he was inspired to create the festival after attending the One World International Documentary Film Festival in Prague in 2012.
“As Myanmar is heading toward its transition to democracy, people’s empowerment is one of the most important components in this process,” he added.
After an awards ceremony held on the birthday of Burmese activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi – June 19 – the festival will hit the road for a traveling film tour, bringing the winning international and local docs, shorts and animations to 13 villages across the rural countryside — some in regions where many residents likely have never had an opportunity to experience cinema.
The festival will also include a section of children’s films espousing messages of respect and tolerance. Organizers plan to deploy busses around the cities and villages to pick up kids who are interested in attending the screenings. Thanks to sponsorship from the British Council in Yangon, all of the festival’s screenings will be free. All of the films will be subtitled in Burmese; the kids films will be dubbed.
“We would like to provide all citizens of Myanmar — also those in remote and ethnic conflict areas — with access to knowledge and discussions of human rights,” Min Htin said.
Such an exercise couldn’t come at a better time for the country. While much social and political progress has been made since the military dictatorship began easing its control of the Myanmar government – beginning in earnest with the 2011 release of Suu Kyi after over 20 years of house arrest, and followed by recent allowances for a free press and the welcoming of foreign investment – tensions between the country’s many ethnic and religious minorities, which were once supressed by the military’s firm rule, have since erupted into often violent conflict. The country’s disenfranchised Muslim minority has been the target of repeated attacks by militant Buddhist groups. On Monday, a Buddhist raid on a Muslim village north of Yangon left one dead, nine injured and over 150 homes and two mosques burnt to the ground, according to the Associated Press.
The Human Rights Human Dignity Film Festival is welcoming submissions until May 10.
“We simply hope to encourage discussion of human rights among the public of Myanmar,” Min Htin added. “By knowing the concept of human rights, people will respect others’ and stand up for their own.”
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