I am pushing through turbulence on a China Southern flight from Guangzhou. I land in Yangon, the business capital of Myanmar, which most people still call Burma. We circle over the infamous Insein Prison, a panopticon complex where innumerable political prisoners have been detained over the years. I have always wanted to visit this country of 60 million – mostly Buddhist – people, but was deterred philosophically by the fact that military dictatorships have controlled the poorest country in Asia most of my lifetime. I’ve never been a big fan of systematic human rights violations. All of that appears to be changing though.
There were general elections under a new constitution in 2010, the Junta yielded power in 2011 and the president, Thein Sein, is attempting to transition the country into a liberal democracy with a mixed economy. The jury is still out on that one. The military has ceded but not receded. But actually, a different kind of jury was now in the house. I was coming to Burma with a group of documentary friends to serve on the International Jury of the First Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival. I was joined by Igor Blaževič from the Czech Republic, Grace Swe Zin Htike from Burma, Don Edkins from Steps for the Future in South Africa and Ally Derks, director of IDFA in Amsterdam. As I saw it, our role was to provide a circle of solidarity, support and protection for the nascent festival. We might be able contribute our little bit to make sure the democratic changes stick. Isn’t that what democracy and documentary are all about?
For decades, Burma was strangled by international boycotts and sanctions. But now, under the new regime, foreign governments, NGO’s, soda pop companies, telcos and other transnational corporations are rushing in to exploit the teak forests, rare minerals, natural gas, oil and the country’s lovely people. As I landed I put all these fears behind me and plunged in. Perhaps it was me who had to change? After all, Burma is where an unknown imperial policeman named Eric Blair effectively turned himself into the anti-colonial writer George Orwell and got inspired to write his first political novel, Burmese Days. Perhaps I could experience a similar epiphany or re-invention?
I’ve never been a big fan of systematic human rights violations
As it turned out I was greeted by some of the friendliest, open and curious people I have ever met. I was in a country where I would meet one of my pacifist heroes, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the brave Nobel Prize winner who was incarcerated in her own home for 15 years. As leader of the National League for Democracy, she is called “The Lady” in Burma, and is revered as a liberator goddess. She was also the main patron of the festival, and even allowed her name to be used for the main prize we would give out. I found her to be down to earth, for an angel.
Arriving in Yangon, a mouldy city of 4.5 million with the most beautiful golden pagodas in the world, I was whisked off by our hosts to a cafe to sample the secular beer and curry-like offerings. The festival is organized by a very small, smart team of Burmese including some returning from exile. Mon Mon Myat is a poet who studied economics, an international journalist and a founder of Creative Media House, a publisher of print and media works with a mandate to provide the kind of information and empowerment that allows citizens to be free and self-governing. CMH is now producing a bio-doc on Aung San Suu Kyi to be completed by 2015. The festival’s inspirational director is Min Htin Ko K o Gyi, himself a documentary and feature fiction maker. I visited their offices a few days before the fest. They were giving last-minute instructions to their dedicated team of volunteers, coordinating with a dozen sponsors and arranging protocols for various Embassies. Despite all the challenges and economic hardships of launching such an initiative, the festival’s first edition was very professionally run. It also served a huge social purpose for this society in transition.
The festival’s core mission is to promote human rights awareness and create an open space for discussion among the general public in Burma
One of the festival’s driving forces has been the renowned Igor Blaževič, a Bosnian based in the Czech Republic who is one of Europe’s foremost human rights campaigners. He was founder and longtime director of One World, Europe’s biggest international Human Rights Film Festival. Over the last few years Igor had been working to nurture the budding democracy, but he’s also not lost on the details, including insisting on the necessity of a well organized catalogue and schedule. The festival’s core mission is to promote human rights awareness and create an open space for discussion among the general public in Burma by using the persuasive power of film and audiovisual communication.
The Burmese are fanatics when it comes to film-going. The festival’s opening night was held in a big commercial cinema usually given over to action films and Asian rom-coms. Instead, the sold-out audience listened with hushed breath as former prisoners of conscience and other dignitaries made speeches to announce the birth of the new baby festival. We then watched Survival in Prison, Yee Nan Theik’s moving and risky Burmese documentary about San Zaw Htway who was jailed for 36 years for his activism and lately set free after a long physical ordeal.
For us, the festival became a blur of screenings held in Junction, a commercial movie-plex in one of the most popular shopping malls in Yangon. This, the organizers rightly surmised, would both be a draw for the masses of young people normally frequenting the place, but also a visible example. Over five days, there were 28 Burmese and 28 international films screened from 15 countries.
It was amazing to see each and every one of the 20 blocks of screenings absolutely filled to capacity…. as more than 6000 cinema lovers, students and audiences young and old, eager for real information, flooded the cinemas each day and night to sit beside us to enjoy the diverse programme. Ally Derks remarked that her own IDFA Festival in Holland barely attracted 3000 people in the first edition 25 years ago. But now our festival is the largest documentary event in the world! She wished the Human Rights Human Dignity Festival similar success on its 25th birthday.
Almost a dozen international guests ventured forth for this inaugural festival, including Peter Lom (Back to the Square) and Anne Aghion (My Neighbor, My Killer). We were treated to Kim Longinotto’s Pink Saris, Visra Vichit-Vadakan’s Karaoke Girl and Vincent Trintignant-Corneau and Christine Chansou’s Even a Bird Needs a Nest. Most of the Burmese films were very short, a testament to the lack of resources and precarious circumstances for production. Swuan Thura Tu’s animated film The Chess and Zin Myo Sett’s Our Forest Our Future, promoting sustainable timber farming, and Rhoda Liton’s Whistle for help, following a small women’s campaign to stop sexual harassment on the bus in Yangon, stood out for me.
It was amazing to see such great curiosity emerging in the question and answer sessions after the films and in the discussions about rights, dignity and filmmaking in the corridors. To see a young woman, a former prisoner of conscience stand up, perhaps for the very first time in public, and nervously ask her question, commenting on a film about another Burmese political prisoner.
To talk to 100 of the cutest little five-year-old orphan children I have ever met, as they awkwardly filed out of an education session of Documentaries for Kids! And to another group of 28 students about whether or not they wanted to become filmmakers, too, after watching a film. Many of them did!
To listen to the absolute silence in the cinema hall as the audience sat in rapt attention, jaws dropped in awe, absorbed in a totally new experience or story, for the very first time on a public screen. To hear questions reflecting empathy, identifying with the people in a film. To hear articulate questions about ethics and personal responsibility … asking oneself: what would I do in a similar situation?
To hear questions challenging the state of things in Burma, wondering how the lessons learned in a film made elsewhere could really apply to circumstances there.
To hear ideas and solutions about how to bring the discussion forward, to touch the lives and education and engaged actions of people living here in Burma. How to apply them pragmatically, now. How to create better conditions for better lives, here and now.
Lives based on justice and rights, peace and prosperity, freedom of expression and communication, free from racism and injustice. To build those lives together, aided by documentary cinema and culture, and a democratic future, here in this land.
On a lighter note, we also heard screening rooms full of laughter as audiences reacted to films from faraway lands. They were able to share the humour, poking fun at common targets or stereotypes, whether that was an incompetent bureaucrat in India, a suspect politician in Indonesia or the obvious lies of a party official in Cambodia. Sometimes, the laughter came at places in a film which we found to be universal and appropriate, other times it was unexpected to these Western ears, coming at different moments unique to your own culture.
Burma is where an unknown imperial policeman named Eric Blair effectively turned himself into the anti-colonial writer George Orwell
The festival was a bountiful garden of films and ideas which emerge from those films. We met Burmese filmmakers of all ages and levels of experience who were so inspired by what they were seeing, and in the workshops and discussions they were attending. As a result, I feel that the next new crop of Burmese films to be harvested will also be inspired and inspiring. They will have an impact locally, but also internationally, in the future.
Indeed, we all wish the festival a bright future. We expect it will extend beyond those first bright days through the coming years. To move into the educational systems, diverse communities beyond Yangon and also online as the broadband communication system evolves.
For example, we talked to a young man who had come on his own all the way from Shan State to attend the festival. Like so many others we met, he was very excited and eager to learn. And he was very, very determined to take some of the films he had seen back home with him. He promised to organize big outdoor public screenings in pagodas and parks and schools for the young people there.
The Final Award Ceremony in the big Traders Hotel Ballroom coincided with The Lady’s birthday, so we celebrated her Birthday and that of a brand new Baby Festival! A year before they would have scoffed at the sight of so many activists in such a hotel. But we were making a statement that we, and human rights, had arrived.
At the ceremony our jury acknowledged all those films which proactively featured brave women characters, female heroes and exemplary role models in the South Asian region. Then we gave a Special Jury Prize to Lida Chan and Guillaume Suo’s French – Cambodian documentary, Red Wedding. The First Aung San Suu Kyi Award went to The Act of Killing co-directed by Christine Cynn, an Indonesian filmmaker who wishes to remain Anonymous and Joshua Oppenheimer.
As I headed back to the airport, I thought about how Burma is changing as we speak. Alongside newly installed ATM machines there is now a freer press, with papers publishing daily to escape incessant censorship. While mobile phones and SIM chips were once both prohibited and prohibitively expensive, and internet access outside of the main cities virtually non-existent, that too is changing. In our hotel’s breakfast room every day, tables featured a mix of ex-pats, non-pats and Burmese meeting together: ethical tourists, foreign publishers engaging with new Burmese writers, spiritual adventurers, Chinese and Indian businessman, and even the odd documentary filmmaker. I wished I could’ve laid a dolly track all around the room to do a single- take shot, to overhear all the conversations. Talks about the future. A snapshot of change.
Of course, despite progress, the struggles continue. There are ongoing conflicts between the government with tribal and other peoples on the borders. An estimated 90,000 people have been displaced in the recent sectarian violence against the Rohingya Muslims, mostly at the hand of some ultra-nationalist Buddhists in Burma’s western Rakhine state. Many have been murdered, few brought to justice.
So, now, with this slight opening, there is an even greater need to train of filmmakers in Burma to document history in the making. To seize now the opportunities for a relatively peaceful transition to democracy, especially heading toward the 2015 elections. The need for human rights media and the festivals that showcase them is ever more necessary. We have to support individual filmmakers in Burma but also institutions like The Yangon Film School and the Human Rights Human Dignity Film Fest and others that support their creative new visions.
So, in the end, the festival did change me. It didn’t make me into George Orwell, but it did give me one of the most overwhelming and moving experiences in my filmmaking life. As I watched Igor Blaževič talk to young political activists from different regions, or met young Burmese filmmakers for dinners, or sat in on training sessions for a new generation of political scientists, I had promise in my heart. As I got back onto a plane bound for Montreal, zooming through clouds of hope, the turbulence just might have cleared._