RANGOON — It was around 2000 when an Anglo-Burmese documentary filmmaker and her crew traveled to Mount Popa, a tourist hotspot in central Burma, on a mission to film some spiritual mediums. The last thing they expected to find there was a crowd of young Burmese eager to bombard them with questions. Fascinated by their big 60 mm camera, they approached the sitting foreigners, who were obviously dog-tired from trudging around all day under the sweltering upcountry sun. One of them threw out the first question: “What are you doing with this big camera?”
Then, before they could answer, came another: “How do you use it?” And then a question salvo exploded.
“There were hundreds of questions!” said Lindsey Merrison, the crew leader, as she recalled her experience on that day more than a decade ago.
Finally, feeling helpless to handle all those “Hows” and “Whats,” she announced: “Look, I don’t think I can show you how these things work overnight. If you’re interested in learning more, we’ll come back and do a workshop.”
“It was just an idea,” Merrison told The Irrawaddy as she explained how she was inspired to establish the Yangon Film School (YFS) in a country full of creative young people desperate to develop their artistic skills.
Since it was founded in 2005, the Berlin-based non-profit organization has been offering a range of audio-visual workshops free of charge to emerging Burmese filmmakers, blending theory with practical, hands-on exercises under the guidance of international filmmakers. Over the past seven years, it has provided more than 15 workshops for some 50 students.
As she promised, Merrison returned to Burma in 2004. With the help of her friends, she started asking around to see who was really interested in learning about making documentaries. After talking with many people, especially at teashops where Rangoon artists usually hang out, her idea to create a film school began to take form.
Apart from recruitment, there were other obstacles.
“The worst thing was getting a permit from the government. It took three or four month to get permission, and we had to submit all the papers. We still have to do it,” she said.
“One of the reasons they let us do it is, I think, because Information Minister Kyaw Hsan realized the film industry here is technically deficient and he thought we could do something to improve that,” she added.
Another difficulty was finding the funding.
“The funders all said ‘You want to do workshops about filming real life in Myanmar? Under the current government? It’s not possible.’ I really had to persuade them we would find the way,” said the YFS founder.
One year later she managed to do the first beginners’ workshop in documentary film-making in Rangoon, and she found it “quite unbelievable.” The training lasted three weeks.
Myo Min Khin, 36, was one of the students at that workshop, which comprised six men and six women.
“They took around 15 or 20 rooms at a hotel for a month. All the students and teacher were confined there, doing a workshop where we learned the basics of documentary film-making, theory, practice and so on. So it was all in one. It was sort of an intensive course,” said the post-production editor who is now working for the YFS. “If you want more, now they have other courses like scriptwriting, editing, film analysis, sound design and others concentrated on different aspect of film-making,” he added.
In a country under military rule for nearly 50 years, where defense spending topped all other budgetary priorities, creative industries withered from a lack of government support. Most filmmakers have to coax their 40- or 50-year-old cameras to work, and skillful people familiar with modern film-making technology are a rare breed, according to Myint Thein Pe, a retired director of the Myanmar Motion Picture Enterprise and a current visiting professor in cinematography at the National University of Culture in Rangoon.
“YFS is quite supportive, both in technology and theory. It’s very good for students. We know it very well for we have been keeping an eye on it since the beginning,” he said.
After the first workshop, Merrison quickly realized that it was not enough. She decided that her team would have to come back, because she knew that their efforts would only be useful if they could transfer their skills over a longer period of time.
“That’s why we kept coming back. We used to do beginners’ workshops every other year. But it’s grown exponentially, and from this year we are doing it every year,” she said.
The YFS welcome candidates even if they have little or no prior experience in media. But, to be accepted, there are criteria.
“What we really want is people with passion. So we only take people we think who could really become a filmmaker and get something out of our courses. We are looking for people who have more disadvantages, who don’t have economic security, who are committed to staying in this country,” said Merrison.
Asked why documentary film-making is the primary focus of the YFS, she replied at once: “Because it’s so authentic.”
“We also provide workshops and trainings on screenwriting and fictional film production. But documentary is the main impulse for us. It’s about real life, real people and real people’s stories. It’s emotional, poetic, everything. If you are a documentary maker, you are interpreting life, not just documenting it. Almost everybody has something to impart about their lives or some lessons they’ve learned. They might not know it until a documentary filmmaker makes it his job to find out,” she explained.
Thu Thu Shein, a former YSF student and one of the founders of the Wathan Film Festival in Burma, said the public awakening of documentary culture in the country is quite young.
“During our first festival last year, we held more than 20 public screenings of documentaries and short films by Burmese filmmakers. They got the public attention there. Before that they had no place to let the people view their documentaries,” said the international-award-winning documentary maker.
Myint Thein Pe said the computer technology and occasional short courses on documentary film-making sponsored by some Western countries in the 1990s and YSF workshops helped give young people a chance to try their hand at documentary film-making.
He said that even though documentary films are not very popular in Burma today, the Burmese are no strangers to documentaries.
“Most of what Burmese TV stations air these days is just news reportage. But in the early 1970s, the government made documentaries on the 100th anniversary of the Burmese railway, health, narcotics and several other topics,” said Myint Thein Pe, who was involved in some of those projects.
“Sadly, we later had budget cuts and could no longer afford to buy film. So the documentary projects came to an end and the only thing we could do was record high-ranking officials’ trips with our cameras,” said the former director.
In the private sector, he added, few filmmakers were attracted to documentaries because they’re not commercially profitable.
“Even in developed countries, documentary filmmakers rely on grants to make their films. So in a country like Burma, with very limited resources and where fictional film-making is far more popular, creating a thriving documentary culture will surely take time,” he said.
Ironically, while most of the short documentary films by YFS students are largely unknown in Burma, some have already been screened at international film festivals around the world, and three of them have won awards, including the National Geographic Allroads Award for the best short film in 2008.
At the end of 2009, the YFS produced its first-ever feature-length documentary. “When Time Stops Breathing,” an hour-and-a-half-long film about the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which killed at least 138,000 people in Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta in 2008, is also the first feature-length documentary made in Burma by Burmese filmmakers. Since its release in 2009, the film has been screened internationally, but not yet in Burma, and has earned the YFS six awards so far.
“Whenever I learn that the film has won another award, I feel pain,” said Shin Daewe, one of the YFS trainers and documentary makers who was on the crew of the award-winning documentary.
“Yes, me too,” said Myo Min Khin, the YFS editor of the film.
You won’t find their names, or those of other crew members, on the credits of the film.
“We used faked names on the credits because we are all afraid that the government will take action against us for revealing the extent of the destruction,” said the trainer.
“It might also have a negative impact on our school. What if they [the government] no longer give us permission? What if they ban our workshops? We are artists; we want to see our names on the work we have created. But after taking into account our school’s future, we decided to remain anonymous,” she said.
However, Myo Min Khin said that now is the right time to reveal who was behind the camera, because the country has a new government that has relaxed controls on the media. The film will have its first public screening in Burma at the Wathan Film Festival in Rangoon next month.
For Merrison, it’s hard to say for sure if the country has seen any real improvement because the government still hasn’t passed an audio-video censorship law.
“Ye Htut, the director in chief of the Ministry of Information, told me that they are going to have a censorship board with some government people and film people. He said [the rules] will be relaxed like the print media but he couldn’t say how. Of course, violence and pornography will be censored. But I don’t know about other things,” she said.
Myint Thein Pe said the government has now started to lose its grip on censorship, giving as an example the return of ghost-story movies which had been banned for a long time.
“The government is now more flexible than before. But to promote creativity, the censors need to tolerate as best as they can, as long as what you are doing doesn’t harm the national unity, culture and religion. On the other hand, you have to take responsibility for what you are doing,” he said.
In 2007, the YFS began cooperating with one of the government joint-venture TV channels, and two of its films were broadcast in Burma. Merrison said YFS has to do more lobby work to get their films accepted.
“It’s all about creating a space. It’s a positive thing. I think cooperation is important, especially in the critical time of transition to try to pool the synergy. Try to find synergy from different organizations and pool your resources rather than working in different camps,” she said.
Hopefully, her efforts will be good news to her students looking for ways to promote documentary culture in Burma.
“It’s true that a documentary is not as popular as a movie, but it’s important as well for it shows real life as it is. On the other hand, it’s not economically viable. If TV channels are interested to air documentaries, we will surely have opportunities to make more,” said Kyi Phyu Shin, a director as well as the National Geographic Award winner from the YFS.
“It’s very evident that people don’t have as much interest in documentary films as they do in Korean soap operas. A documentary is a video-based product. In my opinion, if people are more exposed to documentaries on TV, there will surely be a demand for it,” said Sai Kong Kham, a documentary filmmaker and the Wathan Film Festival Award winner from the YFS.
Burma today has about five government joint-venture TV channels. But they failed to response The Irrawaddy’s question about whether they are interested in airing documentary films produced by Burmese filmmakers.
Now, after seven years of activity, Merrison thinks the YFS still has a lot to do. She wants more women, especially from remote areas, to enroll in the YFS courses as the school supports women in leadership roles.
“We have lots of women directors and we support them equally as men. We always have six men and six women in the courses. It’s not easy because in fact more men seem to be interested in film-making than women. I don’t know why,” she said.
She thinks the YFS has done quite a bit to make documentary popular in Burma, and regards it one of their achievements so far.
“A lot of people, especially in film festivals like Wathan and Art of Freedom, said, ‘Oh, I want to make a film for the festival.’ Some of them are our students. They are all excited about exposure. They are excited about being able to make film about real life.
“When I started the YFS, it wasn’t a grand plan I had in 2004. It was just one workshop. Now it has grown. The YFS is only as good as the people involved, so it’s not really up to me. It’s really up to these guys here. They will carry the YFS forward.”