RANGOON—Burma is hosting an international film festival focused on human rights, casting a spotlight on rights abuses under the former military regime with locally produced films that would have been unthinkable to screen in the past.
The “Human Rights Human Dignity” film festival, which opened in Rangoon over the weekend and closes on Wednesday, is featuring more than 50 foreign and local films, including some about the torture of political activists by the country’s former spy master, Khin Nyunt, and his military intelligence unit.
The international festival, hosted by award-winning Burmese documentary maker Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, is the first film festival in the country focused on human rights, and the second major festival to show uncensored, critical films after nearly half a century of military rule. In the past, any mention of human rights could put a person at risk for imprisonment by the former regime.
More than 500 people came out for the festival’s launch on Saturday at a movie theater in downtown Rangoon, with an opening ceremony attended by Min Ko Naing, a leading activist from the 88 Generation Students Group and one of Burma’s most influential opposition leaders.
Also at the event was San Zaw Htway, a former political prisoner and actor who narrated a film on the festival lineup about his time in detention under the former regime. The film documents how the National League for Democracy (NLD) member was sentenced to 36 years in prison for his activism and tortured after his arrest by military intelligence.
“They didn’t feed me food or water for two days during the interrogation,” he said. “They didn’t let me sit down, I had to stand the entire time. Whenever I tried to sit, they came and beat me. Later I couldn’t speak because I was so dehydrated, I even collapsed on the floor.”
“They tortured me mentally and physically,” he added. “I can remember once they told me I might as well try to grow a coconut tree in prison, because I had such a long sentence, and that way I would at least be able to eat.”
San Zaw Htway was released in 2012 with an amnesty from President Thein Sein. The reformist president who took office in 2011 has pardoned several hundreds of political prisoners, but activists say more than 150 still remain bars.
Min Ko Naing also spoke of his experience in prison at the festival’s launch.
“I met someone in prison who was sentenced to seven years after giving some water to a protester. He couldn’t give us an answer when we asked what he had been charged with, so we joked that he was a man who could be charged with delivering water,” said the 88 Generation leader, with people in the theater laughing and clapping after his story.
He called on filmmakers to consider how to best reach the local Burmese audience.
“Short films give us something to think about,” he said.
The film festival was dedicated to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, with an award ceremony to be held on Wednesday, her birthday.
The Nobel Peace laureate could not attend the festival but requested that a spokesperson at the launch read a letter she wrote for the occasion: “The cinema has significant influence not only in culture, but also in social, economic and political life,” she wrote in the letter. “In this way, film artists can play a crucial role in the transitional period of our society.
“At the time when our country is on the verge of turning toward critical changes, the effective performance of film artist is more important ever due to the role they play and how they help our people to understand the concept of democracy, human rights and human dignity.”
The award ceremony will include five awards, including for best documentary, short film and animation film.
After the festival concludes in Rangoon, it will continue with subsequent film screenings in different states and divisions around the country in the following months.
Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, who organized the festival, is currently producing a documenting about Suu Kyi. He also helped coordinate the “Art of Freedom” film festival in Burma last year. That festival, which was also organized by Suu Kyi and comedian Zarganar, was the first festival in the country to screen films that had not been approved by the censorship board.
Lu Min, president of the Myanmar Film Association and an actor, praised the human rights film festival at the opening ceremony.
“We could not speak out about human rights in our country in the past,” he said. “But here and now we are able to hold this human rights film festival.
“I am very proud of this, that our country can hold an international film festival.”