Where Are All the Burmese Movies?

I’ve been fucking around on YouTube and this blog for more than a year now, attempting to lay down a foundation and attract some eyes before embarking on the “mission” for real. Generally, the idea here is “to promote Asian cinema and culture,” and that’s easy when such material is immediately available for consumption in the United States. We all love our Japanese anime and Chinese kung fu movies and K-pop, but what about countries who don’t have prominent relations with the US? There are a lot of those countries, or at least, there are many countries of which I’d say, “I have no idea” what their art and culture is like. “Does Asian country X even have a film industry?” I’m often surprised when the answer is yes, and then I feel bad. So let’s start with a random example, oh, off the top of my head, I don’t know — Myanmar. Does Myanmar have a film industry, and a deep history of film? Yes. In this case, I don’t have to feel as bad as usual, and there’s a reason for that.

Current events have somewhat pushed Myanmar and Burmese issues to the fore of my concerns at With Eyes East. It’s a bad situation to say the absolute minimum, but I don’t want to go into specifics at the moment. If you want numbers and images, you can find them easily elsewhere. This is a space for a different kind of characterization, the additional dimensions which art can build onto our vision of a foreign people and their culture. This is, anyway, my theory where it regards the social purpose and potential of film and music and literature. It’s probably not so abstract — it’s about hearing voices, learning from narratives with local origins. That narrative right now is one of victimhood, and that’s deeply important — but it can’t stand alone. Who are the people of Myanmar beyond that? What can we learn from the stories they tell, and how will we connect to them? These are the questions I’m hoping to answer soon.

At the moment, however, I don’t know how to watch Burmese movies. To illustrate some of the difficulties the industry has had gaining outside recognition, I’ll point to two brief examples.

The Only Mom (2019)

To look at the poster for this movie, it has that J-Horror vibe all over it: creepy white doll? Check. Asian… character? Also check. I may not be the biggest horror guru, but I know there’s an audience for this film. It was released in multiple countries, including Hong Kong and South Korea, and this article from Myanmar Times notes that this distribution might be a consequence of its foreign director (Chartchai Ketnust being Thai, and Thailand is something of a partner to the Burmese film industry generally). And yet, I never heard about The Only Mom until I was specifically looking for Burmese movies. Where do I watch this movie? I may be able to follow links, but there’s no guarantee of an English subtitle track.

Burma Soldier (2010)

Going back in time, we have a glimpse into a nevertheless familiar situation. If this is where we were, we haven’t gone far, and the soundbyes on this Sundance press release are especially heartbreaking ten years later. The filmmakers outline their process of essentially smuggling their documentary about Myo Mint, a former soldier turned peace activist, via satellite. They’re asking you to pirate the movie. “Homemade DVDs of the Burmese version are being made by the hundreds and passed by hand to communities inside Burma, in refugee camps along the border with Thailand, and in Burmese refugee communities in the UK and here in the U.S. In Fort Wayne, Indiana, Myo Myint is using his local access television channel to update his refugee community on the elections, on the news of Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, and on the international media coverage of Burma.” Incredible.

Burma Soldier was developed in part thanks to a grant from the Sundance Institute, which is very interesting, and its challenges in distribution came from a press blackout courtesy the ruling military party. Here we are again.

It’s a goddamn shame, because this same army is directly obscuring a rich culture ready for international export (were ready — as of today, April 1, 2021, newspapers and media are currently on hold, the Internet is shut down), and they’re also assuming a too prominent role in the eyes of outsiders. In fact, one subject of debate among those who’d know is Aung San Suu Kyi’s culpability in the military’s genocide against Muslims, and ever since the coup on February 1st, I’ve seen that nuance glossed over. Yes, it makes a fine narrative that this Nobel Peace Prize winner has fallen from grace, but the counterargument is that she didn’t speak out from her limited position out of fear (now founded) of imprisonment. But then, isn’t speaking out an important part of the job? More so, it’s reasonable to think that had she taken action, lives could’ve been saved. It’s difficult for me to untangle and impossible for me to judge. What I do know for sure is that “Myanmar” and “Aung San Suu Kyi” and “Min Aung Hlaing” share overlap but cannot be entirely conflated. Min Aung Hlaing is a monster, the leader of the coup against Aung San Suu Kyi and the man who orchestrated the Rohingya genocide.

More on Burmese film soon, but for now, here are more direct sources for info on Burmese issues (hopefully will update as I go):

Tea Circle
“Tea Circle was established in November 2015 as a forum for new and emerging perspectives on Burma/Myanmar during its current period of political and economic transition. It highlights analysis, research, opinions, book reviews, multi-media presentations and other types of submissions from a global audience of contributors. Tea Circle is run by a group of dedicated volunteer editors and is particularly focused on creating opportunities for contributors from Myanmar.”

Myanmar Times

Michelle Yesudas (taking a Twitter break, but look at this CV):
Malaysian/Personal views/Working on humanitarian policy in #Myanmar/Former @amnesty campaigner, @ICJ_org legal adviser

And here’s a Reddit thread full of resources and funds:
Useful information about the coup

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