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.

Thein Sein

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.

Yangon

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.

Karaoke Girl, Visra Vichit-Vadakan, 2013

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.

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