Krakow Film Festival 2024

Documenting resistance through cinema

MYANMAR / Pots and pans against bullets and bombs: the story of Myanmar’s rising resistance to the military coup of February, 2021.

You’ve all seen the extraordinary social media clip – a svelte young Burmese woman dances to loud music in an outdoor social media streamed aerobics class, unwittingly capturing a convoy of black SUVs driving up to a security checkpoint in front of Myanmar’s parliament in the capital Naypyidaw, as she unwittingly captures the first moments of the country’s dramatic military coup a year ago.

The clip – complete with its upbeat soundtrack – swells to a crescendo as she punches the air in time to the music, mirroring the scene unfolding behind. Apparently unaware of the convoy, little does she know that her country is about to plunge into a brutal and bloody crisis, driven by the greed and sheer evil of a kleptocratic military cabal, angered that the populace keeps voting against it in the general elections it has so graciously allowed since 1990.

The anonymous Myanmar Film Collective who – at considerable personal risk – shot Myanmar Diaries, open their powerful and poetic chronicle of a year of rising violence with the video.

It is the last innocently joyful piece of footage in the film.

Next, there are a series of smartphone clips that show how rapidly events spiralled from peaceful protest sparked by General Min Aung Hlaing’s power grab on February 1, 2021, to a brutal crackdown by the junta that has left at least 1,549 dead and more than 9,130 arrested, charged or sentenced since.

There is an utterly compelling sequence early on in this brief and balanced 70 minutes mixture of pure documentary and dramatised reconstructions based on true stories from the resistance.

A 67-year-old woman stands alongside an open-backed truck in a city under martial law, fearlessly berating the young paramilitary police officers. They sat impassively behind the wood and steel bars that hold them back – for now.

Myanmar Diaries, a film by The Myanmar Film Collective
Myanmar Diaries, a film by The Myanmar Film Collective

She is somebody’s daughter, wife, mother, grandmother.

«You’re protecting the dictator!» she shouts, wagging her finger like a fierce school ma’am of old.

The at-times shaky mobile phone footage is viscerally powerful.

«We cry for the girl that was shot in the head. They shot her on purpose…. Don’t follow orders blindly. You should know what is right or wrong!»

Nothing will stop her stream of righteous anger – not even the crowds of heavily armed paramilitaries and the police videographer who steadily films her from a few feet away.

«If I die, my children will step up. As we do nothing wrong, we are not afraid to die!»

This is Yangon, Myanmar – the city once known under British rule as Rangoon, in a country then called Burma.

It is less than three weeks after General Hlaing seized. The Covid-19 pandemic is at its height, and everyone is wearing masks to protect against coronavirus.

That will do nothing to protect Myanmar’s peaceful protestors against the billy clubs and bullets of Hlaing’s junta.

Mya Thwe Thwe Khine – singled out for death by a sniper because she wore a bright red T-shirt – was the first known fatality, February 19, 2021, of the brutal repression against mass, peaceful demonstrations. She died just a week after her 18th birthday (another mobile phone clip captures the moment after the single round from the sniper snuffs out her life, her limp body lying in the gutter near a bus shelter.)

Since then, the death toll has been updated daily at – the website of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, Burma.

The film, which premiered on February 13 at the Berlinale, and won its Berlinale Documentary Award and , has been described in interviews by Berlinale artistic director Carlos Chatrian as being «very politically relevant.»

The danger of making such a film in a country where even raising a mobile phone to film police brutality can be a death sentence is such that none of the 50 or so mostly young men and women who filmed Myanmar Diaries are credited, and nor – out of solidarity with the anonymous filmmakers – are any of those individual Europeans named from Dutch producers, ZINdoc, or supporters that include the Netherlands Film Fund.

It is less than three weeks after General Hlaing seized. The Covid-19 pandemic is at its height, and everyone is wearing masks to protect against coronavirus.

The film mixes shockingly violent – and thankfully brief – clips of the brutal crackdown on any signs of resistance to the regime, with more poetic sequences: a young woman dreams of improving her piano playing skills, practicing Debussy’s Claire de Lune, vowing to add a tattoo of a butterfly to one of a caterpillar, which creeps engagingly around one delicate ankle.

She dons a helmet and mask between her slowly improving renditions of the French classic and joins the protests.

One day she does not return. An animated sequence of a butterfly being attacked, killed, and eaten by vicious lizards, says more than the voiceover about the stripping away of fundamental human rights ever can.

The word for butterfly and soul – latepyar – are the same in Burmese.

Representatives of Myanmar Film Collective (MFC) attended the Berlin festival secretly, their identities carefully shielded.

«The military had been planning the coup for a long time – ever since 2015 when they lost very badly in the general elections,» one says, referring to Myanmar’s first free elections in a quarter of a century.

«Then in November 2020, when [democratically elected leader] Aung San Suu Kyi was declining in international popularity, they were banking on regaining some seats. But they lost even more than in 2015.»

When General Hlaing demanded a senior position in the new government, Aung San sent him packing. She was among the first arrested and imprisoned when the coup was launched.

A few months later, the military coup was launched, and she was arrested and imprisoned.

For ordinary Burmese people (60% of the country’s population are ethnic Barmars, from the central plains; another sizeable group is the Shan, and there is a patchwork of more than 130 other ethnic groups, many living in remote, virtually impenetrable jungles, make up the rest of the predominantly Buddhist and Christian population) after a brief few years of freedom and economic growth, the shock of being thrust back under rule by a cabal of military thugs was too much – and they took to the streets in their thousands, banging pots and pans in protest.

The police and army responded with live rounds, and the slaughter began.

Things gathered pace: «Young people adopted the three-fingered salute – first borrowed from Hollywood movie The Hunger Games by Thai protestors and students in Hong Kong, » the MFC member says.

Raw mobile phone footage is distressing in the extreme: a father, holding his dead little boy in his arms, weeps as he cries: «They have killed my son!»

Young women cry in terror as their father is marched away from his village home by a group of rifle-toting soldiers.

A black and white montage of the junta leader is sandwiched between micro-second clips of a dead protestor – his head blown apart by a bullet.

Nothing is there gratuitously: as producer Petr Lom, who runs ZINdoc with his wife and business partner Corinne Egeraat, notes in comments after the world premiere screening: «There was a real resistance from the group to indulging the pornography of violence; everybody in the film was working with such care, dignity and respect for everyone, even down to protecting the identities of the actors used in the recreated scenes.

Corinne adds: «This is a nightmare that everybody is living and [in the montage scene] the filmmaker used that to show this [brief footage of a dead body followed by] a lingering shot in a recreated scene of a bloodstained helmet and shirt.”

In this reconstruction, a grieving husband observes a blood-spattered building site hard hat and a blood-soaked T-shirt that belonged to his wife, before – naked – he methodically cleans the bathroom before creating an altar before which he burns the dead woman’s clothing.

In a perplexing scene, he then presses her panties to his nose to take one last sniff of her sexual and genital scent before clambering into his car, strapping his fingers into the three-fingered salute, starting the motor and gassing himself via a rubber tube attached to the vehicle’s exhaust pipe.

The scene is, filmmakers say, a deliberately provocative challenge to the humourless conservatism of the junta.

«Burmese society is incredibly conservative. The naked actor is totally subversive. Older, conservative men believe that walking beneath women’s underwear [on a washing line, for example] robs you of your virility. The junta does not have a sense of humour, and sexual references are particularly unwelcome.»

At the end of the film, a young woman loses her husband in the struggle. In despair, she prepares to die herself.

She weeps. Smokes, Unwraps a razor blade.

We weep with her for Myanmar.

Myanmar Diaries, a film by The Myanmar Film Collective
Myanmar Diaries, a film by The Myanmar Film Collective

«Take care of yourself. Don’t give up,» her husband’s hands gripping hers in her mind’s eye, the blade begins to press across her wrist, a faint piano dirge floating in the background.

We fear the worst… but his memory and presence are simply too strong -and as her flashlight lights up the darkness, in the shadow play of his ghostly hand on hers, we see a peace dove, like a mirage flitting across the wall before her.

Next, her hands are packing a bag with medical equipment and she is leaving to join the fast-developing armed resistance in the jungle.

«Do you hear? Do you hear? Do you hear my voice?» she whispers as green fronds gently rustle and birdsong is heard in the distance.

She walks with other women through the jungle, a shoulder bag with the face of an old revolutionary of the past stencilled on it.

She weeps. Smokes, Unwraps a razor blade.

And in a plea aimed at a world that has averted its gaze since an initial international media frenzy over the coup, she whispers:

«Let’s walk together.

«Footsteps of dreams angered the monster.

«Blood can speak. Prayers can speak.

«Can you hear the footsteps of our sweat? Can you hear our suffering?

«Can you hear our prayers? The long journey our voices have made?

«Can you hear us?»

Today, in Myanmar, «sometimes you need to meet fire with fire,» the anonymous filmmaker says. «If the other side has no sense of humanity – you have no choice.»

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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