Monday, September 6, 2010

14th TSF&VF: Beyond Yangon

I hear much about Burmese cinema, aside from the Southeast Asia Theater Project's foray into the country that's also known as Myanmar.

Sure, I've seen documentaries, like Burma VJ (co-produced by the now-late activist "Sam" Sittipong Kalayanee), about the 2007 democratic uprising, which was an Oscar nominee.

And Mystic Ball.

Or how about Shan at Dawn?

But as far as movies by filmmakers in Burma, I don't get to see many.

So it was interesting to watch the Beyond Yangon package of short documentaries at the 14th Thai Short Film & Video Festival. Not to be confused with John Boorman's 1995 thriller Beyond Rangoon, Beyond Yangon is a selection of shorts from the Yangon Film School, a non-profit organization founded in 2005 by Anglo-Burmese filmmaker Lindsey Merrison.

The films mainly spotlight the work of other non-governmental organizations doing social work, but the documentaries are also a look at real life all over Myanmar – ordinary folks and their daily lives.

A Farmer’s Tale by Lay Thida interviews a former opium-poppy grower
in southern Shan State. A guy who's had some hard knocks – including a stint in Thailand, where he followed a girl, and a hateful stepmother – he's now growing beans and oranges and training others in his village to do the same. He's eeking out a living, supporting his lottery-addicted father and grandmother and has hopes of getting married to an educated young woman in a nearby village.

Other tales of hardscrabble lives are in Beyond the Tsunami by Shin Daewe, which has a woman living in a fishing village on the Ayeyarwaddy Delta telling a hair-raising story of survival in the 2004 tsunami.

And there's a focus on Myanmar's rich arts-and-culture scene.

A Sketch of Wathone by Kyi Phyu Shin is a touching profile of an artist – the painter, sculptor, writer and graphic novelist Wathone. He's a incredibly humble man of modest means but also of great talent and heartfelt sentiment. An oil painting he made of one his cats is not for sale because the cat died of old age, and he'll never paint another one like it.

A Million Threads by Thu Thu Shein is a frenzied look at a 24-hour weaving competition by women seamstresses working traditional manual looms. It has every bit of the thrill of victory as ABC's Wide World of Sports. Though I don't know about the agony of defeat, because the fruits of the loom-workers' labors go to make a saffron garment that's used to wrap around a sacred Buddha and is carried through the streets and hung aloft on a Buddhist monument for all to see. So everyone's a winner. But the top prize is $100, which is a lot of money for ordinary Burmese people.

Like Father, Like Son by Pe Maung Same is a look at dancer-actor Zaw Oo and his theater troupe's performance of the Ramayana. It's a centuries-old tradition, but the performers are doomed to a life of poverty. Yet Zaw Oo's son seems determined to carry on.

Sobering real-life issues come up in My Positive Life by Wai Mar Nyunt, which focuses on a social worker for FXB, an organization that provides support and outreach to people living with HIV. The social worker, who is HIV positive, frankly tells how he came down with the chronic disease, but is full of energy and hope as he teaches others that with proper treatment and precautions, HIV is not a death sentence.

All the documentaries seek to tell the truth, not push an opinion – just present the facts.

Yet perhaps the most controversial, just for its harsh, sad truth, was the last short, Far from Home by Thi Ha Thwe. The director interviews a 13-year-old boy who's working on a farm 500 miles away from his native village, feeding pigs and tending goats, and basically taking care of himself. What kind of circumstances exist when children are compelled to such a lonely existence? Nonetheless, he's a bright and resourceful kid, but knows of little beyond what his slingshot will hit. The director asks him if he'd ever want more for his life, like maybe school, and the boy just shrugs.

The shorts in Beyond Yangon don't get into politics, which is a sensitive topic.

If they did, it would jeopardize the school's ability to continue the work of teaching other filmmakers and supporting eye-opening documentaries.


  1. Which one do you like the most? I fell in love wholeheartedly with A Million Threads and Far from Home.

  2. Far From Home was the most powerful for me. I liked A Sketch of Wathone. Gorgeous photography and a portrait of a fascinating artist.


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