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On the morning of May 2 2008 Cyclone Nargis ravaged Myanmar’s southern delta. Winds of more than 135mph barrelled over the low-lying land, wrenching up trees and sparing only the hardiest of concrete structures.
Despite the devastation — about 140,000 people were killed and more than 3m left destitute — news was slow to reach the rest of the world. The military junta sealed off the region, banning journalists from entering, and rejected offers of foreign aid.
The small number of on-the-ground dispatches were dismissed by the junta. The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper decried the “fabricated” reports of the devastation. But in defiance, small teams of local video journalists left Yangon, the country’s largest city, for the delta soon after the winds had settled. They travelled by bus individually or in pairs to avoid detection. Using small, handheld cameras, they filmed discreetly — one eye on the interviewees and the horrors they recounted, another watching out for plain-clothed agents of the state who lurked in the ruins, feeding observations into Myanmar’s vast, haphazard intelligence database.
Among the first to enter the delta was Thaiddhi, now one of the country’s best-established documentary film-makers. “First we arrived in Bogale, and the town was deserted — a lot of buildings had collapsed and most of the villages near Bogale were totally gone,” he recalls. “There were thousands of villagers wandering around trying to find their lost family. When I looked at these people’s faces they were all the same: without any emotion.”
He was 25 and enrolled at Yangon Film School, a German-funded outfit that the junta had allowed as a small concession to local journalists. The government knew, or at least thought it did, that technical film-making skills posed little threat when the censorship it imposed was so suffocating. That calculation misfired. “It was perfect timing for us,” Thaiddhi says. “All the equipment was in our hands.”
But for four years after his trip, the film that Thaiddhi made — slow-panning shots across landscapes upended by the winds, farmers picking through the skeletal remains of villages whose rubble only partially obscured the bloated bodies — remained a secret among friends.
A few international festivals screened the film, careful to ensure the names of its producers were not revealed. Only in 2012, at the Wathann film festival in Yangon, was he finally able to show the film in its home country and at the festival he founded. The screening signalled a further shift towards tentative acceptance by the authorities of independent film-making.
That year was a watershed for Myanmar. In April’s by-elections, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy gained its first parliamentary seats. Coming on the back of national elections in late 2010, the party’s ascent was considered a statement of intent from the democratic reformists in power. It was this clique of power-holders whom, years before, had been spurred into action as the economy buckled under the weight of economic mismanagement and western sanctions imposed in the mid 1990s, and public disquiet grew. Overseen by Than Shwe, the former dictator, they planned and engineered a transition aimed at returning Myanmar to the international stage and rebuilding business and diplomatic relations with the west.
The subsequent early years of Thein Sein’s presidency from 2011 — the country’s first experiment with pseudo-parliamentary democracy since the coup of 1962 — brought dramatic changes to the fortunes of Thaiddhi and his colleagues.
The abolition in August 2012 of the censor board, which had been tasked with scrutinising all published and broadcast material for signs of dissension, meant that documentaries — once the sole domain of the propaganda arm of the junta — could be shot openly.
Of his years spent working undercover, Thaiddhi is sparing with the detail: “Most of the time we were not allowed to shoot on the street but as locals we could always find a way to make it happen.”
Before 2012, independent video journalists, if discovered, faced decades-long prison sentences. Even owning a video camera without a licence was an offence, let alone angling it into the face of someone in uniform. But today, the Wathann film festival is a regular fixture, along with several others that screen documentaries.
Journalists have even felt confident enough to take their cameras to document the fallout from the military’s attacks on ethnic minorities. Thaiddhi’s job has become easier. “Now we can shoot on the street and work more openly,” he says.
But more recently a shadow has fallen. Despite pledges to the contrary, the government holds more than 150 political prisoners, including journalists, in jail, while nearly 450 activists await trial.
Censorship may have been scaled back, but in its place the court system — which shows clear signs of remaining captured by powerful state interests — has become the chief arbiter over what is safe and not safe ground for journalists.
The apparent backslide has given some pause to film-makers. Lamin Oo, co-founder of Tagu Films, a production house based in Yangon, has capitalised on the freedoms — his 2014 film with Tagu, This Land is Our Land, documents the struggles of a village in central Myanmar that in 2010 had land confiscated by the state.
But risks are still inherent. Par Gyi, a freelance reporter, was arrested by the army while covering the conflict in eastern Myanmar last year, and was killed in custody. The army claimed he had tried to escape with an officer’s gun and was shot. His body was buried before any independent investigation could be carried out.
“There have been quite a few setbacks and we have to make the government accountable. We haven’t been able to do that yet,” says Lamin Oo. The lack of clarity over the legal boundaries for film-makers compounds the uncertainty, he adds.
The state of the broader film industry in Myanmar is mixed. Feature films suffer from a lack of funding, and the effects of this are evident. Sometimes shot and edited in the space of a week, many films lack finesse, and cinemas instead tend to show imported movies. From a pre-second world war golden era, when the quality of Myanmar’s big-screen output led the region, this side of the industry has stuttered.
But in its place, documentary film has begun to flourish. Audiences, which knew the medium as a vehicle for the junta are becoming more receptive to the work of film-makers such as Thaiddhi and the Tagu team, who despite scant government funding still produce work that displays clear technical and storytelling skills. Annual film festivals provide them with a platform that until recently had been absent.
“The audience has the sense that the only — or the main — agenda of these new documentary films is to tell the truth,” says Lamin Oo. Both he and Thaiddhi take a similar approach to subject matter: social issues explored through the eyes of the men and women experiencing them, as much for artistic flair as for practical reasons.
Thaiddhi recently completed a series of short films on interfaith relations. Lamin Oo is exploring gay, lesbian and transgender issues in a film about the love between two men. Both are fraught subjects in Myanmar, where escalating tension between Buddhists and Muslims has fuelled conflict over the past three years, and where homosexuality remains stigmatised. The approach offers a more intimate study of the subjects and sidesteps perceptions that the documentary is making a political statement.
For Thaiddhi, this distinction is crucial. The work he produces is not outwardly political, because it does not need to be. “Simply showing ordinary people’s lives can be a very effective way to help our society to reflect on itself,” he says.
Myanmar’s stop-start emergence from isolationist rule makes for circumstances in which identities are reclaimed, and newly assertive forces are battling for ownership of the country’s future.
The seeming banality of the everyday takes on a beguiling quality, and from it compelling characters emerge. There is a clear rationale that drives Thaiddhi and Lamin Oo’s approach: conveying the nuanced stories of this transformation may shield film-makers from the ire of those still resistant to the idea of change, and in turn allow them the freedom to roam.